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“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.

France

Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 6

25 May 2012

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The composer Igor Stravinsky in 1921.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 

In Part 5 of this entry, we considered the artistic and musical milieu of the genesis of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, concluding with a comment about sounds that were once perceived as fauve  becoming “domesticated.”

One express example of such domestication is the iconic bassoon solo that commences the work, a rendering of a Lithuanian folk tune in the Aeolian mode.  To many at the time, the bassoon was barely recognizable at this high register (this is the passage in which, according to the Italian composer Alfredo Casella who was at the premiere, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was unable to identify the instrument).  Signifying the awakening of spring, the bassoon seems uncertain, but nevertheless longing and striving:

 

 

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Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 5

18 May 2012

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A costume designed by Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947) for the première of Le sacre du printemps, 1913.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD-old}}

 

In Part 4 of this blog entry, we described the riot that accompanied the 1913 première of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  Some question whether it was the music, the choreography, or the combination of the two that affected the audience.

Let’s assume for a moment that the music played a role in the mêlée.  Those in attendance that evening had just watched a ballet about invisible, more-or-less risk-free beings of the air, Les Sylphides, while being soothed to unruffled tranquility by the Romantic strains of Frédéric Chopin, that other Slavic expat who had lived in Paris and whose revolutionary music had become safe by that point.  (Some of Chopin’s music for this ballet was orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov — you know, the one who said of Stravinsky’s previous ballet, "Petrushka is not music.”)

Then the reverie exploded.  “The Rite of Spring serves as a point of reference to all who seek to establish the birth certificate of what is still called ‘contemporary’ music,” states Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) in his Orientations: Collected Writings.  “A kind of manifesto work, somewhat in the same way and probably for the same reasons as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, it has not ceased to engender, first, polemics, then, praise, and, finally, the necessary clarifications.” Read more...

Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 4

11 May 2012

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The théâtre des Champs-Élysées today — located on Avenue Montaigne in the 8th arrondissement — where the première of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps took place on 29 May 1913.

 

You should have been at the première of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  It was a riot.

Literally.

It seems that the primal impulses of the audience were awakened by the ancient Slavic ritual that was taking place on stage.  And certainly the fierce Gauls were not to be outdone by the Scythians in the primitiveness department, so they enacted their own brutal, prehistoric dance in the galleries.

Most likely you weren’t born yet, but if you had been at the théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, you would have witnessed hand-to-hand audience combat, the likes of which hadn’t taken place since the 1830 performance of Daniel Auber’s opera, La Muette de Portici, in Brussels.  That earlier performance, alas, ignited a political revolution; this one, merely a musical revolution. Read more...

Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 3

4 May 2012

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Last year witnessed centennial celebrations of Petrushka all over the world.  In Paris, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, under the direction of Emmanuel Krivine, gave a scintillating performance of the work at Salle Pleyel on 26 May.

 

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, which celebrated its one-hundredth birthday last year, is remarkable in many ways.  One salient aspect is its abundance of Russian folk song.  The musicologist Richard Taruskin, who has written much on Stravinsky’s use of folk music, claims that even more unidentified material still lurks within the score.

Not everyone was happy about Stravinsky’s handling of Russian folk tunes in Petrushka at the time.  Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov, the son of Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, wrote in a review of a performance of Petrushka in 1913 that “our Russian home-brew has been too obviously larded with French perfume.”  Another Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov, was more blunt in his opinion, pronouncing that "Petrushka is not music;” he did, however, concede that it “is excellently and skillfully orchestrated."

In spite of those views from St. Petersburg, 3,000 kilometers distant from Paris, the ballet was a success with its Parisian audience, which included author Marcel Proust, poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and composer Claude DebussyPetrushka is now considered one of the supreme works of the twentieth century.  Sergei Diaghilev, characteristically shrewd and perceptive in assessing new work, be it music, art, or choreography, said at the beginning: “One could see through it with one’s ears.” Read more...

Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 2

27 April 2012

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A view of Théâtre du Châtelet today (with Tour Saint-Jacques in the background), where Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka received its première on 13 June 1911, conducted by Pierre Monteux.

 

“C'est enfantin et sauvage” — It is child-like and savage.  That is what Claude Debussy had written to the Swiss musicologist Robert Godet regarding Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka following its première in 1911. Compare this noteworthy observation with Stravinsky's statement made — almost to the day — fifty years later:  “My music is best understood by children and animals.”

