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Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Francis Poulenc

Gloria for Soprano, Chorus and Orchestra
Francis Poulenc

(b. Paris, 1899; d. Paris, 1963)

Composed in 1959.
Premiered on January 20, 1961 in Boston, conducted by Charles Munch.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings.
Duration: approximately 28 minutes.

Poulenc was raised in a home that valued religion deeply. His father was committed to his Catholicism, but, the composer added, "in a very liberal way, without the slightest meanness." When Francis left home for military service in 1918 and later jumped into the heady life of artistic Paris, however, his interest in religion declined. "From 1920 to 1935, I was very little concerned with the faith," he admitted. In 1936, though, he underwent a rejuvenation of his religious belief when his colleague Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in an automobile accident. Deeply shaken, he wrote, "The atrocious extinction of this musician so full of vigor left me stupefied. Pondering on the fragility of our human frame, the life of the spirit attracted me anew." He rejoined the Church and thereafter expressed his faith frequently and unashamedly. "I am religious by deepest instinct and heredity," he said. "I feel myself incapable of ardent political conviction, but for me it seems quite natural to believe and practice religion. I am a Catholic. It is my greatest freedom." During the last three decades of his life, a series of wonderful musical works on religious themes, including the Mass, the Stabat Mater, the Gloria and The Dialogues of the Carmelites, sprang from his ardently renewed vision.

Poulenc's faith, like the music it engendered, was simple, direct, optimistic and joyous. He once told friends, "I have the faith of a country pastor," and he always preferred quiet meditation or prayer in a rural church to the structured services of the urban cathedral. It was through his music that he shared his devotion. "I want the religious spirit to be expressed clearly, out in the open, with the same realism that we see in Romanesque columns," he said. "I try to create a feeling of fervor and, especially, of humility, for me the most beautiful quality of prayer.... My conception of religious music is essentially direct, and, I dare say, intimate." When an interviewer once commented on the high quality of his choral and sacred works, he replied, "I think I've put the best and most genuine part of me into them.... If people are still interested in my music fifty years from now it'll be more in the Stabat Mater than in the Mouvements perpétuels."

During his last years, Poulenc became increasingly fatalistic and, consequently, turned more to the Church. Throughout his life, he was subject to attacks of acute depression, and the one he suffered while working on The Dialogues of the Carmelites during the mid-1950s resulted in a nervous breakdown. He largely recovered, but he thereafter viewed his existence as fragile. "What shall I write next? Undoubtedly nothing else," he lamented to his biographer Henri Hell in 1961. A year later, however, he wrote to the singer Pierre Bernac, "I now feel completely, happily free, and I can await Providence." The Gloria of 1959 naturally reflects some of Poulenc's deeper thoughts, but it also shows the buoyant, confident feelings inherent in his faith and his music. It is a wholly appropriate piece for a man who was once described as "half monk, half bounder."

In the Gloria, written on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, Poulenc said that he "tried to write a joyous hymn to the glory of God." His text, taken from the second section of the Mass Ordinary, is the set of traditional songs dating from the fifth century sung by the angels on the night of the Nativity in praise of the Christ child. Before beginning composition, Poulenc immersed himself in the ancient words, reciting them over and over to himself, listening, noting breathing places, marking stresses, looking for inner rhythms of the syllables and deeper meanings of the ideas. The Gloria, like all great vocal music, grew from the sense and sounds of its text — the words, after all, were there before the music. Poulenc reinterpreted those venerable words and heightened their message by wrapping them in music that again demonstrated his remarkable lyrical gift, which has often been compared to that of Schubert, a composer he greatly admired. Wrote Roger Nichols, "For Poulenc the most important element of all was melody and he found his way to a vast treasury of undiscovered tunes within an area that had, according to the most up-to-date musical maps, been surveyed, worked and exhausted."

The Gloria opens with a brilliant fanfare for full orchestra as preparation for the entry of the voices. The sentiment of the movement is one of joy tinged with a soupçon of nostalgia, one of Poulenc's most characteristic moods. Of the lighthearted Laudamus te, Poulenc recalled, "The second movement caused a scandal; I wonder why? I was simply thinking, in writing it, of the Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; I was thinking also of the serious Benedictines whom I saw playing soccer one day." This robust movement also serves to set in relief the following Domine Deus, music of profound awe and intense emotion. The bright wit and chuckling insouciance of the Laudamus te return in the fourth movement, Domine fili unigenite, which, like the earlier movement, is followed by music of a serious and moving nature — the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei. The final movement, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, is divided into three sections, each based on the same text. The movement opens with jubilant choral shouts echoed by chords spread across the full orchestra. The celebratory mood continues into the next section, a vibrant rhythmic essay punctuated by the fanfare figure that opened the first movement. Poulenc closes his masterful Gloria with the final treatment of the Qui sedes text, this last one suffused with prayerful devotion and peaceful benediction.

