Showing posts with label Berlioz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Berlioz. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Michael Spyres: A tenor who resonates

The American tenor Michael Spyres has taken an impressive and unusual highway through the operatic world. Hailing from a musical family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's little town on the prairie, he is 38 yet has already tackled 64 different roles, from baroque to bel canto to Berlioz. He is convinced he has sung the latter's Faust more than anyone else alive. And it's not exactly that he doesn't like Puccini, but... 

In this 4 July special, I meet the US's mercurial Renaissance-man backstage at the Royal Opera House, where he is currently appearing in Mozart's Mitridate... 


Michael Spyres as Mitridate at the Royal Opera House. Photo ROH/Bill Cooper


JD: Michael, lovely to meet you. How are you enjoying Mitridate?

MS: The role itself is absolutely incredible. People don’t realise, simply because it’s not done enough in repertory, but it’s so difficult. As a character it’s comparable to Otello, or to any of the truly great characters in the repertoire. The real Mithridate was one of the most mythic people who ever lived. He was 72 when he died and he thwarted the Roman army for 39 years – which is 39 years more than most people ever did! He was a famous polyglot and spoke 22 languages: he owned the Black Sea and everything around it, there were 22 different regions and he made it a point to learn all the languages.

There’s also a word in French and high English – “mithridisation” and “mithridatism” – which means to take small amounts of poison in order to be immune to it. He believed that if you take small amounts of poison every day then as you get older you do become immune. One of the main dangers for kings was patricide or death by poisoning – nearly everyone died of poison! – so he grew up in a strict regimen of taking poison every day so he would be immune. But when the Romans were finally defeating him, he tried to poison himself and couldn’t die from that, so he either stabbed himself or had a friend do it so that the Romans couldn’t. He was this epic, amazing person and even if some of his story is exaggerated nowadays, it doesn’t matter; he was a real king and was able to hold off and defeat the Roman army.


(Here, a different interpretation: Save Pontus, Change Europe)


JD: Mozart’s portrayal of him is extraordinarily sophisticated.

MS: From the beginning you get to see the heart and the beauty of him, but in the recitatives you can also see this cunning, brilliant man who would pit people against each other. In his first aria, he says: “Thank God I’m back home – I thought I’d never see this place again. It’s OK to lose but I still hold my head high…” And you find out just afterwards, in the recitative, that this is totally a ruse, because he’s sent false information to his sons to test if they’re loyal or not. In the recit you hear him say he faked his own death just to see if they were traitors. Wooah!

About half way through you start to see his inner turmoil and the anger he feels because he knows he’s ageing. He died when he was 72 and usually kings died when they were about 30, killed by their brothers or their sons. But the way Mozart and Metastasio wrote the character, based on the Racine play, it shows he’s an old man used to conquering everything, but the worst thing for him is not losing the battle but losing his heart, losing his love. You see this throughout the opera. He’s scared, just like all of us, that nobody’s going to love him again… 

There’s a wonderful scene between him and the queen in which she says, “Yes, I’ll go to the alter as your slave and do whatever you want.” He's so incensed: “So I have to drag you to the altar – you don’t want to marry me, you’re just going to do it out of spite?” And you see this crazy rage and jealousy in him. But then at the end he gives his sons freedom and says that at the end of his life he wants to be again the great lion that he is. “Please marry her, and I’m sorry I’m a terrible person, but I’m showing you how to live. This is how a real person should live - no regrets…” At the end he says “I can die happy now because I’ve done what I need to” – and he just dies. I can’t think of a more complex character. You’re a god among men, a god personified. Hoffmann or Otello would be comparable, but there’s only a handful of characters who run the gamut of what a Shakespearean character is and this is definitely one of them.


JD: Mozart was only 14 when he wrote it – what an astounding thought…

MS: Mozart had three major influences: Mysliveček, JC Bach and another I only found out about because I did an obscure baroque opera in Lisbon called Antigono, by Antonio Mazzoni. I did the modern revival a few years ago and we made a recording. The only time people had ever heard it was three performances in 1755 – it’s an incredible piece, but it was lost because of the terrible fire in 1755 in Lisbon. When Mozart, aged 12, was travelling through Italy with his father, Mazzoni taught the boy counterpoint in Bologna. Antigono was almost the same kind of story as Mitridate – it’s a formulaic thing but a large character. But the fact that Mozart was able to write such touching and beautiful music was just beyond compare. To anyone who thinks it fails in comparison to his later works I’d say: no, it’s something completely different. You can’t compare it and you shouldn’t, because it’s raw, amazing emotion. Some of his duets, Aspasia’s arias and the vocal writing with the recitatives – there’s nothing like it.

