The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Bastille Day! But instead of militarism, let’s celebrate the holiday with revolutionary French music by a revolutionary French composer. What French music would you choose? | July 14, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is July 14, known in the U.S. as Bastille Day.

That is the day in 1789 when the infamous Bastille Prison in Paris was stormed by the masses and political prisoners were freed – marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

The tradition is to play “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem that grew out of the revolution. Usually there is a military side to the arrangement of the anthem and the performance of it.

After all, it was a Bastille Day parade that even inspired President Trump to stage his egotistical “Salute to America” – satirically dubbed “Tanksgiving” — on the Fourth of July this year in Washington, D.C..

But The Ear has had quite enough of militarism and of the lying draft dodger who became commander-in-chief using patriotism to camouflage his un-American actions and ideas.

With no disrespect to those who served or are serving in the armed forces, there are many ways besides the military to be patriotic and even revolutionary.

So this year The Ear is choosing something subtle and less martial to mark the day.

It is a performance of “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks), a prelude for solo piano by Claude Debussy (below), who described himself – in an age where German and Italian music ruled – simply as a “French musician.” But make no mistake: Debussy, who was rejected for admission to the Paris Conservatory, was indeed a revolutionary figure in music history for his innovations in harmony and form.

(Perhaps this past season, you heard Marc-André Hamelin give an astoundingly virtuosic performance of “Fireworks” as an encore after his Sunday afternoon concerto performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Listen carefully and at the very end you will hear a subtle reference to the Marseillaise that adds the right touch to the pyrotechnical celebration of  “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

Added to that, the fiery performance in the YouTube video at the bottom is by Robert Casadesus, a deservedly famous French pianist.

Finally, The Ear thinks you can celebrate Bastille Day with any number of French composers and French works, many of which remain neglected and underperformed. (The Ear is particularly partial to the music of Gabriel Faure, below, who taught Maurice Ravel.)

Who is your favorite French composer?

What is your favorite French piece of classical music?

Leave a comment with, if possible, a YouTube link.

Happy Bastille Day!!


Posted in Classical music
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3 Comments »

  1. Well, I could spend my entire day celebrating this post. I love Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit. There’s an orchestral version (see YouTube, Orchestre de Paris conducted by Mexican composer Alondra de la Parra). But I prefer piano four hands here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbP0NN8KE74

    I also have to say that Fauré’s music set to words by French poets (Victor Hugo, among others) takes my breath away. Les Berceaux, for instance. Poem by Sully Prudhomme, sung by the great Gérard Souzay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OH6950uF2D4
    For a more contemporary version, look for French soprano Patricia Petitbon.

    Finally, Germaine Tailleferre, the only woman in Les Six. Why am I only learning about this today? I found her Fandango among other piano pieces. Lively, spirited. Would love to hear more of her work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nUsMXWTn3g

    Comment by Ronnie — July 14, 2019 @ 9:50 am

  2. not to mention (and you didn’t) pierre boulez.

    Comment by john holzaepfel — July 14, 2019 @ 6:09 am

  3. Anything by Debussy is a wonderful choice. He was a pure genius and helped to transform classical music.

    I also like this piece by G. Faure, The Cantique de Jean Racine which perhaps in its spiritual brilliance acknowledges the losses that inevitably occur in military actions and days.

    Here’s a brilliant performance by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge:

    Comment by fflambeau — July 14, 2019 @ 4:14 am


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