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ClassicsOnline Home » IBERT: Diane de Poitiers / La Licorne
Jacques Ibert (1980–1962)
Diane de Poitiers (Suites I & II) • La Licorne
After his musical training at the Paris Conservatoire under Gabriel Fauré and Andre Gédalge, the second of whom also had Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud as his pupils, and further studies with Paul Vidal and Nadia Boulanger, Jacques Ibert settled at the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome, an institution of which he held the post of director from 1937 until 1960. During the second World War, after serving as an officer in the French navy, he returned to Rome. Later, without resigning his position at the Villa Medici, he took the position of director of the Paris Opera from 1955 to 1956 and was nominated in the latter year to the Institut de France.
Ibert’s personality and work are striking in their great artistic freedom and variety of styles. A composer lying in style somewhere between neo-impressionism, neo-classical and modern tendencies he produced an impressive list of works, including operas, ballets, stage and film scores, symphonic, chamber and vocal compositions. He can be considered a true musical exponent of the esprit of Paris, although some of his more serious works reveal a more cosmopolitan facet of his personality. His orchestral skill makes him a major, but today still relatively unexplored representative of the French music of the twentieth Century.
In an interview Ibert gave some indication of his method of work: “In each of my works there is an emotive shock that gave me the starting-point of inspiration, but this shock is only useful if it can become a true emotion. If this happens, my attitude is not to feel this emotion passively, but to become master of it and re-create it accordingly”. His artistic credo he expressed as follows: “What I like to do is what others do not…I avoid every theoretical scheme of which I might become a slave and write only according to the demands of my own sensitivity: truth in art is what touches and emotion has its own boundless time”.
Diane de Poitiers
The ballet Diane de Poitiers, in three tableaux, was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein. It was first staged at the Paris Opera on 30 April 1934, during the two month’s guest season of the Ballets de Madame Ida Rubinstein, featuring works by Stravinsky (Perséphone), Ravel (Boléro, La Valse), Honegger (Sémiramis) and Schmitt (Oriane la Sans-Egale), all commissioned and interpreted by the celebrated Russian dancer and actress. Besides Ida Rubinstein in the title role of Diane, Anatole Wiltzak appeared as the King. The orchestra was conducted by Gustave Cloez, the scenery was designed by Alexandre Benois and the choreography was by Michel Fokine. Elisabeth de Gramont had written a scenario inspired by the historical protagonists Henry II of France (1519–1559) and his mistress, the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois (1499–1566).
The argument of the ballet can be summarised as follows:
Tableau I: In her château, Diane has organized a concert of instrumental and vocal music. Enter delegations from Italy, Russia and Spain, the latter bringing a group of Inca slaves. Precious gifts are offered to the hostess. A quack dares to recommend Diane some of his beauty products and the guests are scandalized. A mirror which is handed to the duchess, confirms that her beauty is immaculate. Diane seizes the bow offered her by the Incas and improvises a divertissement inspired by the myth of the goddess Diana, during which she pretends to kill two peacocks. Suddenly King Henry and his companions enter, returning from their own hunting in the nearby woods.
Tableau II: The King surprises Diane in her solitary dance in the morning dew and joins her in a pas de deux d’amour in the woods.
Tableaux III: Diane’s ship is ready to leave the port of Camargue and there is great bustle reaching a climax in dances and in a procession, in which puppets of captive pirates are carried around by the townspeople. This popular feast attracts the royal guests. Diane and the King are finally escorted to the ship.
Ibert’s music is based on airs and dances of the sixteenth Century, by Claude Gervaise, Pierre Passereau, Clement Janequin and some anonymous composers. Themes from Russian and Inca folklore are also included, and the entr’actes are pieces for chorus.
The composer extracted two representative concert suites from his ballet, both of which were first performed under his baton in Brussels, with the local Orchestre Symphonique, on 26 January 1935. Honegger’s Sémiramis (as conducted by Honegger) and Stravinsky’s Perséphone (as conducted by Pedro de Freitas Branco) were again on the same program, and Ida Rubinstein also appeared as a reciter. On 23 February 1936, Ibert was to conduct both suites in Paris, with the Orchestre des Concerts Pasdeloup.
The overall orchestration of the work includes three flutes, two oboes (with optional oboe d’amore), English horn, two clarinets (with optional basset-horn), bass-clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, two harps, glockenspiel, Vibraphone (or celesta), bells, ten different percussion instruments and strings.
Rich orchestral forces were chosen by the composer in order to emphasize the grandeur and luxury of Diane de Poitiers’ life. What is obviously not mentioned in Ibert’s ballet is that she deserves a place in history not only for her beauty and political influence, but also for the fact that she was one of the causes for the kingdom’s bankruptcy, in addition to or even before the bankruptcy originating from the costs of the French army then stationed in Italy.
