French Modernism, Past and Present

The birth of the percussion ensemble as a musical entity in Western music is usually traced to 1933, when Nicholas Slonimsky conducted the premiere of Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation at Carnegie Hall. This seminal work will serve as a departure point for the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble’s concert of three important French works from three different eras—1931, 1966, and 2008—at Alice Tully Hall on March 31.


Varèse’s Ionisation (1931) changed music in profound and radical ways. Not only did it “liberate” the percussion section from its traditional supporting role in the back of the orchestra, but it was a turning point in musical vocabulary as well. Asserting the primacy of rhythm and timbre over pitch and harmony, Ionisation evocatively conjures up some secret rite of science or alchemy. The piece is scored for 13 musicians playing 40 instruments. The overwhelming majority of them are unpitched, and the only truly pitched instruments (piano, glockenspiel, chimes) do not enter until the very end of the work. Perhaps the signature sound of Ionisation is that of the two sirens, which Varèse apparently borrowed from the New York City Fire Department for the premiere. Working before the advent of electronic instruments, Varèse felt that only the siren could produce the long, perfectly smooth parabolic or hyperbolic curves that he wanted. The rhythms of Ionisation do not refer to any folkloric or traditional or thematic source, and are intended to be heard as defining trajectories, masses, and tone-clusters of various densities. In the composer’s own words, the music features bodies of sound that “metamorphose continually, changing direction and speed, attracted or repelled by various forces.”

The son of a butcher, Jean Barraqué (1928-1973) was born in the small town of Puteaux and moved to Paris with his family at age 3. As a boy he sang in the chorus of Notre Dame, and studied theory and piano and composed throughout his teens. At 20, he entered Messiaen’s class at the Conservatoire and quickly learned about and embraced the tenets of serialism. He was particularly interested in extending Webern’s lessons about pitch to include the organization of rhythm, range, and dynamics, a concept later made famous by his two illustrious peers in the class: Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. But Barraqué is, in many ways, the antithesis of Webern. Passion ruled his creative output, and a romantic spirit of grandeur seems to overrule the specifics of his compositional craft. He was drawn to the grand gesture, and completed only six “acknowledged” works during his lifetime, having repudiated or destroyed his early works after his conversion to serialism. His first major work, the Piano Sonata of 1952, almost an hour in length, immediately drew comparisons to Beethoven in terms of form and structure.

Obsessed with death and the creative process, Barraqué found a kindred spirit and a lifelong source of inspiration when he was introduced by Michel Foucault to Herman Broch’s novel La Mort de Virgile in 1956. Barraqué immediately drew up a plan for a large sequence of works based on the novel, and the attempted completion of this project became the main creative focus for the rest of his short life. The novel deals with the themes of solitude, the night, death, love, dreams, and the nature and function of art. Specifically, Chant après chant (1966) for soprano solo, piano, and percussion, sets fragments from Book II, when Virgil, on his death bed, considers destroying his life’s work before dying. It was completed in 1966 as a commission from Les Percussions de Strasbourg and premiered that same year. The piece sets fragments from Broch’s novel alongside poetic commentary from Barraqué himself. It often juxtaposes the lyrical nature of the soprano and solo piano with the brute ferocity and timbral detail of the combined battery of 140 percussion instruments. A work of austere beauty, daunting complexity, and great emotional depth, it is considered by some to be the definitive work in the percussion ensemble canon.

For the last three seasons, the Lucerne Festival has embarked on an ambitious project of commissions for large percussion ensemble. Based on the success of a single work, Yan Maresz’s Festin (2005), they have established a set group with a somewhat fixed instrumentation and fostered the creation of an entire new repertoire for this ensemble. The summer of 2008 saw the premiere of Titans by Yann Robin, one of the busiest and most prominent of the younger generation of French composers. The titans of the title are Greek deities, rulers of the cosmos before the Olympians. It is a work of nonstop rhythmic propulsion, great virtuosity, and timbral complexity. I hope you can join us, as we explore the past and present of a great French percussion tradition.

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