After the successful première of L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird) in June 1910, and in order to recharge himself before starting in earnest on Le sacre du printemps — also commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev — Stravinsky decided to write a concert piece for piano and orchestra.  When Diaghilev visited the composer in Lausanne, Switzerland, and heard him perform the work-in-progress at the piano, he declared that it must be danced.  In a letter to the artist Alexandre Benois (1870-1928), Diaghilev wrote, “It is a work of such genius that one cannot contemplate anything beyond it.” Read more...

Stravinsky and Diaghilev Part 1

20 April 2012

“My music is best understood by children and animals.”

— Igor Stravinsky in The Observer (UK), Oct 8, 1961

 

In an earlier blog entry, we discussed composer Frédéric Chopin and poet Adam Mickiewicz, both Polish expatriates living in Paris during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Another well-known composer who had lived in Paris for part of his life is Igor Stravinsky.  Stravinsky and Chopin had a few other things in common as well:  1) both had Slavic ancestry, 2) sadly, both suffered from tuberculosis (Chopin died at age 39 from the disease, while Stravinsky, even though he spent five months in a Geneva sanatorium and his wife and daughter died from the disease, had survived and lived to be almost 90), and 3) both composed at the piano — however, most of Chopin’s music remained in that medium, while many of the pieces that Stravinsky worked out at the piano continued to grow, some of his most famous having been scored for large forces.  These include the ballets Petrushka, which celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary last year (2011) and Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), which will celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary next year (2013).  Both works are deserving of our attention.

 

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky in 1903

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 

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la Joconde

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 4

23 March 2012

Architect I. M. Pei’s glass pyramids, completed in 1989, stand in the Cour Napoléon over the entrance to the Musée du Louvre, where the Mona Lisa is on display.

 

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In Part 3 of this entry, we pondered some questions that over the centuries have baffled many that are curious about the Mona Lisa, taking into account the illumunation, if any, that recent research has brought to bear on the painting.  An inexhaustible stream of theories concerning multiple Mona Lisa issues swirls through newspapers, magazines, peer-reviewed academic journals, scientific papers, internet sites, television specials, and documentary films.  As you might expect, some researchers can be fiercely tendentious, but then, as the Italians might say, Il mondo è bello perché è vario (the world is beautiful because it is varied), or as the French put it more succinctly, Vive la différence!  The more theories about the Mona Lisa there are, the more mind-bogglingly contradictory ones seem to be hatched.

In case you are wondering about the above two foreign expressions, they were appropriated precisely because the Mona Lisa, like Carla Bruni — singer, actress, former model, and wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to cite a handy example — was born in Italy but now lives in France.  Both Mona Lisa and Carla Bruni, coincidentally, are also marvelously adept at generating media maelstroms despite their best intentions. Read more...

la Joconde

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 3

16 March 2012

Artists from around the world go to the Louvre in Paris to copy the masterpieces, one of which happens to be the Mona Lisa.

 

In Part 1 of this entry, after noting the constant supply of media consideration allotted to the Mona Lisa, we briefly traced the intriguing history of this portrait.  En route, we mentioned some perplexing questions that have given rise to extensive speculation:

 

What’s going on with her eyebrows? Which region of Italy laying claim to the sfumato landscape that is featured in the background are we in fact looking at?  Had Lisa suffered from high cholesterol?  Were there originally columns on either side of her in the painting that were subsequently lopped off?  Exactly how many versions are there underneath the painting that we see now?  Are those really letters and numbers and what are they doing in her eyes?  Who, indeed, was Lisa, and if she is who some think she is, is she really buried in a dump?  Or, was she Leonardo’s mother, or even Leonardo himself?  What’s this about a lion, an ape and a buffalo lurking in the painting?  And the biggest question of all, to which psychologists, scientists, engineers, art historians, and other scholars return regularly: what is it about that famous, enigmatic smile?

 

After considering in Part 2 some of the more resolute parodies of the Mona Lisa — which heap ever more attention onto this shy girl —it might be worthwhile now to find out what current research says about those bewildering questions. Read more...

la Joconde

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 2

9 March 2012

Visitors to the Musée du Louvre, where the Mona Lisa resides, ascend the spiral stairs under the Pyramide du Louvre, which was designed by the architect I. M. Pei  and serves as the main entrance to the museum.

 

After our quick look, in Part 1 of this blog entry, at some historical details concerning the Mona Lisa (la Joconde in French; la Gioconda in Italian; the painting having connections to both countries), I thought it would be worth noting the dialogue, for the moment assuming voluntary participation on all sides, that this painting seems to be having with the arts, sciences, and, in general, the culture at large today.

