C. Debussy, G. Faure, Z. Kodaly and C. Chaminade, Le Salon de Musique, April 2, 2017—
Years ago, while employed in the television industry, we purchased thirty antiques for possible use in a production. These 18th and 19th century furniture pieces—huge armoires, elaborate partner desks, chifferobes, secretaires and vitrines—haunted a dark corner of a stage for months until they were returned to the seller, never used. But while they sat gathering dust, these former possessions of Europe’s elite fascinated me. In time I thoroughly searched every nook, cranny and drawer looking for possible hidden compartments, hoping to find a lost bit of hidden history—a story by Oscar Wilde, a letter from Napoleon, a score by Mozart—tucked away for a century or two, waiting to be re-discovered. Alas, my detective quest although fun was fruitless; my knowledge of antiques increased but no historical artifacts ever turned up.
Not only was Le Salon de Musiques successful in unearthing one of the earliest, missing-for-a-century compositions by Claude Debussy—his “Piano Trio in G Minor”, written while still a teenager—but they revived it in a superb chamber setting on April 2nd. The concert also included a violin and piano duo by Zoltan Kodaly and two additional French trios, by Gabriel Faure and his contemporary, Cecile Chaminade, a new discovery for this listener.
Debussy’s musical talent was evident from an early age, despite his minimal formal education’ His parents engaged the French poet Verlaine’s mother-in-law, a student of Chopin, as their child’s first piano teacher. At eleven, Claude entered the Paris Conservatory but, always a rebel, he rarely followed accepted rules of harmony and theory. Critics would call the mature Debussy an “impressionist”, a term he disliked, but his sensual music was related to the avant-garde visual arts and poetry of the era and the label stuck. He became one of the most important composers of the 20th century and created many sumptuous orchestral works: “La Mer”, “Images”, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, the opera “Pelleas et Melissande”, the ballet “Jeux” and extensive music for piano. His influence on later composers–from Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok and Messiaen to jazz giants Duke Ellington and Bill Evans–is still felt today.
When he was 18, on vacation from Conservatory classes, Debussy was hired by a wealthy, Russian widow and patroness of the arts, Madame Nadezhda von Meck. His task was to give piano lessons to von Meck’s eleven children while travelling with the family to Moscow, France and Italy. He was given a small stipend for this work during the next three summers. (Madame von Meck famously gave a huge allowance to Peter Tchaikovsky, whom she never met in person, for 13 years; they corresponded by letter only and he dedicated several works to her.) During that first summer (1880), Debussy found a violinist and cellist in Fiesole with whom he played chamber music for the von Mecks. That’s when he wrote his Trio. A later Debussy student kept the manuscript in his possession but then it disappeared for decades. Debussy died at 56 (in 1918); the score turned up in 1982 and was published, at last, in 1986.
The trio, written in four movements, definitely sounds French–years later, the composer proudly added “musicien francais” to the score of a sonata he wrote–but it would be difficult to identify the music as Debussy’s. Initial reviews, after the Trio was finally recorded and performed, were rather tough and dismissive, branding the piece as the work of an unformed student. To my ears, it was more organic and sophisticated than expected–a curiosity in Debussy’s oeuvre, perhaps, but a sweet piece.
The expert musicians who revived Debussy’s trio are all semi-regulars at Le Salon de Musiques: Serena McKinney, violin, Eric Beyers, cello, and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano. A glance at their resumes affirms their educations, awards and extensive performance bona fides; to see and hear them play in the intimacy of a chamber concert is a joy. McKinney’s violin took initial lead in the trio’s first movement, with Beyers and Fitz-Gerald in support. Soon, all three voices melded into a strong, unified front. The simple construction and “japonisme” effect in the brief scherzo that followed hint at Debussy’s later string quartet and piano music.
The simple, delicate third movement began with Beyers’ warm cello, harmonized by McKinney’s violin underpinnings, encompassed by Fitz-Gerald’s piano. The appassionato finale, more forceful than anything that came before , featured moments at the piano that presaged Rachmaninoff. Debussy’s youthful passion and clever counterpoint kept the finale moving at a brisk pace. Although his Trio went missing for a hundred years after the 1880 premiere at the von Meck’s, it is intriguing to wonder if any of Debussy’s fellow composers saw the nascent score.
Next up was “Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120”, by Faure. This composer–taught by Saint-Saens, a teacher of Ravel and beloved by all who knew him throughout his long life (1845-1924)–gave every composition a neo-classical French patina. Although he wrote no music for organ, Faure played the instrument for twenty years at some of France’s greatest churches. If not very prolific, he wrote highly-praised art songs, piano works, chamber music, a profound “Requiem” (1882) and his exquisite “Pavane”, for orchestra and voices, a meditation that unfolds, soars, then resolves back into itself, perhaps a perfect piece of music.
Faure was not trained at the Paris Conservatory but began teaching composition there in 1896. In a decade, he would be named Director of the esteemed school–to the surprise of “the old guard”– and held the post until 1920, when he retired due to failing health and advancing deafness. He wrote music during his summer holidays and began the Piano Trio in 1922. It premiered in 1923, a year before his death, and is the sublime remembering of an old man, music to be savored, not rushed.
Composed forty years after Debussy’s piece, Faure’s sounds much more modern, even in the context of a romantic trio. The first movement sometimes skirts the edge of dissonance, especially in some violin passages. More chances are taken in the slow, meditative second movement; two themes, played in close harmony, created a violin and cello pas de deux. This section sounded at times like “Trois Gymnopedies” by Faure’s friend, Erik Satie.
The third movement, in rondo form, features some complex piano parts, full of quick meter changes, that were admirably handled by Fitz-Gerald. The violin and cello joined in a race and caught up with the piano for a joyous finish.
Kodaly’s “Adagio for Violin and Piano” was written in 1905, the year he and his friend Bela Bartok began to transcribe and make primitive recordings of folk songs in their native Hungary. This stately, 8-minute duet sounded considerably more contemporary than its date of origin would suggest. (Kodaly died in 1967). The always-focused violinist Serena McKinney, a pleasure to watch and listen to in any context, was at her best in the Kodaly. She played standing up, without a score and looked, as her name implies, serene. This adagio is an extended violin solo, albeit with Kevin Fitz-Gerald’s superb piano accompaniment and each musician occupied a distinct space. Kodaly’s ruminative Adagio is an elegant reverie, a love song for violin and piano.
To close the concert, Le Salon’s Artistic Director Francois Chouchan chose the “Piano Trio #2, Op. 34” by Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944). Before she was a teenager, she played the organ at a local Catholic church and was encouraged by favorable comments from a neighbor, George Bizet. The adult Chaminade was a prolific composer and very popular pianist, with fan clubs in London and the U.S. She was the first woman composer inducted into France’s Legion of Honor (1913). Her art songs, piano pieces and larger works lost favor in the latter part of her life and slid into obscurity after her death, which followed years of declining health.
Before the concert, musicologist Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano called Chaminade, the composer of hundreds of works, “the queen of the salons.” Her lively trio began in a strong, assured manner, a “call and response” between piano, violin and cello. There were more showy flourishes in the second movement which, at times, sounded like Borodin’s music. The finale was fast and furious and brought smiles from the outstanding soloists who played it. The music made clear why audiences loved to hear Chaminade, an excellent pianist, perform her own works. Some early listeners dismissed the composer simply because of her gender. A wiser critic later wrote “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.”