Saved events

Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth

Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth performing on stage

Les Siècles is an orchestra that has changed the way we listen to music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Tonight it and its founder François-Xavier Roth glory in the subtle soundscapes of masterpieces from their native France.

‘Modern music was awakened by the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,’ said Pierre Boulez. For the 1894 Parisian audience who first heard that languid flute and those sensuous strings, the experience must have been unlike anything they’d previously encountered. Sitting among them was Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poem had inspired Debussy’s music. He was ‘deeply moved’, he later wrote to the composer. ‘A miracle! That your illustration of L’après-midi d’un faune should present no dissonance with my text, other than to venture further, truly, into nostalgia and light, with finesse, with uneasiness, with generosity …’

Debussy said that his symphonic poem, which traces the desires and dreams of a faun in the heat of an afternoon, was designed to give a general impression of Mallarmé’s text, although scholars have linked lines of text with specific bars of music. In 1912 the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was reborn in another guise, with yet more layers added, thanks to the Ballets Russes. This was the dance company run by (in Debussy’s words) the ‘terrible but wonderful’ Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned new works at a remarkable rate. His star male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, both played the faun and choreographed the ballet, pushing the story’s erotic undertones to their limit. The French newspaper Le Figaro was scandalised; the second performance was a sell-out.

This transparent, luscious score might have pointed to the future, but its orchestral colours were rooted in the past. Debussy once said Weber, the founder of German Romantic opera, was his model for orchestration, following in the footsteps of fellow French composer Berlioz. When Weber’s Der Freischütz was staged at the Paris Opéra in 1841, Berlioz was roped in to help out. The company did not allow spoken dialogue on its stage, so – rather reluctantly because he believed his beloved Weber should be performed as originally intended – Berlioz agreed to compose recitatives for the opera, hoping his efforts would at least be better than others. He was even more troubled to be asked to provide a ballet for Act 2, as was the custom for French opera at that time. His solution was to orchestrate one of Weber’s most popular piano pieces, the Invitation to the Dance, in a sympathetic style. The piece took on a life of its own, entirely separate from Weber’s woodland opera, and was soon heard in Berlin and London. ‘It is easy to play and will be performed everywhere, at concerts, at the theatre and at balls,’ Berlioz wrote to a publisher. In 1911, it was also heard as Le spectre de la rose, in a ballet choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes.

Not three years after that came the outbreak of the First World War; its horror, and the torment of illness, lurk behind D’un soir triste, which Lili Boulanger completed in 1918, the year of her tragically early death at the age of just 24. She had been the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome in its 115-year history, and she left a small though potent legacy. Told by a doctor in 1916 that she had not long to live, Boulanger pressed ahead, completing all the music she could, alternating bursts of creativity with ever-less successful periods of recovery. Both D’un soir triste and its companion D’un matin de printemps began life as chamber pieces (duo and trio) before Boulanger orchestrated them. D’un soir triste is a marvel of colour and detail, its score the last she wrote by hand. With its dark mood and heavy tread, shocking bass drum and ghostly celesta, it feels like an elegy for both the world and for herself.

But before the war changed everything, there were more modern masterpieces to emerge from France. When the Ballets Russes arrived in Paris, Ravel was immediately in demand. In 1909 Diaghilev commissioned him to write a new work for the company, with choreography by Fokine, starring Nijinsky. It was to be based on an ancient Greek pastoral, telling the story of two foundlings, brought up by shepherds and goatherds, who fall in love. Ravel’s dreams tended more to an 18th-century French idealisation of Greece, whereas Fokine preferred Ancient Greek drawings. Battlelines were drawn, and the birth of Ravel’s ‘choreographic symphony in three parts’ was by no means straightforward. Rehearsals were fraught: Fokine couldn’t speak French and Ravel could only swear in Russian. The dancers struggled, and the premiere, on 8 June 1912, was overshadowed by the scandal engulfing another ballet: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Diaghilev claimed Daphnis et Chloé was ‘a masterpiece, but it is not a ballet. It is a painting of a ballet’ – which is perhaps a compliment, albeit a backhanded one. Yet audiences have fallen for the heady score, with its vast orchestra including wind machines and wordless chorus, ever since. Stravinsky, no less, described it as ‘one of the most beautiful products of French music’.

© Rebecca Franks

Programme and performers

Claude Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Carl Maria von Weber (orch Hector Berlioz) Invitation to the Dance
Lili Boulanger D’un soir triste

Maurice Ravel Daphnis et Chloé

Part 1
Danse religieuse
Vif – Danse générale
Danse grotesque de Dorcon – Scène
Danse légère et gracieuse de Daphnis
Lent [devant le groupe radieux que forment Daphnis et Chloé enlacés]
Danse de Lycéion
Scène [Les Pirates]
Nocturne [Une lumière irréelle enveloppe le paysage]
Danse lente et mystérieuse des Nymphes

Part 2
Introduction – Danse guerrière
Danse suppliante de Chloé
Lent [Soudain l’atmosphère semble chargée d’éléments insolites]

Part 3
Lever du jour – Scène
Pantomime [Daphnis & Chloé miment l’aventure de Pan et de Syrinx]
Très lent [Chloé figure par sa danse les accents de la flûte]
Chloé tombe dans les bras de Daphnis
Animé – Danse Générale

Les Siècles
François-Xavier Roth 
London Symphony Chorus

Artist biographies