This singular portrait pervades our civilization almost without our noticing it. The image of Mona Lisa is found on wristwatches, key chains, neckties, socks, T-shirts, greeting cards, and ads for hair products, bicycles, automobiles, airlines, cameras, light bulbs, printers, pens, bottled water, and restaurants.  The name of the painting, in one form or another, is used for chocolates, cookies (Le Biscuit Joconde), soap, a crater on Venus, a cruise ship, a song by Nat King Cole, a Doctor Who alien organism, a cyberpunk novel by William Gibson, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character (Leonardo and Mona Lisa are but two of the many eponymous characters featured).  An American pop and R&B singer-songwriter has even assumed the name for herself. Read more...

la Joconde

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 1

2 March 2012

Mont Blanc (French) — or Monte Bianco (Italian), as it is located on the border between the two countries — pokes up its nose above Chamonix, France.

 

At this moment in Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy, two different parties could be sitting in a café / caffè at the foot of Mont Blanc / Monte Bianco under a waving flag — le drapeau tricolore (blue, white, and red) / Il Tricolore (green, white, and red) — munching on a croissant / cornetto and discussing the psychological makeup of Pierrot Lunaire / Pedrolino in the history of le théâtre / il teatro or possibly in regard to Europe’s favorite sport, soccer, the upcoming Coupe du monde de football / Campionato mondiale di calcio.

Or perhaps they are discussing some recent theories about la Joconde / la Gioconda, as the Mona Lisa is known respectively in these two countries.

France and Italy, despite their obvious differences — the former is shaped like one of the hexagonal faces of a soccer ball, the latter like a boot about to kick it — actually have quite a bit in common.  Both countries speak Romance languages (the lexical similarity of French with Latin is 87%, of Italian with Latin, 89%).  The populations of the two countries are quite similar (65,312,249 vs. 61,016,804), as are the populations of their capitals, Paris and Rome (2,138,550 vs. 2,563,240).  Likewise their GDP per capita ($33,100 US vs. $30,500 US), literacy rates (99% vs. 98.4%), along with many other statistical similarities that seem to culminate in both countries being leaders in fashion and design. Read more...

Driving in France Part 3

13 May 2011

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In the first part of Driving in France, I had described a protracted battle that I had with some rond-points (traffic circles) in the Alps.  Now that we were in Paris, and having la bougeotte (a craze for traveling), I was determined to meet fearlessly the challenge of the ‘star’ of all rond-points.  I use the word ‘star’ advisedly here, since this one is known as l’Étoile (the star) for a good reason.  Located at the top of avenue des Champs-Élysées, and having the famous Arc de Triomphe at its center, this traffic circle — not for the faint at heart or lily of liver — has 12 spokes that radiate in all directions.

While navigating the circle, one has no idea from what direction any car / motorcycle / bus / taxi / moped / bicycle will come, or, for that matter, where any vehicle will choose to go.  There are 41 things to watch at any given moment, both moving and stationary, and a conversation begun prior to entering the circle will inevitably slow to monosyllabic barks.

 

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Driving in France Part 2

6 May 2011 

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After driving through the Alps and going south to spend some time in Provence, we headed north in our Renault Clio on the autoroute toward Paris.  Following frequent instances of payer le péage (paying the toll — we must remember not to call the autoroute a ‘freeway’; it costs about 50 euros today to drive from Provence to Paris), many more instances of honking horns and flashing lights as speedsters behind us maneuvered to doubler (to pass; the same AXA study noted in my previous entry revealed that 83% of French drivers pass or make a turn without using le clignotant — their turn signal), one stop to faire le plein (to “fill it up”), a brief embouteillage (traffic jam), and more than eight hours including time at aires de repos (rest stops), we were nearing Paris.  It having been a very long day, our plans were to go directly to our hotel just south of Paris and go into the city the following day.

 

 

If it was the signage that had undone us previously in Annecy, it was the directions printed in the hotel literature that flummoxed us this time.  (Just the same, the signs were probably part of the conspiracy.)  At this point, since I had driven most of the day, Colleen was driving and I was watching for la sortie — the exit — to our hotel.  Soon, I looked up from my map and saw the profile of something profoundly familiar, although I had seen it before only in photographs. Read more...

Driving in France Part 1

29 April 2011 

 

I recall fondly the very first time that I visited France.  I was honored to direct a conference in the French Alps and, as my wife and I would also be spending some time in Switzerland, we rented a car there and eventually found our way to L'hexagone.  After crossing the border into France, it was no more than 30 minutes before I had the opportunity to witness at close proximity the French concept of aller en voiture — driving.

