Dance is the common thread linking the pieces by early 20th-century French composers featured in this concert. But a closer look reveals another more subtle, less obvious and perhaps more fascinating thread: that of exoticism. Or, better, four different kinds of exoticism. The exoticism Le boeuf sur le toit is without frills, the dreamlike fantasies of a musician seduced by Brazilian motifs heard on the streets of Rio. The exoticism of Shéhérazade, on the other hand, is the reverie of a person who has never seen certain distant lands, and therefore dreams of them, bending them to his own fantasies and desires, and making exoticism rhyme with eroticism. The exoticism of Gymnopédie unfolds not in space but in time, travelling backwards through the millennia to ancient Sparta, another pure dream with no attempt to recreate historical reality.
There is nothing obviously exotic about the Vienna of La Valse, but for Ravel it is entirely exotic: a world tantalisingly close geographically and temporally, but wiped out by the Great War and rendered a mirage, much like the East in Shéhérazade.
A new generation of French composers emerged in the years immediately following the Great War. They were supported by Jean Cocteau, who, while still young, was already a dominant figure of the Parisian artistic scene. It was Cocteau who christened these composers the ‘Group of Six’ and wrote their manifesto, Le Coq et l’Arlequin, which eschewed Debussy’s symbolism and its precious, vaporous and indeterminate soundworlds for the dry, essential soundworlds of Satie, as well as those of the music hall, the circus and Afro-American music. Cocteau actively collaborated with those musicians to whom he was a mentor and guide. A high point of this partnership was Le boeuf sur le toit, a cinéma-fantaisie by Darius Milhaud. Originally to have been the score of a silent film by Charlie Chaplin, the work was successively transformed into a ballet-pantomime as recommended by Cocteau.
Milhaud had been secretary of the French embassy in Rio de Janeiro during the war, and Le boeuf sur le toit reveals his love for Brazilian music, with its rhythms, colours, vitality (samba, tango, maxixe) and melancholy (fado). With total freedom and without a formal plan, Milhaud cites some thirty popular Brazilian tunes within a fifteen-minute stretch, including the song O boi no telhado (The Ox on the Roof). While a huge hit at the 1918 Rio Carnival, the tune is not the main motif, the one that repeatedly returns, as one might imagine.
Cocteau’s choreography for the 1920 Paris premiere accompanied this lively music with estranging slow movements as if in a slow-motion film. In Cocteau’s surreal scenario, an unlikely gathering (a bookmaker, a dwarf, a boxer, a woman dressed as a man, men dressed as women, a policeman decapitated by the blades of a fan but then resurrected…) plays not dancers but circus performers in a strange bar.
The premiere was such a success that a bar named Le boeuf sur le toit was opened in Paris shortly after, becoming a meeting point of members of the city’s avant-garde artistic scene in the 1920s.
Exotisim courses through the work of Maurice Ravel, who ventures beyond the borders of France to find inspiration in Spain, and in more distant lands such as Greece, Madagascar and an undefined Orient, a fantasy world free of precise geographical boundaries. He had been considering writing a work inspired by One Thousand and One Nightsas early as 1898, and this idea began to take form in 1903 when a young poet, who was known by his Wagnerian pseudonym Tristan Klingsor, read Ravel some of his poems. The composer immediately set three of the poems to music, entitling them Shéhérazade. In the first, Asie, the narrator dreams of escaping prosaic life to immerse himself in a boundless, fantastical continent where poverty does not exist and beauty and luxury inextricably linked with blood and cruelty triumph. In La flûte enchantée, a slave girl locked in her house by her master hears her distant lover playing the flute at night. The melancholy of the separated lovers mingles with a subtle and delicate eroticism. In L’indifférent, a young man with eyes as sweet as those of a young girl rejects the speaker’s invitation to enter his home, gracefully departing to music in which an intense languor reflects the explicit sensuality of the text. In all three songs, Ravel, a wizard of orchestration, accentuates the sensual elegance of the solo voice with a lavish and refined orchestral palette.
Expelled from the Conservatoire de Paris because he regarded untalented, Erik Satie was unabashedly intolerant of the musical establishment. He played the piano in cabarets for a living, and persistently favoured musical simplicity in an era of refined aestheticism, sumptuous orchestras and new, complex musical theories. He was already old when Cocteau presented him to the young “Group of Six” as an antidote to Claude Debussy, even if Debussy and Cocteau had once been friends and respected one another. Debussy’s 1897 orchestral transcription of two of Satie’s three Gymnopédies for piano (1888), in which the composer inverted the order so that the third piece became the first, is proof of this.
The title of these short pieces recalls the Spartan festival of Gymnopaedia, during which naked youngsters performed ritual dances and gymnastics. The Gymnopédies, almost three variations of the same simple structure and slow waltz rhythm, are ethereal, vaporous and minimalistic (many decades later John Cage would describe Satie as a precursor of minimal music). The music’s serenity masks an undercurrent of nostalgia and mystery. Successive static chords, melodies tinged with archaism, and the slow rhythms and repetitive structures create a contemplative atmosphere that excludes human passions and stops, or at least slows, the passing of time.
When preparing his ballet La Valse, Ravel envisioned an apotheosis of the waltz set, of course, in the Viennese court at the time of Franz Joseph and the Strausses. Yet by the time Ravel came to write the work in 1919, the whirlwind of war had annihilated that world and permanently erased the dream of the carefree, happy Vienna embodied musically in the waltz. Ravel himself described La Valse as a “fantastic and fatal whirlwind”, emphasising not so much the ecstatic joy of the waltz as the tension underpinning the dance.
Ravel confronts listeners with the dark side of the Valse from the outset, creating a sense of unease with a dull and pulsating subterranean tremor. Yet the light, frivolous waltz theme gradually emerges from an indistinct background,asserting itself, dissolving, reappearing, becoming less and less brilliant and increasingly exacerbated, before reaching a final convulsive climax in which the listener is overwhelmed with orgiastic rhythms and intoxicating colours, even if the Valse’s disturbing, demonic qualities are never entirely concealed.