At the last full rehearsal before we went on the stage, Graham Vick, who’s one of the greatest directors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, got us all round and said: I want you to realise that 26 years ago I premiered this here, and now I see this in a completely different light and I see the absolute genius of Mozart – this little boy who was shuffled around and hauled out by his father all over Europe. You can see the animosity in the letters, you can see his wish to be just a normal boy – all the angst and the problems between father and son is written into the music. He was a mature being already at that age, because he was forced to be and he had the genius to do it.




JD: Your particular type of tenor is something unusual and special. What was your path towards finding your true voice?

MS: Everyone finds their own path, but I had a different path than anybody! I started as a baritone. And I wanted to be Mel Blanc, who was the voice-over person for all the Loony Tunes cartoons. When I was young I’d imitate everything, all the time and growing up I sang with my family every kind of music there was – church music, bluegrass, folk. Then when I was in college I made money by doing commercials and I was a radio DJ and I would do commercials in different characters – and then I started getting into the idea that “Oh, you can make a living being an opera singer, that’s weird…” Obviously I couldn’t do what they were doing, so I thought “I’ll just take the recordings and start imitating the best”.

The big thing happened when I was 20 years old – and it was with this production of Mitridate. In my two years of vocal study, 18-21, we had a VHS of this production and I heard Bruce Ford for the first time. I didn’t know you could sound like this as a tenor. I’d never heard a sound like it – it’s like a baritone, but it’s obviously a tenor role, and that’s what I want to do. Low notes were the easiest things in the world – high notes, ugh, they were so hard! But this was totally different from anything I heard in Verdi and Puccini.

In the US, everyone said you can’t make a career out of this, you just cannot – and that’s still true if you’re in the sticks. So I decided that if I really wanted to learn to sing I needed to go to Europe and try to figure out this weird baritenor kind of repertoire. It took another six years of auditioning to think OK, I can do this weird trick of different mixed techniques, so I started doing a lot of Rossini roles.

 
Michael Spyres. Photo: Dax Bedell


JD: It sounds like it wasn’t an easy beginning?

MS: I was in Vienna for two years at the conservatory, and it’s a very Mozart-heavy town, so it was an invaluable experience. That was the first time I got to sing these arias in public and I crashed and burned. It was so hard! I was 26 and it just didn’t work. I went back to the drawing board and started doing lots of Rossini again. This is my third time doing Mitridate in the last year and only now is it starting to feel good and right.

This is one of the most difficult fachs of tenor, because you have to do a real mix of baritonal and tenor sounds, but you have to keep it up in the extreme highs, the same kind of colour as a baritone but not using the full voice. It’s a voix mixte and it’s really tricky to navigate and very technical, but you don’t want people to know you’re doing it! So that’s how I got into it: years and years of practice and failure and finally things started to click. And now, depending on repertoire, I change my technique. You have to, because it was written for different people with different techniques.


JD: Next up, you’re singing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms?

MS: There’s a huge misconception about Berlioz! He was a big admirer of the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, he admired Rossini and you can hear it constantly in his music. Everyone thinks of Berlioz as these unimaginable, gigantic pieces that are ultimately verismo – and it’s absolutely false. In order to sing Berlioz, you have to be able to sing full voice, high, and get over the orchestra, but the majority of his writing is for a lyrical voice. He had Nourrit, who was known for doing a lot of voix mixte and had various kinds of colour-changing sounds, not full-voice high Cs. He had him in mind for Benvenuto Cellini. But Nourrit was having vocal problems and tragically then killed himself that year and Berlioz wrote it for Gilbert Duprez instead. But a work like Lélio is so lyrical and beautiful, I can’t imagine some Puccini singer trying to sing it: it’s all lightness and is based completely on the text.

There’s a great quote from Berlioz. He used to say: “Above all, resonate”. He meant that both literally and figuratively. I sang the Grande Messe des Morts in this massive cathedral that it was intended for [Les Invalides], and in there Berlioz had realised that he needed more people, it was too big a place, so the choir’s about 180-200 people and the orchestra’s 120. I had friends at the performance and they said when I opened up and started singing they could feel the sound resonating.

Berlioz was this great artist and dreamer but although he had a giant ego, it was all about the art for him and he connected everything to the text. He believed in art permeating society and being an infectious thing, but it always has to be for a reason, it’s not just superfluous. He was unlike anybody else and I love him!


JD: This isn’t entirely your Proms debut?

MS: I did the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with John Eliot Gardiner two years ago. I’ve never done solo stuff there before, though, so I’m excited. I love the Proms because it’s an awakening of classical music for ‘everyperson’. I’m not saying that opera isn’t an elitist thing – because it is, as it takes so much money to be able to put on an opera. But the coolest thing about the Proms is that for many people this is their only possibility that they might see something that’ll change their lives. So that’s why I love the Proms. And I’ll give ‘em a good show, because now I’ve done Faust more than, as far as I know, any other living person. I could conduct it with my eyes closed – but all I have to do is sing, so it’s great! I love the piece so much, mainly because I did the production with Terry Gilliam in the original French in Belgium and that changed my life.


JD: What’s it like to work with Gilliam?

MS: He’s a madman and he’s wonderful! He seriously reminds me of my uncle. We’ve kept in really good touch. We’re very much of the same kind of mind – we’d start talking and still be there four hours later. We have similar ideas and that’s also why he’s taken a liking, like me too, to Berlioz. There are so many accounts of Berlioz being a true artist – ‘I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to do this because the art demands it’ – and I’ve done that many times in my life. Of course I’ve failed – but I’ve succeeded too!
 
As Faust in Gilliam's production

JD: The production was brilliant, but quite controversial, involving a concentration camp…

MS: To me it’s one of the most poignant productions I’ve ever been a part of. I have many friends and colleagues who say ‘Oh, opera’s going in such a bad direction, all these director things that kill the production’ – but you have a choice to take that or not, and we have to do the projects we believe in. I’ve been fortunate that out of my 64 operas I’ve done, there have only been two or three that I haven’t been really thrilled about.


JD: You don’t mind ‘Regietheater’, then?

MS: It depends on the director and the ideas. I’m a director myself, I have my own opera company in the States that I run with my family. We’re basically the von Trapps – we put on the shows, my brother helps run the company and my sister’s a Broadway singer. I take it very seriously, I can see when a director is just doing something for their own ego and I choose not to be around those kinds of people.

It’s a difficult thing, being a director. Today they’re in a weird position where these are major decisions, it takes huge amounts of money to put on a project and everybody’s under pressure to do a brand-new, original idea. Many people have an idea, but it doesn’t necessarily work with the music. Many directors are not musicians to start out with – they’re dramatists, which is a great concept on paper, but if you have to listen to a piece for four hours and you don’t take into account the audience – you’re gonna die! So I’m fine with any project as long as it’s well thought out and it makes sense with the music. Because the whole reason you’re there is because of the music.

It’s gone crazy in certain places. I won’t name names, but there was one instance where L’Italiana in Algeri was being produced and the director wanted to have his name bigger on the poster than the composer’s name or the opera’s title. Fortunately the festival director said no. That’s how crazy people get!


JD: Do you see yourself moving more into directing in the future?

MS: Yes, absolutely. I’m so inspired, the more I read about the origins of opera. From Jacopo Peri, who wrote the first opera, until the late 19th century, all singers were actors and directors. Nowadays things are so specialised that people say “I’m just a singer” and some don’t even act! It’s completely the opposite of what it should be. All of us need to be acting, dancing, singing, learning as much as we can. That is why opera created this wave of art because it was the first artform where everyone came together, with the idea that we’re all part of it, we all need to be able to do a little bit of everything.

Michael Spyres
That was the great thing, growing up in my family. We built our own amphitheatre. We built the stage first and everyone sat on hay bales. I’m from a famous little town called Mansfield, Missouri – it was the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House of the Prairie books. Because of the books, we have many visitors come through there. My mother wrote a musical about Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were growing up and it’s now in its 28th year. At its biggest we had about 120 people involved, which was 10 per cent of the town! So I’ve grown up around this and I’ve been so vindicated reading about the origins of opera, what got me into opera and how it split from its origins.


JD: The idea that you can do just do one thing and the world owes you a living, that’s going nowhere fast…

MS: Of course! And people are tired of that. One of my favourite futurist speakers is Michio Kaku, a fantastic theoretical physicist. A big subject now is what’s going to happen when people become obsolete in jobs. In the next 30-50 years half the people are going to be cut out because of robots, so what’s going to happen? What are the jobs that will be left? You’ve got to be an artist, a musician, someone who comes up with new ideas. For a long time everyone wanted to have a good stable job, but now people are being replaced by robots. But a robot will never be able to be an artist or a musician – that’s what’s so exciting.


JD: I hope you’re right!

MS: They can try! But we are such complex creatures in music. You can hear a piece that’s done by a robot and it doesn’t feel right, it’s just algorithms. That’s why I’m so excited about the future of music and art. I feel I came at the right time because by the time I’m in my later years more and more people will be coming to art, because that’s where the ideas come from. The same thing applies to the computer programmers – they have the technicality and the vision for what needs to be done. Opera is basically the computer of the art world.


JD: You sing, you act, you direct: are you also tempted to write an opera?

A few years ago my brother wrote a libretto, my mum helped – we took the music from The Magic Flute and created a story based on Alice in Wonderland to take to all the kids in the area who’d never seen opera before, in 32 schools that were among the poorest in the community. Yes, someday I want to write an opera – that’s what I’m leaning towards.




JD: What about future roles to sing? Any big dreams?

