Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Music that I love...Fauré

I had forgotten how much I loved Fauré’s music. Today, I’ve been listening to Pelléas et Mélisande (NOT the Schoenberg or Debussy). I also love Laura Jacobs' description of this music in Balanchine’s Emeralds:

The score for “Emeralds” was pieced together by Balanchine from incidental music Fauré composed for theater productions of Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) and Shylock (1889), and it combines impressionist washes of sound, perfumed and yearning, with simple woodcut melodies that seem sprung from medieval lore. “Emeralds” finds Balanchine deep in the poetic realm of Coleridge and Keats—it’s an enchanted forest filled with Darke Ladies and muses on the make—and in the compositional genre of hunt and vision scenes (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) and twilight gardens (Serenade). It is a work of trance and transparency. You feel you can reach through the green of “Emeralds” and grasp nothing.

…"Only the most beautiful emeralds contain that miracle of elusive blue,” wrote Colette in Gigi. And it is through elusive blue we must travel if we are to grasp Jewels, through Fauré and Debussy and the playwright Maurice Maeterlinck to the deep-sea mystery of Mélisande, the ingenue-soprano who has kept opera lovers guessing for almost a century. She is the central question of Maeterlinck’s play, for she herself will answer no questions. We, along with Golaud, the older man who marries her, know only where he found her—Maeterlinck’s stage direction reads: “A forest. Mélisande discovered at the brink of a spring.” It could be Balanchine’s stage direction for “Emeralds.” Mélisande is lost and weeping, has dropped the crown she was wearing into the spring, and will later drop her wedding ring there as well (a Freudian slip of the fingers). Pelléas is Golaud’s younger half-brother, and he has instant affinity with Mélisande, which becomes love and leads to his death at the hand of Golaud. Where Pelléas believes in “the truth, the truth, the truth,” Mélisande offers evasion, as if unversed in human rules. She nurses a secret sorrow, and is allied with water, fountains, the sea.

What—not who—is Mélisande, may be the better question. There are those who believe she is one of the water sprites immortalized (and they are immortal, unless they mix with humans) in Friedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué’s story Undine (1811). Also, the name Mélisande is very like Mélusine, the undine of a famous French fairy tale. (Mélusine marries a human on the terms that he must never interrupt her privacy. Breaking the terms, he enters her chamber and finds her transformed, playing in a pool. She leaves him.) And in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a work of ravishing irresolution begun in 1893 and premiered in 1902, the closest the composer comes to a true aria occurs when Melisande lets her otherworldly hair fall from a window. Mermaids are known for two things - their long, long hair, and their song.

Although “Emeralds” has been likened to a tapestry, to chivalric France, to green earth, it has always been described with liquid images. Verdy commented on its “underwater quality,” and Kirstein described it as a “submarine summer-green garden.” In his book George Balanchine, Richard Buckle reports that in 1958 Balanchine had discovered the music of Fauré and imagined a “tipped ballroom” behind a scrim with “a projection of the sea . . . which pulsates.”

...Move in close and Jewels acts more like a solitaire under a spotlight, a single gem glinting a spectrum of hue and allusion. Jewels is knee deep in French Symbolists, Mallarmé as much as Maeterlinck. Listen closely to Fauré, and you hear Debussy’s tumescent woodwinds, Mallarmé’s faune stretching in the leaves, wondering “Loved I a dream?” Jewels takes up the tensions of the Symbolists, who took up symbols of the Romantics before them—their use of the half-human to understand the human, their sense of the dislocation between possession and privacy, infatuation and freedom. Jewels is a vision touched with myths of transformation, with the conflicting impulses of escape and rescue. That the mermaid swims through all channels of Jewels is yet another flash of recognition: mermaids have always symbolized the free flow of the mind, the sea of the subconscious. The questions whispered in these waters and woods are the stuff of Balanchine’s dreams, and they are unanswerable: to what extent can you possess a woman, a wife, a ballerina? To what extent can you possess your Only Desire without killing it?

