Die Kammermusiker Zurich
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The harp has a new bloom in the French Impressionism after a long wall-flowerperiod in pleasing salon music. Its sound is given now an essential part in the impressionistic palette of sound colours. Nevertheless there have been composed only a surprisingly few number of solo pieces for harp, compared to the almost inexhaustible abundance of works for piano. A reason for it my be that the diatonic harp with two pedals which since 1815 had not been modified essentially could not fully meet the demands for unlimited harmonic possibilities and-true above all for Debussy-for a tonality already disintegrated to a large extent. That is why so much hope has been placed in the chromatic harp developed in the beginning of the 20th-century. Precisely the famous pieces of Ravel ('Introduction et Allegro') and of Debussy ('Danses sacree et profane') as well as the first version of Andre Caplets 'Le Masque de la mort rouge' have been composed at the suggestion of Pleyel, as the company had invited the most important French composers to write for chromatic harp. However, as is known, this instrument did not find acceptance. The pieces referred to either have been rewritten for the usual pedal harp after their performance or they were clearly enough intended for diatonic harp right from the beginning. In September and October 1915, the last breathing spell before the fatal illness took finally hold of him, Debussy composed the marvellously easy and ethereal 'Deuxteme Sonate pour flute, alto et harpe'. The projected 'Six Sonates pour divers instruments, composees par Claude Debussy, musicien francais' three of which have been achieved (for another one Debussy had only decided for the instruments: oboe, horn and cembalo) were, as well as the several planned 'concerts' for piano and different instrumental groups, intended as an homage to the genius of Rameau and Couperin. But Debussy did not see this homage as a dependence on the 17th century. Phrases imitating classical style are merely layed on the work like a very thin patina wherein by a pointed pencil extremely subtle delineations of greatest lucidity are incised. Like Webern, but by different stylistic means, Debussy develops his ideas from a few musical units; sounds and lines enchanted loose their materialized character. Time is running off in a flexibility not known before in Occidental music. The music virtually begins to breathe like a living organism. This flexible time continuum, pointing out to the distant future up to the works of Boulez, seems to originate from the Eastern music Debussy met with, and its influence on the essential nature of this music seems to be much more important than the often mentioned, but rather outward adaptation of Far Eastern Sound impressions (of the Javanese and Balinese Gamelan).
As Ravel's 'Introduction et Allegro' for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet (composed in 1905) is one of the most popular and most often performed chamber music works, there is no need to describe it in detail. In comparison with the bold harmonics of 'Caspard de la nuit' (1908) or with the colourful-ness of 'Miroirs' (1905), 'Introduction et Allegro' presents itself very simple, even modest with its clear diatonicism and the regular periodical structure. And yet: even in this 'occasional work' the irresistible fascination of Ravel's 'alchemy of sounds' is omnipresent; the composition anticipates the most important '3 poemes de Mallarme' (1913) and 'La Valse' the first sketches of which date back, as is known, to the year 1906, and the choreographic outline of which is directly connected with Caplet's 'Le Masque de la mort rouge'. Andre Caplet (1878-1925) numbers among the mysterious strangers of French music. As he bears the Cain's mark of being a Debussy epigone, he usually is ignored by the music historians. But wrongly so.-His music is most ingenious and gives evidence of an independent thinking which one hardly expects of Debussy's intimate musical friend. Caplet completed the score of 'Gigues' for orchestra after Debussy's outline, he accomplished a model instrumentation of 'Childrens Corner', of 'Estampes' and of some of the 'Ariettes oubliees', and he wrote the suite for orchestra of 'Martyre de Saint-Sebastien'. Debussy appreciated him-the world-famous conductor-as his best interpreter. Their mutual correspondence, published in 'Editions du Domaine Musical', allows a fascinating insight into the highly productive collaboration of the two musicians.
And it was just during this period of intense collaboration that Caplet composed a great number of his most essential and original works the instrumentation of which differs greatly from all the other contemporary compositions: for instance the 'Septuor' for string quartet and three female voices (1909), the 'Sonate' for voice, cello and piano, the 'Epiphanie' for cello and orchestra, but above all the first version of 'La Masque de la mort rouge', Etude Symphoni-que after E. A. Poe for chromatic harp and orchestra (1908). In his late years, after having been very active as a conductor (among other things at the London 'Covent Garden' and in Boston), when his constitution had been weakened through gas poisoning during the war, Caplet turned more and more to a religious philosophy of life and entered into close relations with the Solem-nes mouvement. His 'A-capella-Messe' and above all his 'Miroir de Jesus' for female voices, harp and string orchestra reveal a religious feeling both ecstatic and naive, as it is also expressed some time later in the work of Olivier Messiaen.
It is also during the last years of his life that he composed the two works of the present recording: 'Conte fantastique (1923) and 'Deux divertissements' (1924).-In 'Deux Divertissements pour harpe' Caplet makes full use of the harp's technical possibilities in a refined way hardly ever known before, without committing himself to mere virtuosity. Both the very different pieces evoke a great many reminiscences: 'Divertissement a la francaise' is somewhat similar to Debussy's 'Mouvement' from Images I for piano-'Divertissement a l'espagnole' recalls Debussy's 'Serenade interrompue' from Preludes I and Ravel's 'Alborada del Grazioso' from 'Mirroirs'. But this comparison with the well known masterpieces clearly shows the far distance of Caplet's music from any epigonism.
'Conte fantastique' for pedal harp and string quartet is based on the Etude Symphonique 'Le Masque de la mort rouge' after Edgar Allen Poe (1908) mentioned above. Already while listening to it for the first time one is surprised by the bold harmonics and rhythms, by the extreme technics of the string players even unusual for Debussy's work (e.g. collegno gratto, flageolct-pizzicati, ponticello-effects in whole shift, 'frozen' ponticello-chords), sound colours rather pointing out to the Vienna School (e.g. to the 'Lyrische Suite' for string quartet by Alban Berg composed only a little later) than to the French Impressionism. The fantastically colourful virtuoso part of the harp, too, with its resounding bell chords, with its beats on the sound chest (when Death appears) shows a highly unusual sound imagination telling already of a distant future. Caplet does not follow E.A. Poe's fascinating literary subject in the sense of program music, but he attempts to translate into music the dreadful spell which haunts and gradually paralyses the festive dancing party. In 1908, when Caplet composed the first version of 'Le Masque de la mort rouge', Debussy also started to work on two opera projects after E.A. Poe which should keep him busy until the end of his life: 'La Chute de la Maison Usher' and 'Le Diable dans le Beffroi'. In a letter to Caplet Debussy writes on Poe: "...Cet homme quoique posthume, exerce sur moi une tyrannie presque angoissante". The few sketches that survived and the librettis of the two one-act-plays (published by E. Lockspeiser in 'Debussy and Edgar Poe', 1961) show that under the influence of Poe Debussy was about to disclose entirely new realms to the music theater. His early death has hindered him from achieving so many projects.