MS: I’ve basically done every role I wanted to do, except Verdi’s Otello. I’ll do that someday – but like Kaufmann, I’m smart and I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’m 50 for that, so I’ve got over a decade – but the other dream roles are Monteverdi’s Orfeo and a lot of Rameau and Gluck, great epic works on Greek stories. But modern opera for the most part is not as appealing to me as a singer.

I like Puccini. I love Puccini. But it’s like he put down pure gold on paper and if you want to do him justice you’ve got to do what he wrote – and if you live within the characters that he wrote there’s not a lot of freedom. I’ve taken a lot of flack for saying that – people say, ‘Oh you just don’t like Puccini because you can’t sing it’ – but actually I can sing it, I just don’t like it, because I believe in doing what the composer wanted you to do and for my character there’s very little in Puccini that I find interesting as an actor and singer. I love it when other people do it, but for me personally I get angry because I want to do my own thing, but I shouldn’t – he wrote it so perfectly and beautifully that it’s just right! So that’s why most of the verismo period doesn’t appeal to me – there’s not enough freedom for me,

As far as dream roles go, I’ve done most of them and I know it’s crazy to say that. But I’ve done 64 already and I’m 38: operas from modern to the earliest stuff, and a range from the lowest operas written for a tenor voice to the highest, so I’ve lived out all my major fantasies as far as roles are concerned. Now I’m just looking for true content and characterisation. I find many of the more obscure things much more rewarding. I’d love to do Die tote Stadt – that’s a dream. I love Die tote Stadt – Korngold was one of the greatest. The same with Massenet: he came on the heels of verismo and was able to marry the two, and Korngold did the same thing. Korngold is so overlooked, just because he went into film. But have you listened to his film scores? They’re better than anything! Come on, you can’t write better than that.

JD: You just made this Korngold biographer very happy! Thank you, Michael, and toitoitoi for the final Mitridate.

And – as Loony Tunes would say – that’s all, folks!

The final performance of Mitridate is on Friday 7 July at the Royal Opera House – booking here. Michael Spyres sings Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms on 8 August – booking here.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Adventures in Franco-Russian musical pictures

This is an edited version of the talk I gave at the Wigmore Hall last Saturday, introducing a programme that consisted of the Debussy Violin Sonata and both of Prokofiev's, plus Pärt's Fratres, gloriously played by Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne. Enjoy...


Did anyone see Benvenuto Cellini the other night at ENO? Well, I hope that by the time we’ve finished here, you might want to – because this is going to have quite a lot to do with Berlioz. Alina and Steven’s programme focuses chiefly on Debussy and Prokofiev, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the inter-influences between Russian and French music over the decades, indeed nearly a century, before their sonatas were written. I’d like offer you a kind of treasure-trail – a long-distance game of musical ping-pong between these cultures. We’ll look as far back as 1830 and follow the path forward to the points at which Debussy and Prokofiev each breaks away to write violin sonatas that represent them at their most pure, distilled and independent. By embedding both of them in this background, looking at their musical roots, I hope we can gain extra appreciation of and perspective upon their branches.

Let’s turn the clock back, first, by nearly 90 years. In 1830, a new piece exploded onto the consciousness of the French music-loving public: the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. Even today it seems quite extraordinary to realize it was composed so early - only three years after Beethoven died, and two after Schubert. Berlioz really is phenomenal. If you go to hear Cellini, which dates from 1838, you’ll hear vocal and choral writing that is almost impossibly ambitious, and harmonies that would have been startling even in Wagner. Along comes this visionary, larger-than-life composer, with the sheer scale of his thinking, the dazzling range of his orchestration, the imagination to make music nearly as powerful a narrative force as literature and the courage to dare everything – which is what Benvenuto Cellini is really about.

Much of Parisian musical society, though, didn’t know what on earth to make of Berlioz. All his life he struggled for appreciation at home. Musicians elsewhere, though, were listening with more open ears – notably, in Russia. Berlioz toured there several times, to great acclaim, his last trip taking place close to the end of his life, and it was on that occasion that he met Tchaikovsky.

In Russia, Mikhail Glinka was the forerunner of a group of composers who were eager to build on his achievements: they are known as The Five: Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. But slightly aside from them stood Tchaikovsky – a colossus in his own right, the most westernized of the Russians and the closest to the world of ballet, in which guise so much Russian influence soon came to the west. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker offer exquisite orchestration and remarkable sound pictures that were certainly affected by his colleagues, especially Rimsky, but that travelled particularly well.

Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky summed up Pyotr’s attitude to Berlioz like this:
“Whilst he bowed down before the significance of Berlioz in contemporary music and gave him his due as a great reformer, chiefly in the sphere of orchestration, Pyotr Ilyich did not feel any enthusiasm for his music…But, although he displayed a sober attitude, free of any blind enthralment, towards Berlioz's works, he felt otherwise about Berlioz's personality during his visit to Moscow. In the eyes of the young composer the latter was above all, as he himself says, the embodiment of 'selfless hard work and ardent love of art'. Moreover, he was an old man worn down by the years and by illness, persecuted by Fate and by people, and for Pyotr Ilyich it was gratifying to be able to comfort him and warm his heart even just for a moment with a fiery manifestation of sympathy. Finally, in the person of Berlioz there stood before him the first great composer whose acquaintance he had had occasion to make, and the feeling of piety which as a young artist he understandably felt for his great colleague could not leave him indifferent. Like everyone who seriously loved music in Russia, he received Berlioz enthusiastically and all his life retained fond memories of his meeting with him.”
A lot of the issues in Russian and French music in the mid to late 19th century are really about a quest for national identity. It’s interesting to note those words about Berlioz being the first great composer Tchaikovsky had met. Russia, having not really had a national identity in classical music, had been importing some, the process started by Peter the Great. But it was down to Glinka’s successors to create their musical nationalism by adding to the mix sounds from the folk music of Russia and its surrounding nations and ethnic groups, making these part and parcel of their compositions. Before that, great composers were there not.

France, ironically, was also slow on the uptake. Its 19th-century musical establishment was seriously, appallingly stuffy, despite Paris being an artistic capital second only to Vienna - home to Chopin and Liszt, besides such operatic wonders as Meyerbeer, who may not have been the greatest thing ever, but was enormously influential, not least on Wagner. Yet these composers were respectively Polish, Hungarian and German. There was little by way of a French national language in music that could be clearly identified. The lyrical concision of melody that characterized Gounod, for instance, or the sparkle of Saint-Saens, is traceable mainly to influences like Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.

After Wagner’s operas exploded onto the scene, the noxious combination of his overwhelming musical personality plus France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to seismic upheavals. In 1872 Saint-Saens, with a group of younger composers including Fauré, Chausson and Duparc, formed the Societé Nationale de Musique with the express intention of creating a uniquely French style of music, independent from German influence.

Now, if you are not going to let yourself be influenced by German music, but you do find examples from overseas more interesting than what your own country has been turning up, what are you going to do? You aren’t going to look at Italy, where opera dominated even more. You aren’t going to look at England, because there’s nothing much to look at. You’re going to look at Russia. Where there is, by now, plenty. Not least thanks to the influence of Berlioz. And you may be French, drawing on Russian influence, but you may not even realize that what you are actually drawing on is a French composer’s influence on Russia!

Here’s one little progression to illustrate this bit of ping-pong. Ravel admired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. When he was writing Daphnis and Chloe, he got stuck over the final Danse générale and eventually he put the score of Scheherazade’s final movement on his piano, and said he ‘humbly tried to write something similar’.

Here’s Rimsky, then Ravel. And when you hear them both, try remembering, too, Berlioz’s rumbunctious Witches Sabbath from the Symphonie fantastique.

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Scheherazade finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RX9Bhps-SQ


The chief point of confluence here was of course Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. And it was Mikhail Fokine’s exotic and sexy choreography for Scheherazade which brought that piece to everyone’s ears in Paris, including Ravel’s. The influx began in 1906, when Diaghilev held an exhibition of Russian art in Paris, creating a fascination there with all matters Russian. Two years later he put on Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov starring Feodor Chaliapin and then in 1909 he held a ballet season in which the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, music by Borodin, created a sensation. The colour, energy, vitality and exoticism of ballet as gesamtkunstwerk, with the soaring standard of all its elements, dance, choreography, music and design – all this made a vast impact. Thereafter Diaghilev’s commissions included Ravel’s Daphnis as well as Stravinsky’s first three ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. I don’t need to tell you what happened in 1913 when they premiered the last of those.

Diaghilev is what Debussy and Prokofiev had in common. Debussy was, of course, at the height of his powers and enormously famous by the time Diaghilev came to Paris. He had less to gain from the connection than his younger compatriot, Ravel, and much less to gain than the youthful Prokofiev. But we still benefit from his limited association because his commission – after an initial approach in 1909 that came to nothing - was the ballet score Jeux, in 1912, in which a tennis match leads its two couples into games of a very different kind.

Its choreographer, Nijinsky, also choreographed Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune in 1912, ending with an erotic gesture that caused a huge scandal. Debussy himself steered clear of both ballet and scandal. And he didn’t much like Nijinsky’s approach to Jeux. Here’s how he described him: “Nijinsky’s perverse genius applied itself to a special branch of mathematics!” he wrote. “The man adds up demisemiquavers with his feet, checks the result with his arms and then, suddenly struck with paralysis all down one side, glares at the music as it goes past. I gather it’s called the stylisation of gesture. It’s awful!”

