Gargantua Program Notes

By  Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) is arguably one of the most complex figures to appear on the scene of 20th century music, an era that reflected an equally complex world in the midst of massive political and social upheaval. Ideas were very important to Schoenberg and he was equipped to pair his ideas with actions that would change the way music was composed, considered and heard. A prolific writer, his prose illuminates the concepts that fueled his creativity (and are recommended reading to better understand his music, which can sometimes seem cerebral and opaque). In one 1946 essay, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea, he wrote: 

It is very regrettable that so many contemporary composers care so much about style and so little about idea. From this came such notions as the attempt to compose in the ancient styles, using their mannerisms, limiting oneself to the little that one can thus express and to the insignificance of the music configurations which can be produced with such mathematician would invent something new in mathematics just to flatter the masses who do not possess the specific mathematical way of thinking, and in the same manner, no artist, no poet, no philosopher and musician whose thinking occurs in the highest sphere would degenerate into vulgarity in order to comply with a slogan such as ‘Art for All.’ Because if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.

This did not mean that he was particularly averse to the music of the past; in fact, he was a proponent of various older composers whom he viewed as being inventors, or evangelists, of their own ideas (his love for Bach and hailing of Brahms as more “the Progressive” than Wagner are good examples).  What he disliked was when ideas became tired and threadbare through overuse. 

Based on Richard Dehmel’s poem, Verklärte Nacht (read this evening in a translation by Mary Whittall), the heart of Schoenberg’s score beats in rhythm with the dialogue in five stanzas. A woman (represented by the viola) and a man (represented by the cello) journey physically and spiritually as individuals and as a couple when they take a moonlit  stroll and she offers her lover the stunning and risky confession that she is pregnant with the child of another man. Illumination in the dark is the metaphorical center of this “Bright night.” This is a work about events and outcomes: the weight of searing guilt and the buoyant balm of mercy. It balances on the razor’s edge between terror and beauty. Abated is a dark night of the soul when, in a transcendent moment her lover reiterates his love and speaks of the baby as his own. Musically Verklärte Nacht is a thread Schoenberg ran through “Impressionism,” Brahms and Wagner, sewing together and transfiguring their elements of symbolism, developing variation, and grand scale. His idea here was to forgo straight programmatic music that sonically describes the action of the poem, and instead depict something more ambiguous: mood. The musical language of Verklärte Nacht has Wagner’s syntax of perpetually sliding key centers, but the delivery seems to strike the ear as more deliberate and clarified. The sentiment of the poem is conveyed but the music evades becoming sentimental. It calls forth the dramatic power of emotion without necessarily exploiting it. 

Inagurating the “How to Cause A Scene” chapter in the Strauss & Stravinsky Riot Playbook, Verklärte Nacht for string sextet had an eventful premiere on March 18, 1902: the audience “hissed and caused riots and fist fights,” as the composer documented. This may mystify us, because for our 21st century ears Verklärte Nacht is romantic and lyrical in comparison to Schoenberg’s later 12-tone works and the sounds of Stockhausen and Varèse. But at the time, the audience was less accustomed to its sound world (for further context, Strauss’ opera Salome, which was greeted with a “riot” came three years after Verklärte Nacht). Fifteen years later, in 1917, Schoenberg expanded its textures for string orchestra, which is now the most frequently performed version. 

Jean Françaix (1912-1997) :: Les Inestimables Chroniques du Bon Géant Gargantua (1971)

Ravel noted to Jean Françaix’s father, a composer, musicologist, pianist and Director of the Le Mans Conservatoire: “Among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity: you must not stifle these precious gifts now or ever, or risk letting this young sensibility wither.” Taking the advice to heart, and observing his son’s obvious talents, his father soon had Jean studying composition with the venerable Nadia Boulanger, and by age eighteen he accomplished the thing Ravel never could: winning the premier prix as a pianist at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Isidore Philipp. 

“Les Six” was a nickname given to a group of French composers that included Honegger, Milhaud, Tailleferre, Auric, Durey, and Poulenc. Collectively known for their wit, and bright, effervescent writing (a reaction to Wagner’s heavy handed excess and drama) they were praised by Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist artist, who asserted the French should reclaim their own outlook on music, shrugging off the influences of the Russians or the Germans. It was the tradition of “Les Six,” and Poulenc in particular, that Jean Françaix would fold into his own compositional career. In doing so, he carried on the great French knack for neo-classic wit mixed with overt revelry in pleasure for the sake of pleasure, paired with jaunty rhythms barrowed from jazz, and beautiful lyricism, leaving serialism and atonality (his oeuvre has been described as “resolutely tonal”) to his contemporaries. 

Les Inestimables Chroniques du Bon Géant Gargantua is based on an extracted portion of a 16th century satirical novel in five volumes called La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel) by François Rabelais, which recounts the various events and predicaments the two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, find themselves in. (The composer Frederic Rzewski based his work Les Moutons de Panurge, which AFC performed in their 2014-2015 season, on a different book of the same tale). Françaix said of his adaptation, which comes from the second volume dedicated specifically to stories about Gargantua, “I am not writing a text to follow it, but on the contrary to follow my music, which goes faster and further than the text.” The main body of the Françaix concerns the moment Gargantua’s studies at the Sorbonne are interrupted by a letter from his father, Lord Grandgousier, informing him of a conflict that has broken out with Lord Picrochole whose bakers insulted Grandgousier’s grape-growers. Gargantua comes to help stop the ludicrous bickering that has expanded to a grand scale. In the end he triumphs, and the story is viewed as a moral about the importance of education against the destructive habits of people like Picrochole who will stop at nothing to conquer and win.

©  Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot