The Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Allen Poe

Good evening – my name is Ashley Jackson, and before we begin, there are just a few people that I would like to thank. First, Liz for inviting me into this group of distinguished players and for her guidance and trust as we worked on creating tonight’s program. I would also like to thank David Krivitz of Chamber Music NY. Two seasons ago he presented my NY solo debut at Lincoln Center, and it was because of him that I got to work with the Harlem Chamber Players for a special concert last spring. To Susan, and the staff at the Goddard Riverside Center for hosting us. And finally, to Jessica, Ashley, Amadi, and Lawrence, for exploring this rich repertoire with me. I cannot wait to make music with you all tonight. So let’s begin, and step into the Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Allan Poe.

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All of the works on tonight’s program were composed within a twenty-year period, between 1903 and 1923, to be more precise. It’s a period in music history where we see perhaps the most fervent clash between the late Romantic style, which is firmly grounded in harmonic structures, and more deliberate explorations into allowing other elements of music, texture, rhythm, timbre to take center stage and guide musical forms.

All of the works on tonight’s program were also written by French composers, and thus they give us a snapshot of what was en vogue in Paris at the time, the influencers, tastemakers, trendsetters: Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau, Claude Debussy and Edgar Degas. Paris was the place to be if you wanted to experience the bold, the daring, the cutting edge, the progressive.

With all of this going on, there was one writer whose name was on the lips of practically every avant garde artist. His name was Edgar Allan Poe. The painter Manet created three portraits of him, and “The Raven” was translated by the French poet Stephane Mallarme. Debussy himself was obsessed, writing to his friend Andre Caplet that although Poe is dead, he “exercises over me an almost agonizing tyranny.” Poe was a master at the art of suggestion; in other words, making the reader feel something without explicitly saying what it is. Thus we can understand why Impressionist painters, Symbolist writers, and composers of the time were so drawn to his stories and tales of mystery, horror, and fantasy.

But before we dive into some of the darker realms of phantasmagoria, I want to begin tonight’s program with the spiritual. Marcel Grandjany was a virtuoso harpist, composer, and teacher. Born in 1891, he studied with Henriette Renie at the Paris Conservatory. He was also an organist, and a devout Catholic. His Rhapsodie for harp was composed in 1923, and it is based on a Gregorian chant that is usually sung at the end of the Easter Vigil for the newly baptized. Throughout the piece, fragments of the original melody are colored by sensuous harmonies, and transformed by varying textures, moods, and tempi. His Rhapsodie is usually performed as a solo work, but Grandjany later added an orchestral accompaniment. Tonight we’ll perform a reduced version, for harp and string quartet.

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Grandjany dedicated Rhapsodie to his teacher, Henriette Renie, the composer of the next piece on the program. She was born in 1875, and as a child prodigy, at just 11 years of age, she won the Premiere Prix for harp at the Paris Conservatory. Renie composed 23 works, as well as numerous transcriptions for solo harp and harp ensemble. As a distinguished performer, composer, and teacher, she played a pivotal role in the emergence of the harp as a solo instrument. Like Grandjany, she was deeply religious, and she kept a spiritual diary in which recorded her most intimate thoughts about music and art. She writes:

"To be a great virtuoso and a great artist, one must feel deeply but externalize what one feels; one must give without stopping; make contact with others; make their hearts resonate by their encounter with one’s own heart and soul."

Renie’s Ballade Fantastique is based on one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, the “Tell-Tale Heart.” Full of grotesque imagery, Poe presents to us a character in denial of his insanity, a character whose madness is wrought with a kind of twisted desire.

Ballade Fantastique was premiered in 1907. Incredibly demanding for the harp, you can feel Renie’s unrelenting pursuit of the virtuosity and sheer power that could be unleashed from an instrument that had been largely associated with lighter, salon-style works.

The piece begins with a cataclysmic gesture that drags us into the darkest depths of the narrator’s subconscious. Throughout the piece, I invite you to listen for how Renie depicts the beating heart, which ultimately drives the work to its frenetic and catastrophic conclusion.

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Composed in 1903, Ravel’s String Quartet is the earliest work on the program. And in many ways, it is the most closely linked to the Classical tradition. A substantial work in four movements, it follows, more-or-less, the standard form of the string quartet. Yet, within the well-established Classical design of the piece, we can hear a youthful composer eager to experiment with nontraditional harmonies, playful textures, and unconventional approaches to melody. It’s almost as if the formal structures themselves gave him room to sprinkle in a bit of magic and fantasy. Following the 1904 premiere, one influential critic prophetically remarked: “one should remember that name of Maurice Ravel. He is one of the masters of tomorrow.”

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Intermission      

The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines a musical fantasy as “an ingeniuous and imaginative instrumental composition, often characterized by distortion, exaggeration, and elusiveness resulting from its departure from current stylistic and structural norms.”

This next Fantasie is a later work by a seasoned and highly-respected composer, Camille Saint-Saens. It was written in 1907 for two musical sisters, Clara and Marianne Eisler, a harpist and violinist. It was composed in just ten days, and the piece has a whimsical, and at times nonchalant character. Although it is played continuously, we can identify three distinct sections. It begins with an improvisatory first “movement” which is then followed by a light-hearted scherzo.

The third, marked “Andante,” opens with a hypnotic, recurring bass line in the harp, providing a foundation for the violin to sing. Throughout the piece, the violin and harp are treated as equal partners in their free exchange of musical material. A curious, and intriguing work, here is Saint-Saens’s Fantasie Op 124 for violin and harp.

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For this last piece on the program, we return once more to the Fantastic World of Edgar Allan Poe. Composer Andre Caplet was born in 1878, and beginning in 1907, he developed a close relationship with Claude Debussy who admired Caplet’s “gift for conjuring up an atmosphere.”

Conte Fantastique actually began as a tone poem for harp and orchestra in 1908, and in 1922, it was adapted for string quartet with harp or piano.

The work is based on Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” and the story begins with a vivid description of the disease and its symptoms. Death is quick – and the sudden evaporation of life is presented in the opening studders played by the harp. Caplet marks this figure, “breathless.” The gloomy, eerie soundscape gives way to more frenetic material, and following this introduction, we have a waltz. However, it is not your ordinary, aristocratic dance with elegant choreography; rather, the music is subject to unexpected twists and turns, bizarre effects, and demented colors. The waltz comes to an end with the chiming of the clock, but note, it is not yet midnight. It sounds only eleven times.

The centerpiece of the work is a cadenza of pure decadence. Time stands still, as Caplet takes us through the elaborately embellished apartments in Prince Prospero’s castle. In the story, there are seven rooms, each decorated with a different color. And so Caplet, with his gift for conjuring up an atmosphere, paints the recurring seven-note gesture with different hues.

The waltz returns. It speeds up, slows down, it speeds up. There’s a knock on the door, and an uninvited guest appears. Poe writes, “The figure was tall and gaunt and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave…His vesture was dabbled in blood – and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”

Now in the story, the clock strikes midnight, and then the guest appears. In Caplet’s work, however, the harp strikes the zero hour after the door opens. The entire composition up until this point had been largely about Prince Prospero, his masquerade, bizarre taste, the fantasy world he created for himself that would shield him from the disease that had ravaged his surroundings. He is, after all, the Fantastic Count.

But, when he opens the door, the music stops, the bells chime, the story concludes:

"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

© 2018 Dr. Ashley Jackson