In 1913 Prokofiev, then aged 22, travelled to London and Paris for the first time and made contact with Diaghilev. The impresario nurtured the young composer by commissioning a ballet score entitled Ala and Lolli; but when Prokofiev handed it over in 1915 Diaghilev rejected it as “unRussian”. This seems a little perverse, since it was always going to be modelled on influences from the Scythian culture of central Asia. Parts of it eventually morphed into the Scythian Suite. But then Diaghilev asked Prokofiev for another score, this time Chout. And as Prokofiev was still quite inexperienced with ballet, the choreographer Leonid Massine and Diaghilev himself guided him closely through the process. The result, premiered in 1921, was a major success – Ravel called it ‘a work of genius’ - and it was followed later by The Prodigal Son, which was choreographed by George Balanchine in Paris in 1929. These paved the way for Prokofiev’s Soviet ballets – Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, among his best-loved works to this day. There was a further ballet for Diaghilev, too, entitled Le pas acier, or The Steel Step, supposedly portraying the industrialisation of the Soviet Union.

This plentiful experience in ballet music was, I think, a lasting influence on Prokofiev, whose fairy-tale feel for colour, elan, rhythm and musical storytelling never left him. The Second Violin Sonata is more or less contemporaneous with Cinderella, and, I think, audibly so. More about that piece in a minute.

If Debussy and Prokofiev’s paths crossed in Paris during those years when Prokofiev was the enthusiastic young blood and Debussy the grand master near the end of his life, there’s precious little sign of it. Still, even if Debussy didn’t know Prokofiev, Prokofiev certainly knew Debussy’s music – and according to his son’s reminiscences, one of his favourite works was the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Debussy had other Russian connections – and vital formative ones they were. In 1880, in his late teens, he found an interesting summer job with Tchaikovsky’s legendary patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.

Here’s her first impression of him, a letter of 10 July 1880: “Two days ago a young pianist arrived from Paris where he has just graduated from the Conservatoire with the first prize. I engaged him for the summer to give lessons to the children, accompany Julia’s singing and play four hands with me. This young man plays well, his technique is brilliant, but he lacks any personal expression. He is yet too young, says he is twenty but looks 16…”

She described Debussy to Tchaikovsky as her “little Frenchman”. Indeed, she became very fond of him and while he stayed with the family they played through duet versions of several big Tchaikovsky pieces. She told Tchaikovsky that Debussy was enchanted with his music. He made arrangements for duet of some of the national dances from Swan Lake, including the Spanish dance; his very first publication, apparently, was a Tchaikovsky arrangement that came out in Russia; and when he went home he took with him scores for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and the opera The Maid of Orleans. He was young, intelligent and impressionable and soaked up music like the proverbial sponge.

Here is Romeo and Juliet…listen to the horn at around 8:54 to 9:56

And here is the Debussy. Listen to the woodwind around 5:50...

If that's a coincidence, I'll eat my hat...

Tchaikovsky was not so impressed with young Debussy, though, assessing the little Frenchman’s Danse bohemienne and declaring to von Meck that the form was “bungled”.

Now Tchaikovsky may not have been in thrall to Berlioz, but he was far from immune to him. He once said: “It is Berlioz who must be considered the true founder of programme music, for every composition of his not only bears a specific title, but is furnished with a detailed explanation, a copy of which is supposed to be in the listener's hands during the performance.” I doubt we’d have had his Romeo and Juliet overture without Berlioz’s example. 

Other French music had made a big impact on him, especially Bizet’s Carmen – the Fate motif proved a particular inspiration – and I think some crucial influences from Berlioz aren’t difficult to detect. We’re all too familiar with the applause that often follows the third movement of the Pathetique symphony, that rather brash and hollow march, which creates an expectation that it’s the end, when it’s not. The precedent for a supposedly triumphal march followed by something terrifyingly different was set in no uncertain terms by the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, where the march to the scaffold is mock-triumphal and followed by the witches' sabbath. Tchaikovsky was apparently not an enthusiast over the Symphonie fantastique – he much preferred La Damnation de Faust. But the precedent was there and if there is any doubting the bleak, grotesque impact of Tchaikovsky’s march and the tragedy that follows it, just look at what Berlioz was doing with his and the flavour is somewhat enhanced.

So there again, there’s the progression - Berlioz to Tchaikovsky to Debussy. But by the time we reach Debussy’s musical maturity, issues of musical nationalism are becoming stronger than ever before, in new, less cross-fertilised ways.

The trouble with musical nationalism is that it can be symptomatic of other kinds of nationalism on the rise around it. It has a way of finishing in wars. Both Debussy and Prokofiev were to go through considerable traumas as a result of the wars during in their respective lifetimes; their lives, their thinking and their music were deeply affected.