Hector Berlioz

Symphonie Fantastique, Opus 14a
Hector Berlioz

(b. Côte-Saint-André, France, 1803; d. Paris, 1869)

Composed in 1830.
Premiered on December 5, 1830 in Paris, conducted by François Habeneck.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, tenor and bass tubas, timpani, percussion, two harps and strings
Duration: approximately 50 minutes.

By 1830, when he turned 27, Hector Berlioz had won the Prix de Rome and gained a certain notoriety among the fickle Parisian public for his perplexingly original compositions. Hector Berlioz was also madly in love. The object of his amorous passion was an English actress of middling ability, one Harriet Smithson, whom the composer first saw when a touring English theatrical company performed Shakespeare in Paris in 1827. During the ensuing three years, this romance was entirely one-sided, since the young composer never met Harriet, but only knew her across the footlights as Juliet and Ophelia. He sent her such frantic love letters that she never responded to any of them, fearful of encouraging a madman. Berlioz, distraught and unable to work or sleep or eat, wandered the countryside around Paris until he dropped from exhaustion and had to be retrieved by friends.

Berlioz was still nursing his unrequited love for Harriet in 1830 when, full-blown Romantic that he was, his emotional state served as the germ for a composition based on a musical "Episode from the Life of an Artist," as he subtitled the Symphonie Fantastique. In this work, the artist visualizes his beloved through an opium-induced trance, first in his dreams, then at a ball, in the country, at his execution and, finally, as a participant in a witches' sabbath. She is represented by a musical theme that appears in each of the five movements, an idée fixe (a term Berlioz borrowed from the just-emerging field of psychology to denote an unhealthy obsession) that is transformed to suit its imaginary musical surroundings. The idée fixe is treated kindly through the first three movements, but after the artist has lost his head for love (literally — the string pizzicati followed by drum rolls and brass fanfares at the very end of the March to the Scaffold graphically represent the fall of the guillotine blade and the ceremony of the formal execution), the idée fixe is transmogrified into a jeering, strident parody of itself in the finale in music that is still original and disturbing almost two centuries after its creation. The sweet-to-sour changes in the idée fixe (heard first in the opening movement on unison violins and flute at the beginning of the fast tempo after a slow introduction) reflect Berlioz's future relationship with his beloved, though, of course, he had no way to know it in 1830. Berlioz did in fact marry his Harriet–Ophelia–Juliet in 1833 (when news of the nuptials drifted back across the channel, one waggish London critic wrote, "We trust this marriage will insure the happiness of an amiable young woman, as well as secure us against her reappearances on the English boards"), but their initial bliss faded quickly, and they were virtually estranged within a decade.

The composer gave the following program as a guide to the Symphonie Fantastique: "A young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of amorous despair. The narcotic dose, too weak to result in death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest visions, during which his sensations, sentiments and recollections are translated in his sick brain into musical thoughts and images. The beloved woman herself has become for him a melody, like a fixed idea which he finds and hears everywhere.

"PART I: Reveries and Passions. He first recalls that uneasiness of soul, that vague des passions, those moments of causeless melancholy and joy, which he experienced before seeing her whom he loves; then the volcanic love with which she suddenly inspired him, his moments of delirious anguish, of jealous fury, his returns to loving tenderness, and his religious consolations.

"PART II: A Ball. He sees his beloved at a ball, in the midst of the tumult of a brilliant fête.

"PART III: Scene in the Country. One summer evening in the country he hears two shepherds playing a ranz-des-vaches in alternate dialogue; this pastoral duet, the scene around him, the light rustling of the trees gently swayed by the breeze, some hopes he has recently conceived, all combine to restore an unwonted calm to his heart and impart a more cheerful coloring to his thoughts; but she appears once more, his heart stops beating, he is agitated with painful presentiments; if she were to betray him! ... One of the shepherds resumes his artless melody, the other no longer answers him. The sun sets ... the sound of distant thunder ... solitude ... silence ...

"PART IV: March to the Scaffold. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death, and led to execution. The procession advances to the tones of a march which is now somber and wild, now brilliant and solemn, in which the dull sound of the tread of heavy feet follows without transition upon the most resounding outburst. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for an instant, like a last love-thought interrupted by the fatal stroke.

"PART V: Dream of a Witches' Sabbath. He sees himself at the Witches' Sabbath, in the midst of a frightful group of ghosts, magicians and monsters of all sorts, who have come together for his obsequies. He hears strange noises, groans, ringing laughter, shrieks to which other shrieks seem to reply. The beloved melody again reappears, but it has lost its noble and timid character; it has become an ignoble, trivial and grotesque dance-tune; it is she who comes to the Witches' Sabbath.... Howlings of joy at her arrival ... she takes part in the diabolic orgy ... Funeral knells, burlesque parody on the Dies Irae [the ancient 'Day of Wrath' chant from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead]. Witches' Dance. The Witches' Dance and the Dies Irae together."

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©2016 Dr. Richard E. Rodda