It was the composer’s wish that the single pieces of each suite should be played without interruption. The first suite, containing seven movements, is some five minutes shorter than the second, made up of only three titles. Most of the movements are preceded by intradas or short fanfares and the Paduana introducing the first suite (Ibert insists on its Italian, and not French title) is heard again in the finale of the second, probably in order to give both suites a symphonic unity in case they may be played together. The listener may feel surprised to hear the Paduana of the second suite end in a finale-like climax, then followed by more music, a Gagliarda and a reprise of the Bransle of the suite’s first movement. Once more, Ibert’s sense of humour and reactionary attitude towards musical conventions are quite obvious.
In his own words, the composer explains: “Nobody should expect a historical reconstruction. Not at all. Within a stylistic environment, Elisabeth de Gramont arranges tableaux of pure phantasy, three imaginary episodes of an almost legendary figure, of which I have tried to describe in music fixe happiness, passion and poetry”. This may be also meant to prepare the gourmet listener for the enjoyment of some passages in which Renaissance music becomes syncopated and closer to Jazz while some dissonances infect traditional harmonies in a way that could be done only by Ibert, the master of French esprit in music.
La Licorne (The Triumph of Chastity)
La Licorne, commissioned by the American dancer and choreographer Ruth Page for the Chicago Opera Ballet, was first staged at the St. Alphonsus Theatre on 12 December 1954, with scenery and costumes inspired by Sketches by the Italian paintress Leonor Fini. The principal dancers were John Sharpe and Jane Bockman and Neal Kayan was the conductor-pianist. The music was composed in Rome, Tanglewood and Versailles between 1949 and 1950. Its score was published only in 1974, twelve years after the composer’s death.
Ruth Page’s own libretto can be summarized as follows: “The Unicom, highly sought after because of his magical powers, is a mythical and unconquerable beast, who can only be tamed by a virgin. He is peacefully dancing in the Mountains of the Moon, when he is interrupted by some huntsmen, who attempt to capture him, but without success. They are followed by the huntresses, who also try to tame the Unicom. Though at first he is attracted by their beauty, they too fail. A strange little girl appears, and it is plain that the Unicom’s powers of resistance are over. As a symbol of his surrender, he lets her tie his fore-legs with her belt, and falls asleep in her lap. The huntsmen, sensing their opportunity, surround him, and again attempt to capture him. But in the dénouement, only the Goddess of Chastity is triumphant over the Unicom” (Text from the original 1954 programme).
The orchestration calls for an ensemble of flute, oboe, bassoon, alto Saxophone, trumpet and trombone, two clarinets, two horns, timpani, Xylophone, Vibraphone (or celesta), piano, seven percussion instruments and strings. The present recording features the complete version of the ballet, except in the case where a repetition of the Waltz preceding the Rumba (following it immediately) has been omitted.
Most of Ibert’s compositions for the theatre reveal unpredictability as far as musical style is concerned and a great sense of humour or irony. La Licorne is a work which may somehow puzzle listeners not used to his music. The volatile and virtuous Ibert of Escales (1924), Divertissement (1929) and Suite symphonique Paris (1930), or of his Concerto pour flûte et orchestre (1933) has become meanwhile more sardonic. Ballets like Les Amours de Jupiter (1945) and La Licome (1949–50), or his grandiose film score to Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948) sound, in comparison, more “modern” also through their less extravert and darker instrumentation. In La Licorne, although inspired by ancient legends, the composer seems to have needed to abandon for a while his love for ancient music. Already the original double-language title of the work lets us guess the unconventional.
Music from the twentieth Century from both the light and the serious domains is now welcomed, and, what is surprising, the latter even alludes to composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel and Milhaud. Since just those four also had been attracted by Jazz, Ibert pays tribute to this genre too and perhaps to his maternal grandmother, who was a South American, in a section which could come directly from Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit. In the final denouement, the pas de deux of the Virgin and the Unicom, a lovely Sicilienne takes us back a few centuries, before being transformed into a syncopated, more modernistic finale. The ballet is made up of a sequel of a dozen untitled, characteristic dance episodes, preceded or linked together by short introductions.
Besides holding an important place in English heraldry, the Unicom inspired a famous series of sixteenth Century French tapestries. Over three centuries later this fascinating (and fantastic) creature attracted painters like Gustave Moreau and Leonor Fini. In music, the theme of the Unicom was taken over again in 1953, by composer Jacques Chailley, who arranged music from the sixteenth Century for La Dame à la Licorne, a ballet with libretto, scenery and costumes by Jean Cocteau and choreography by Heinz Rosen. Three years later, Gian Carlo Menotti created his brilliant mixture of cantata and ballet The Unicom, The Gorgon and The Manticore, a Madrigal Fable for chorus, ten dancers and nine instruments (1956). There the Unicom becomes a Symbol of man’s dreams of youth, one of the “pain-wrought children of a Poet’s fancy”, and like Ibert’s, Menotti’s music is definitely tongue-in-cheek.
© 1995 Adriano
Edited by Keith Anderson
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IBERT: Diane de Poitiers / La Licorne