Due to some unexpected delays (or perhaps they should be expected — that’s what traveling is all about), we found ourselves arriving at the border after midnight.  There were very few cars at that hour on the winding road through the mountains.  Then suddenly a small, yellow sports car approached rapidly from behind and seemed intent on fusing to our rear bumper, lights flashing and horn honking. Read more...

Musée d'Orsay (Monet, Van Gogh)

Part 2

22 April 2011 

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In my last entry, after briefly describing the evolution of the Musée d’Orsay from a train station into an art museum, in discussing Claude Monet’s La cathédrale de Rouen series (of which the Musée d’Orsay owns five canvases) I alluded to another painting of a church — also at the Musée d’Orsay — by Vincent van Gogh.  That painting, along with several others by van Gogh, will be considered in this entry.

Following his childhood and youth in the Netherlands, van Gogh traveled frequently both while working for art dealers and as a missionary.  After his decision to pursue painting, he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo, staying for two years.  Then he was drawn to Arles where he could paint under the intense light of the Midi.

It is due to his stay in Provence that we are able to learn the most about his thoughts, as recorded in frequent letters to his brother Theo and others.  While he seemed to have difficulties in communicating face-to-face, Vincent was most expressive in his letters.  The painter Paul Klee wrote that van Gogh, through his letters, “was able to reach deep, very deep into his own heart.”   More than 600 letters from Vincent to Theo survive today. Read more...

Musée d'Orsay (Monet, Van Gogh)

Part 1

15 April 2011 

The Gare d'Orsay was transformed into a museum in 1986.

 

When the spectacular Beaux-Arts railway station on Paris’ Left Bank, the Gare d'Orsay, opened in 1900, the painter Edouard Detaille exulted, "La gare est superbe et a l'air d'un Palais des Beaux-Arts," —The station is superb and seems like a Palace of Fine Arts.

Seventy-three years later, when the Gare d'Orsay closed its doors, it sadly seemed like the end.  But then, the station was only sleeping.  In 1986 it woke up as a “palace of fine arts” indeed, and is now chock-full of Van Goghs, Monets, Renoirs, Cezannes and Manets.

 

The interior of the Musée d’Orsay

 

This is the place to go if you want to see French art dating from the years 1848 to 1915, including Millet's Des glaneuses, Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette, Cézanne's Pommes et Oranges, Gauguin's Femmes de Tahiti, Degas’ La classe de danse, not to mention works by Bouguereau, Caillebotte, Cassatt, Corot, Courbet, Delacroix, Ingres, Jongkind, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Rousseau, Sisley, van Gogh, and many others.

If the list of painters above is any indication, the Musée d'Orsay is the main stop on the Impressionism line. Read more...

8 April 2011 

Now, after my two most recent entries in which I engaged in a little playful taquinerie (teasing) with la langue française, I thought I would show my true affections for the language, as well as for the people and land that gave rise to it.

Since photography is one of the things I like to do, and since France is without a doubt one of the most photogenic places on the planet, here is a little abécédaire (an alphabet primer) that I have put together for those who appreciate the language and the country.  All of the photos were taken in France, many in Paris.

 

 

Aa

 

l’artiste peintre

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La langue française Part 2

1 April 2011 

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The sun is getting ready
to go beddy-bye.
Now to my first hypothesis, which I am listing second (in emulation of French floors again).  Wild boar bones notwithstanding, I think the important consideration is the thought process behind word choice for the interpretation of reality:  in a word, the French have a childlike perception.  For example, the English are direct:  “sunset.”  The Germans, like engineers:  Sonnenuntergang (sun-go-under).  The French, however, tell a little fairy-tale:  soleil couchant (sun goes to bed).  What could be more satisfying, after a burning course across the sky all day, than for the sun to find a lit de plume waiting for it?

And even if the sun doesn’t happen to shine, it only pleut des cordes (rains some strings) — nothing to worry about. 

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La langue française Part 1

25 March 2011 

Having been thoroughly engaged by La Belvédère, Maurice Ravel’s delightfully brainteasing home in Montfort-l’Amaury, my wife and I were curious about where the composer had lived previous to that house in the suburbs.

So we headed for the 17th arrondissement and braved the Étoile, that delirious traffic hub with 12 radiating spokes — one of which is the avenue des Champs-Élysées — and which proudly displays the iconic Arc de Triomphe at its center.

