CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Saturday, May 5, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Salzburg Marionette Theater
András Schiff

Zankel Hall
For nearly a century, the Salzburg Marionette Theater has been delighting children and adults alike with its unique productions of well-known operas, musicals, and ballets. Here, the charming troupe presents Debussy’s touching chamber ballet about the adventures of toys that come to life. Perspectives artist András Schiff accompanies at the piano, and performs playful solo works by Debussy and Schumann, all part of a program capturing the innocence of childhood and the fantasies of youth.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
Children's Corner 

About the Composer


Although Debussy enjoyed being a thorn in the side of France's musical establishment, there was a strong streak of traditionalism in his artistic makeup. The composer (who in later years signed himself musicienfrançais) advocated for a revival of the "pure French tradition," as exemplified by Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Debussy made his mark in the early 1890s with a series of boldly unconventional yet quintessentially Gallic works: the String Quartet, La damoiselle élue, and the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. By the time he published his first book of Images for solo piano  in 1905, the composer and his aesthetic principles—loosely subsumed under the rubric "Debussyism"—were the object of both praise and censure. The term impressionist became attached to him through his association in the popular mind with Manet and other painters, but Debussy rejected the label, insisting that his music depicted not superficial impressions, but essential "realities."


About the Work


January 1908 was an eventful month for Debussy. On the 19th, he made his triumphant podium debut in Paris, conducting the Orchestra of the Concerts Colonne in his symphonic triptych La mer. The following day he married Emma Bardac, the well-to-do singer for whom he had deserted his first wife four years earlier. Over the ensuing months he wrote Children's Corner as a present for their three-year-old daughter Claude-Emma, affectionately known as Chouchou, or "Cabbage." In this suite of six short pieces, Debussy set aside the rarefied symbolist imagery of his earlier works and conjured the world of a small girl with remarkable empathy and precision. "I live in a world of imagination," he told an interviewer for Harper's Weekly, "which is set in motion by something suggested by my intimate surroundings rather than by outside influences, which distract me and give me nothing."


A Closer Listen


The first piece, with its billowing arpeggios, serves as both introduction and warm-up; Debussy himself described "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum"  (the title refers to a book of musical exercises) as "a kind of health-oriented, cumulative gymnastics." The subdued, delicately rocking pulsations of "Jimbo's Lullaby" have an almost soporific effect. In "Serenade for the Doll," the piano mimics a guitar; the music is all lightness and quicksilver transparency, in contrast to the muted pointillism of "The Snow is Dancing," which according to Debussy should be "misty, dreary, monotonous, and not too fast." The sound of panpipes suffuses "The Little Shepherd," with its fitful, rhapsodic melody. Finally, the strutting ragtime syncopations of "Golliwogg's Cakewalk" are interrupted by the famous yearning theme from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, as if to suggest that romantic love, too, is child's play.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

ROBERT SCHUMANN
Kinderszenen, Op. 15

About the Composer


In the seven years before his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann wrote some of his best-loved keyboard works, including the First and Second piano sonatas, Kreisleriana, the C-Major Fantasy, and Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Schumann was infatuated with Clara, the budding pianist and composer, 10 years his junior; her father's implacable opposition to the match had the predictable result of propelling them into each other's arms. Nevertheless, living in different cities—Robert in Leipzig and Clara in Vienna—the young lovers were compelled to conduct their clandestine courtship through letters and music. Schumann declared that his Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11, was "a cry from my heart to yours." And Clara wrote to Robert that "my wonderment increases" each time she played the Kinderszenen. "You lay bare your entire inner life in these scenes of touching simplicity."


About the Work


Schumann originally intended to include these short pieces in his Novelletten, Op. 21, but later decided to publish them separately, in part because their simplicity made them "accessible to everyone" (and thus more salable). In a letter to Clara, he described his Op. 15 as "an echo of the words you once wrote me to the effect that 'you considered me at times almost like a child.' In short, I really felt like a youth again, and I jotted down about 30 of these charming little things, from which I selected 12 [later 13] and called them Scenes from Childhood. I'm sure you will enjoy them, but of course they will not satisfy you as a virtuoso." Schumann added that the pieces "can be grasped at a glance, and are as light as a bubble." To another friend he remarked that he had not sketched his childhood scenes for children, but as "reflections of an adult for other adults."


