Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Complete Piano Music
Paul Dukas was born in Paris on 1st October 1865 and diedthere on 17th May 1935. Although his catalogue of published works is small, itis of the highest quality, consisting essentially of one overture, Polyeucte,one symphony, one symphonic scherzo (the immortal L'apprenti sorcier), onechoreographic poem, La Peri, one opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, and four pianoworks, two occasional pieces written in memory of two great masters, Haydn andDebussy, and two others now considered key compositions of both their genre andtheir time, the Sonata in E flat minor and the wonderful \Rameau" Variations.Dukas's respect for music, his audience and himself resulted in extreme, and attimes excessive self-criticism and censorship. Far from damaging his inventive capacity,however, his exacting standards brought him enlightenment and stimulation,hence the dense textures, the imagination and the subtlety to be found in evenhis shortest works.
The Prelude elegiaque of 1909, composed around the lettersH-A-Y-D-N to mark the centenary of Haydn's death for the Revue de la SocieteIndependante de Musique, is a leading example of those monuments created byclassical composers to pay homage to one of their own. Its calm, vibrant andfull sonorities reveal an affection and admiration for the composer of TheCreation as well as for all that he represented in terms of inventiveness andbalance. Dukas used words as well as music to praise Haydn in his Chroniquesmusicales. In fact ever since 1904 he had been describing his fellow composeras "pure of heart, a genius, a creative spirit and a natural, with faith in theabsolute expressive value of music".
In similar fashion, from the very first notes of La Plainte,au loin, du faune (1920) we are left in no doubt of Dukas's love, venerationeven, for the work of Debussy. His grief at his friend's death is expressedhere through the sorrowful chromaticisms and great simplicity of this sombre,noble and unpretentious work which recreates the powerful, sensual harmonies ofthe Prelude ?á l'apr?¿s-midi d'un faune.
The great Sonata in E flat minor is composed on a granderscale altogether. Dedicated to Saint-Sa?½ns, it was first performed in Paris'sSalle Pleyel on 10th May 1901 by Edouard Risler. It followed the sweepingSymphony in C and L'apprenti sorcier of 1896-97 and is acknowledged to be oneof the twentieth century's greatest works for piano. While certain influencescan be glimpsed - Beethoven, Liszt, Franck - the sonata is really thereflection of Dukas's own classical and aesthetic thinking, as marked byrefined emotion and a discursive density requiring absolute concentration onthe part of both the listener and the performer. Nothing is superfluous here,everything is significant.
The sonata has a four-movement design. The openingModerement vite is constructed on two themes, the first, anxiety-laden, in Eflat minor, the second, more serene, in C flat minor, and uses regular sonataform, exposition, development and recapitulation. The second movement, Calme,un peu lent, tr?¿s soutenu, also has two themes. It takes its substance not fromthe opposition of motifs but, much more subtly, from their complementarynature, in a stunning lyrical progression stemming from ornamental variationand the double so beloved of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers.After these melodies in flowing contrapuntal phrases, the third movement,Vivement, avec leg?¿rete, acts as a bithematic scherzo which is then added toand enlivened by a third motif, briefly treated in fugato. The finale, in Eflat and 4/4 time, is rhythmical and wonderfully "orchestrated". Without goingas far as a Franck-like cyclical form, Dukas allows the opening scheme toreappear: a magnificent culmination to this dazzling work, free from anyweakness, be it in tone, thought or writing, whose grandiose conclusionbroadens the details of the opening bars into a supreme dimension.
The Variations, Interlude et Finale triptych completed inFebruary 1902 and again first performed by Risler, on 23rd March 1903 at theSociete Nationale de la Musique, constitutes a different challenge, that ofconstructing new and impressive material from the basis of the smallest musicalfragment. Once more demonstrating in his music the analysis championed in hiscritical writings, Dukas chooses a theme of disarming simplicity from Rameau.Then he applies some of his own views, for example, that true music can freeitself from earlier writing and instruments (in this case the harpsichord).Finally, he does away with time as the spirit of an age in order to tendtowards the universal and the intemporal in a fabulous adventure.
The first seven variations are essentially melodic. No. 1 ischaracterized by the use of counterpoint, No. 2 by its rhythmic strength, whilein Nos. 3 and 4 the theme switches between bass and soprano, from one hand tothe other; in No. 5 we hear modulating polyphony, No. 6 uses an echo effect andNo. 7 has a leaping, skipping melody. There is a livelier feel to the finalfour variations. No. 8 is in arpeggios, No. 9 has a gigue rhythm, No. 10 thatof a sarabande, and No. 11 unfolds in a very peaceful atmosphere. Then comesthe dreaming Interlude, a moment of calm between the earlier tension and thegreat surge of the Finale, where the principal motif divides, first syncopated,then magnified, until the two reunite in the final apotheosis. This superb andpowerful tribute to Rameau illustrates the extent of Dukas's desire forApollonian clarity. After the density of the Sonata, his creation has becomerefined, achieving the very quintessence of music, and of the classical spirit,freedom.
Benedicte Palaux Simonnet
English version by Susannah Howe