In the midst of practicing for Mozart for the concerts this Saturday night (October 1) and Sunday afternoon (October 2), we’ll be having a mini-festival of early 20th century French composers at the 10:30 service this Sunday, with music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and Jehan Alain (1911-1940). The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, and what better motet than to go with this is “Vinea mea electa” (O vineyard, my chosen one) by Poulenc? The communion motet will be Poulenc’s “Ave verum corpus” for women’s voices. Poulenc was part of the group of French composers called “Les Six,” who apparently wrote music in reaction to Richard Wagner and impressionist music.
An interesting tidbit I found about Poulenc was about his work “Rapsodie negre,” in which “a baritone chants the ‘Madagascan’ word ‘Ho-no-lu-lu’ over and over!” Huh? Check out the website ClassicalNet for this reference. And I vaguely remember Else Geissmar, Carl Crosier’s former piano teacher, telling us that she knew Poulenc’s mother and told us stories about the unique way in which he went about writing music.
If you check Jehan Alain’s dates, you’ll realize that 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth (I should have programmed Alain’s music closer to his birthday of February 3rd).There is a wonderful program called Jehan Alain, a Centenary Tribute on the PipeDreams website, in which you can hear many of his works performed. The title of the piece I’ll be playing for the prelude, Berceuse sur deux notes qui cornent, tells you all you need to know about this piece — “Berceuse on two notes which sound,” referring to C# and D# which are played continuously throughout the whole piece, like an organ cipher. In case you don’t know what a cipher is, it’s a situation in which an organ pipe is sounding without a key being depressed — in other words, “Call the organ guy!”
For the postlude, I’ll be playing Alain’s “Litanies,” one of his most popular organ works. I found out that the rock band Renaissance used part of it in their introduction to “Running Hard.” Check out this YouTube video! It’s possible that Alain wrote the piece after the death of his beloved sister, Marie-Odile, who died on September 3, 1937 in a mountain-climbing accident. He writes: “When the Christian soul no longer finds new words in its distress for imploring the mercy of God, it repeats incessantly the same prayer with a fervent faith. Reason reaches its limit. Faith alone follows its ascension.” Further, he writes: “When you play this piece, you must give the impression of an ardent evocation. The prayer is not a complaint but an irrepressible hurricane that overthrows everything in its path. It is also an obsession: one must fill the ears of men and of the Good Lord! If, in the end, you do not feel exhausted, then you will neither have understood nor played as I want it. Push yourself to the limit of speed and clarity.”
Tragically, Alain died young — at the age of 29, when he was killed by German soldiers near Saumur, France. It was his sister, Marie-Claire Alain, who on her visit to the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, played for Carl Crosier and myself a private, never-to-be-forgotten recital. Check out my post here.