Debussy was only a child at the time of the Franco-Prussian War and he was fortunate thereafter to spend most of his life in peaceful times; but when the First World War broke out he was no longer in good health. It was around then that he began to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him in 1918, even as Paris was under bombardment.

He was ten years old when Saint-Saens was forming the Societé Nationale de Musique in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and if later on writing music that was essentially French and that escaped Wagnerism became a preoccupation with Debussy, it was musically rather than politically inspired. But the First World War changed all that.

When Debussy composed what turned out to be his final completed works, the three instrumental sonatas – though originally he intended six – his outlook was close indeed to the manifesto of the original Societe Nationale. He was trying to create pure instrumental music that was free of influence from outside and that possessed instead what he felt to be characteristically French qualities. But to do so he now had to look back a very long way - beyond Wagner, beyond Tchaikovsky, beyond Berlioz and even beyond Mozart, turning to the French baroque, notably composers such as Rameau, Couperin and Leclair.

He wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand, in August 1915: “I want to work – not so much for myself, as to provide a proof, however small, that 30 million Boches can’t destroy French thought, even when they’ve tried undermining it first before obliterating it.” Later he reflected in another letter: “What about French music? Where are our old harpsichordists who produced real music in abundance? They held the secret of that graceful profundity, that emotion without epilepsy, which we shy away from like ungrateful children…”

In his Violin Sonata he captures that quality to perfection. Here’s some of it.


And so Debussy may have begun his career under the shadow of Tchaikovsky and Wagner – but he finished it by breaking free of all external impacts, for the same nationalist reasons that at one time attracted composers to borrow from one another’s traditions. On the manuscript of his sonatas he signed himself simply "Claude Debussy, musician français".

Composers’ chamber music works often reveal their musical thinking at its most private – think, for instance, of Brahms’s clarinet quintet, or Shostakovich’s string quartets. I reckon Debussy is no exception – and Prokofiev, too, finding the intimacy in his chamber music to express everything he could not put into larger public works in the era of Stalin.

Interestingly enough, it seems that Prokofiev probably performed the Debussy Violin Sonata himself, on tour in a duo with the violinist Robert Soetens in 1935.

There’s one more influence from France which contributed to bringing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata into being. This piece dates from 1942, it was the first of the pair to be completed – and it’s not really a violin sonata at all. It was originally written for flute and piano and was apparently inspired – in memory – by the great French flautist Georges Barrère. 

Barrère was one of a powerful line of great French flautists, who also included Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert, and would later extend to Marcel Moyse, Jean-Philippe Rampal. The French repertoire is replete with works conceived for them, including pieces like Fauré’s Fantaisie, Poulenc’s Flute Sonata, Ibert’s Flute Concerto, Debussy’s Syrinx, the big solo in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and of course the opening of Debussy’s L’Après-midi  – which we’ve also noted was a favourite of Prokofiev’s. Moyse was another particularly significant example: a friend of Ravel and Enescu and creator of a method of flute playing that’s used by student flautists all over the world, he played under the batons of both Rimsky-Korsakov and of Prokofiev himself. He once declared: “I long ago observed that the real beauty of the sound comes from the generosity of the heart.”

In Russia the flute tradition was less developed than it was in France. The great violinist David Oistrakh spotted the likely lack of demand for this sonata and suggested Prokofiev should rework it for violin. Prokofiev embraced the opportunity and the result was every bit as successful as Oistrakh had hoped. Here he is, playing it, with pianist Vladimir Yampolsky.


But our next criss-crossing of France and Russia is more physical...and concerns why Prokofiev, having left Revolutionary Russia for France, eventually decided to go back again. 

He was not a political animal. He appears to have been rather single-minded about his music; he was also something of a dandy, loving to wear good suits, yellow shoes and plenty of aftershave. But it is ironic that a man preoccupied only with art, love and his adopted religion of Christian Science should have been caught up in seismic political events that changed the face of the planet, and it was inevitable that from time to time their impact would find some expression in his music.

Prokofiev escaped the 1917 revolution in Russia and spent the next decade abroad. He was in the US for around four years, he spent a year in Bavaria writing his opera The Fiery Angel, but the rest of the time he was in France, where, among other things, he worked with Diaghilev. In 1927 he went back to Russia for the first time, encouraged by friends who told him that his music was popular there and he would be greeted with enthusiasm. He found it a very different country from the one he’d left, but he was indeed welcomed back with considerable triumph. That acclaim haunted him thereafter.

Several factors conspired to create the mindset that returned Prokofiev for good to the USSR in, of all times, the mid 1930s. First, after Diaghilev died in 1929, his ballets dropped out of the repertoire and he was left short of a vital commissioning patron. Besides, he was homesick. In a 1933 interview, he said:
“Foreign air does not suit my inspiration, because I am Russian, and that is to say the least suited of men to be an exile, to remain myself in a psychological climate that isn’t of my race. My compatriots and I carry our country about with us. Not all of it, to be sure, but a little bit, just enough for it to be faintly painful at first, then increasingly so, until at last it breaks us down altogether.”