A Closer Listen


Their apparently programmatic nature notwithstanding, Schumann conceived the Kinderszenen as abstract music and added the descriptive titles as an afterthought. Simplicity was indeed his watchword. Each of these 13 captivating miniatures is characterized by clear, uncomplicated harmonies, symmetrical phrase structures, and memorable tunes or rhythmic patterns, with abundant repetition. There is no attempt to tie the pieces together thematically, although three of them—"By the Fireside," "Knight of the Hobby Horse," and "Almost Too Serious"—are loosely linked by the use of a similar syncopated figure. The scenes range in mood from the playful staccato of "Blind Man's Bluff" to the self-conscious pomposity of "An Important Event" and the tender yearning of "Dreaming." In the end, Schumann puts away childish things and leaves us, in "The Poet Speaks," ruminating on the meaning of it all.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
La boîte à joujoux

About the Composer

 

A devotee of the theater, Debussy flirted with opera and ballet throughout his life, but he abandoned more dramatic projects than he completed. (Among the catalogue of tantalizing might-have-been works is an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher.) In the end, only three of his ballets reached the stage. La boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box), composed in 1913, was preceded by the Egyptian-themed Khamma, commissioned by the British dancer Maud Allan in 1910 but not performed until 1947; and Jeux (Games), written for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1913. The latter's Paris premiere was overshadowed by the succès fou two weeks later of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. But this unfortunate coincidence did not deter Debussy from trying again, this time with an unpretentious "ballet for children" set to a scenario by Andre Hellé, a noted illustrator of children's books.


About the Work


As Debussy described it in a 1914 interview, "La boîte à joujoux is a pantomime to the kind of music that I have written in Christmas and New Year albums for children, a work to amuse children, nothing more." Above all, he wanted to amuse his beloved Chouchou, now nine years old; to help put himself in the mood, he had even held "confidential talks" with his daughter's castoff dolls. Debussy summarized the ballet's plot as follows: "A cardboard soldier falls in love with a doll, he tries to show off to her, but she betrays him with Polichinelle. The soldier learns of this and terrible things begin to happen: There is a battle between wooden soldiers and Polichinelles. In short, the soldier in love with the beautiful doll is gravely wounded in the battle, the doll nurses him and … they all live happily ever after."

The ballet, the composer continued, was "simplicity itself—quite childish. Only how do you put that across in the theater—the natural simplicity of it? The characters have to retain the angular movements and burlesque appearance of the cardboard originals, without which the play would lose all its significance." To accentuate the story's innocence, Debussy proposed to have La boîte à joujoux performed by marionettes, as in the open-air puppet shows he had enjoyed as a young man. Hellé convinced him to assign the roles to children instead. Yet when the ballet was finally produced in 1919, in an orchestration completed after the composer's death by André Caplet, the toy-box characters were played by adults.


A Closer Listen


Like the orchestral version, Debussy's original piano score is divided into four tableaux. An atmospheric prelude sets the scene: A circling melody, embedded in a chiaroscuro wash of harmonies, grows more and more animated as the sleeping toys awaken. Starting with the soldier's martial tune, Debussy introduces each of the main characters with a distinctive theme that will identify it throughout the ballet. These short, easily recognizable leitmotifs point to one of the score's conspicuous virtues: its economy of means. For all its kinetic vitality and sharply delineated gestures, the music seldom draws attention to itself. Instead, it limns the simple plot vividly but discreetly, in keeping with Debussy's insistence that "the action mainly consists of movement, not ballet in the usual sense."

In a bow to convention, Debussy structured the first tableau as a series of character dances, featuring ungainly leaps for Polchinelle, a graceful waltz for the doll, and a rousing sailor's jig. Hints of French folksongs and an exotic Indian melody enliven the festivities. The second tableau transports us to a field of battle, where, in a mood of tense expectancy, the toy soldiers march into position and take part in a brief, clangorous skirmish. The scene changes to a pastoral setting, with a shepherd intoning a melancholy ditty on his reedy chalumeau. Then the action suddenly flashes forward 20 years—by way of a fleeting snatch of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March"—to a picture of blissful domesticity.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Perspectives: András Schiff

Part of

You May Also Like

Monday, October 6, 2014
Berliner Philharmoniker

Monday, October 13, 2014
Pretty Yende
Kamal Khan


Friday, April 24, 2015
Richard Goode

Load Testing by Web Performance