There is an alternate view to Mélisande’s identity, and its meanings move deep and dark under Jewels. This analysis also comes by way of the opera. If Mélisande has dropped her crown into the spring, the obvious next question is, who gave her the crown? She says: “It is the crown he gave me. . . . I will have no more of it! I had rather die.” The scholar Henri Barraud identifies Mélisande as one of Bluebeard’s ex-wives escaped from his castle. Perhaps she is a wife to be. One of Charles Perrault’s more rigid and unforgiving tales (it’s hard to call it a fairy tale), Bluebeard’s Castle connects with Pelléas et Mélisande in its atmosphere of hot and cold unknowns, its Symbolist portents ripe with erotic suggestion. Another link is Maeterlinck himself. He wrote a version of the tale called Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, and he named one of the wives Mélisande.

The entirety of Jacobs’ essay on Balanchine’s Jewels can be found here.

2 comments:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

My only real memories of listening to Faure come from his Requiem. Out of all of the composers who set the Mass in modern times, Faure I think did the best job in combining the amtmosphere of what a Requiem should be with his own style of music. If I weren't Byzantine rite and if I were a really powerful and important person, I would probably request it as the Mass they would bury me with. (Not that I intend to die anytime soon, of course, but you can always plan the music that surrounds your life.) The "Libera Me Domine" is heart-breaking to listen to.

"...to what extent can you possess a woman, a wife, a ballerina? To what extent can you possess your Only Desire without killing it?"

I feel a poem coming on. Everybody stand back............. just kidding.

Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer.
Si clair,
Leur incarnat léger, qu'il voltige dans l'air
Assoupi de sommeils touffus.

Aimai-je un rêve?

I don't know a lot of French, but I get it. "Aimai-je un rêve?" One of my favorite lines in poetry.

AG said...

Pseudo-Iamblichus, perhaps your family could pump Faure's "Requiem" through loud speakers outside of the church for your funeral.

"...to what extent can you possess a woman, a wife, a ballerina? To what extent can you possess your Only Desire without killing it?"

There's a background to this, from Jacobs' essay:
"Farrell was Balanchine’s growing obsession throughout the 1960s, and when he choreographed Jewels the obsession was in full bloom. In a New Yorker essay on Jewels published in 1983, Arlene Croce writes, “If I had to guess how the piece was made, I’d say that Balanchine worked backward from the pas de deux of Diamonds. . . .” This is an assessment of Farrell’s power as creative muse. Croce also describes how in “Diamonds,” mixed in with the Odette iconography, there are pawing steps and forward extensions that allude to the unicorn in the Cluny tapestries. Croce’s view is supported by Farrell herself, who writes in her autobiography of 1991, Holding on to the Air, of how Balanchine took her to the Musée de Cluny to see The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Of the sixth tapestry she writes: 'He loved the title A Mon Seul Désir [“To My Only Desire”] and said he wanted to make a ballet for me about the story of the unicorn.'"

Also, from Croce: "Balanchine's world is pervaded by a modern consciousness; his women do not always live for love, and their destinies are seldom defined by the men they lean on. Sexual complicity in conflict with individual freedom is a central theme of the Balanchine pas de deux. The man's role is usually that of fascinated observer and would-be manipulator - the artist who seeks to possess his subject and finds that he may only explore it. For Balanchine it is the man who sees and follows and it is the woman who acts and guides....He can make comedy or tragedy, and sometimes a blend of both, out of the conflict between a woman's free will and her need for a man, he can carry you step by step into dramas in which sexual relationships are not defined by sex or erotic tension alone, and in this he is unique among choreographers..." from "Free and More Than Equal" (1975).

Of course, how much we know and can possess another human being is another topic.

What do people think of Laura Jacobs' prose? She knows her stuff and tends to jam-pack it, but she also writes in such a way that her own descriptions are supposed to be truth. I've noticed people either love her writing or hate it.