There could have been warning signs. In 1929, trying to get his ballet Le pas d’acier staged at the Bolshoi, Prokofiev faced tough questioning from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, who challenged him over living abroad and whether a factory in the piece was a capitalist one or soviet. Perhaps it’s a measure of the composer’s ignorance of what had been going on in the USSR that he was furious and declared “That concerns politics, not music, so therefore I won’t answer.” The ballet was rejected.  

The next issue was purely musical. His personal leanings towards traditional forms, clarity of expression and a more traditional outlook than was being taken by contemporary composers in France at the time, let alone in Vienna, made him feel that the USSR might be the place for him. Desiring to create melodic music that large numbers of people could and would enjoy, Prokofiev felt his outlook was perhaps not so far off the official line. He once declared that he wanted to create music that would appeal to people in the Soviet Union discovering music for the first time, aiming to invent ‘a new simplicity’. The Soviet authorities were only too happy to encourage him – his return would be a massive PR coup. He spent much of 1935 there working on his ballet Romeo and Juliet, but in 1936 he was permitted to leave again for a tour, so he was away when Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in the newspaper Pravda, apparently for tickling "the perverted tastes of the bourgeoisie".

Prokofiev himself was attacked for his artistic outlook at this time - but he wasn’t there, knew nothing about it and wasn’t told the full story when he return. So instead of getting out while the going was good, he wrote Peter and the Wolf, enjoyed a huge triumph and settled happily in a nice apartment with his wife and family, just in time for Stalin’s ‘terror’. Fortunately he remained unscathed, though he incurred plenty of jealousy. Then he wrote an enormous cantata for the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution - only for it to be rejected out of hand.

He made his last foreign tour in 1938 and was offered a very nice contract in Hollywood to write film music. He turned it down: his sons were still in Moscow and he had to go home to them.

It was in the winter of 1938 that he began to write sketches for his first violin sonata. He had been working on film music with Sergei Eisenstein for Alexander Nevsky and was surrounded by the terrible purges of the Terror. Between 1936 and 38 about 7 million Russians were arrested, some half a million public figures were shot and hundreds of thousands more sent to the gulags. By the winter of 1940 Prokofiev found himself having to write celebrations of Stalin’s glorious society even while some of his closest friends were arrested, tortured and killed.

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Prokofiev was evacuated with a number of other artistic figures, together with his mistress, the poet Mira Mendelson, for whom he had left his wife. They went first to the Caucuses, then to Tblisi in Georgia, and he took his violin sonata in progress with him. 

The Violin Sonata No.1 is much less famous than its sibling no.2, but it is by far the more personal. It’s an almost unremittingly dark piece and near the close of the first movement and again at the end of the entire piece there’s an eerie scalic effect which he described as suggestive of a wind blowing through a graveyard. Here is a complete recording by Oistrakh with the pianist Lev Oborin.


Prokofiev’s health was never the same again after the war. He was chronically ill for his last eight years and died in 1953 on the self-same day as Stalin. The first and third movements of his Violin Sonata No.1 were played at his funeral.

Think how much the world had changed. Debussy lived only long enough to trumpet his nationalist colours at the end of his life, but Prokofiev, born a prodigy with a pushy mother into the world of Tsars, Tchaikovsky and The Five, started off living the hopeful life of a composer who believed that politics and music could be separate, and paid the price by ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time even though he’d had the chance not to. 

You could see him as a hero who stood by his inner convictions and followed his heart. You could see him as an impossibly naïve and blinkered artist, hoist on his own petard. You could forgive him everything, as he lacked the luxury of hindsight. Or you could see in him the tragic story of one who devoted a wealth of talent to ideals that were to prove doomed and deadly. The story, perhaps, of Russia itself.

Now, one person from tonight’s programme has been missing and it’s Arvo Pärt and his piece Fratres. I apologise for sidelining him in favour of the Debussy and Prokofiev narratives – and I am sure that Fratres will be familiar since there can be few contemporary pieces that have been conscripted so often for film and TV. But there is one little footnote to add that ties it to our other pieces. Diaghilev was largely responsible for turning ballet into a gesamtkunstwerk, with Debussy as occasional prop and Prokofiev as musical heir apparent. Last week I went to Covent Garden to see a brand-new ballet entitled Connectome, with amazing designs by Es Devlin, fine choreography by Alastair Marriott and dancing by today’s greatest ballerina, Natalia Osipova. It really was a gesamtkunstwerk. And the music was four pieces by Arvo Pärt – beginning with Fratres. Do see it if you can.