By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Part 2/3: Villa-Lobos and Rachmaninoff
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): Trio no 3 (1918)
The best-known work of Villa-Lobos remains his Bachianas brasileiras, for voice and eight cellos.
But one can say without hesitation that none of his predecessors from the American continents had his stature.
Villa-Lobos, by his creative power and sheer strength of his personality, asserted himself as one of the great names in musical world of the 20th century.
His musical training began, against the will of his family, by an « inwards migration »: he met the street musicians of Rio and improvised with them. Almost entirely self-taught, he indeed claimed that his first treaty of harmony « was the map of Brazil ».
Between 1907 and 1910, after attending some courses at the National Institute of Music, he undertook several ethnomusicological journeys into the heart of the Amazon rainforest. He transcribed the themes of Amerindian songs, immersed himself in the rhythms of the black musicians of Bahia, studied both urban and rural popular songs.
Back in Rio in 1912, he continued to study classical and romantic composers of which Wagner and Puccini exerted the most influence on him. The third of his four piano trios was completed in 1918 and is particularly noteworthy for its exploration of unusual sonorities in the strings. We are at an especially captivating period of the composer’s creative life, just before his first trip to Paris which would trigger in turn a long period of travel and touring projects making him a true citizen of the world. He would nonetheless play a major role in the musical institutions of his native country later on.
This third piano trio reveals all the freshness and striking originality of a young composer ready to embark on a journey of discovery.
A traditional Brazilian theme, announced by the cello at the very beginning like an invitation to dance, dominates the first movement.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): Vocalise
Rachmaninoff, like so many Russian artists and those of bourgeois descent, left his native Russia in the chaos of the 1917 revolution. His life and music would forever be immersed in the profound nostalgia for his homeland and as such offers us a fascinating glimpse into the complexities and contradictions of the Russian soul – just like the monumental works of Russian literature we all know.
His music consists essentially of works written for his own use, of great pianistic virtuosity, in a post-Romantic style, some of which have encountered enormous popularity.
We feel that the emotional impact of his works is certainly due to his melodic invention and the generosity of his textures (the « carillon » style of his pianistic writing is very personal to him), but it also draws from the pain and longing for his homeland which permeates his inner world.
Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise was composed and published in 1915 as the last of his Fourteen Songs, Op. 34. Written for high voice (soprano or tenor) with piano accompaniment, it curiously contains no words, but is to be sung using any one vowel of the singer’s choosing. It was dedicated to the soprano Antonina Nezhdanova. In that year of 1915, Russia was still heavily involved in World War One and traditional Russia was on the brink of destruction and revolution.
The Vocalise, as well as Vespers composed the same year, is deeply spiritual and seems to speak with passion of a civilization already sleeping away into memory.
It’s without doubt one of the most memorable of Rachmaninoff’s works and he arranged it for a multitude of instruments, including for piano trio, the version we will perform in this concert. In its purely instrumental version for the Vocalise follows very much the tradition of the “song without words”, established by Mendelssohn in the early Romantic era. The melancholy mood which predominates is made even more poignant due to its affinity to the Dies irae melody – the plainchant theme which tells of the end of the world and of the last judgment.