We began walking around the massive traffic circle, taking un bain de foule (“a crowd-bath”) among the multitudes on the Champs-Élysées.  After triumphantly arriving at the length of an arc subtending an angle of about 180 degrees (OK, I’ll help you here:  triumphantly . . . arc.  Get it?), we passed the Hôtel Splendide at 1 bis avenue Carnot, where Igor Stravinsky stayed in 1913 for the première of La sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring).  And then, directly across the street we saw 4 avenue Carnot, where Maurice Ravel had moved with his mother and brother in 1908 following the death of his father.

 

4 avenue Carnot today

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Cité de la Musique Part 3

18 March 2011 

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Model of the Cité de la Musique with its auditorium

 

We rushed across the plaza to the museum, ran through the gift shop and down the stairs to the Amphithéâtre and produced our tickets.   Soon we were at ease in a very comfortable, modern hall.

This concert was part of a series:  “Musique des Lumières — Le triomphe de la raison,” (Music of the Enlightenment — The Triumph of Reason) and tonight’s concert was entitled, “Musique á la cour de Frédéric II” (Music at the Court of Frederick II).  While waiting for the concert to start, we read the program and took in the setting.  This audience tended to be fairly young (i.e., Conservatoire students) and intelligent looking:  quiet confidence, studied casualness;  the stage, done in a sort of post-modern pastiche. Read more...

Cité de la Musique Part 2

18 March 2011 

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The museum of the Cité de la Musique — Musée de la Musique — has, out of its collection of 4,500, more than 900 historic instruments on display, which the audio guide makes a valiant attempt to elucidate.  I say valiant, because it is no easy thing to define, in another language and using highly technical jargon, highly specialized artifacts from centuries past.

A few years ago I had viewed an instrument collection at another museum — I won’t say where, as these tenuous creatures are rare and certainly need our encouragement  — and was deeply perplexed as I looked at a spinet while the English version of the audio guide held forth at length about a Buddha.  At that point I really tried to attain harpsichordal enlightenment.  After a while, the keyboard did seem to be smiling, but ultimately I concluded that the legs were far too skinny for a Buddha.  I was finally able to gain the correct information by listening to the German version of the audio guide.

The museum has a fascinating collection of historic instruments, its rarer specimens including an oliphant (a horn made from a carved elephant tusk), an eighteenth-century clavecin brisé (literally, “broken keyboard,” a sort of portable harpsichord that breaks into three pieces, folded), a sixteenth-century régale-bible (a tiny portable organ that combines with a Bible and folds into a book for instant church), a medieval tromba marina (having nothing to do with trombones or the sea; it has only one string — two meters long — and 20 sympathetic strings that vibrate on the inside), and a seventeenth-century tortoise-shell guitar (with head and feet still attached!). Read more...

Cité de la Musique Part 1

18 March 2011 

Paris’s music scene proliferates throughout many of its arrondissements, from the Opéra Bastille (home of the Opéra National de Paris) and the Opéra-Comique to the Palais Garnier (or Opéra Garnier, mostly ballet today) and the Théâtre de la Ville (formerly Théâtre Lyrique; contemporary dance); from the Salle Pleyel (with resident ensembles Orchestre de Paris and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France) and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (both classical music and theatre) to music halls such as Le Lido and l'Olympia (where Édith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier once performed); from the stage at IRCAM (avant-garde music) to performances at St Eustache, Ste Chapelle, and La Madeleine (classical music); and from Élysée-Montmartre (popular music) and Le Zénith (large-scale popular concerts) to New Morning (jazz and blues).

And then, out in the northeast corner of Paris in the 19th arrondissement, there is the Cité de la Musique.  It is a fine arts factory of sorts where all aspects of the assembly of music — its design, tools, science, pedagogy, and realization — take place.  On this day Colleen and I devoted an afternoon and an evening to dive into this swirling vortex of performance arts.

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Impression, maison

Musée Claude Debussy Part 3

11 March 2011 

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Impressionism.  Debussy himself did not seem to approve of the term as applied to his music.  In fact, in 1908 Debussy wrote in a letter, "J'ai essayé de faire autre chose — en quelque sorte des réalités — ce que les imbéciles appellent impressionnisme. . . [I am trying to introduce something new — realities, so to speak — what idiots call impressionism]." Nevertheless, Debussy was classified as an Impressionist composer in his lifetime, as he continues to be today.  What does this word mean?

The term Impressionism was originally applied to painting, and in fact was intended to be pejorative.

Since the eighteenth century, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the institution that dominated the Parisian art scene, had held an annual, juried art show known as the Salon de Paris.  In 1873, a group of painters — Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley — aspiring to exhibit their paintings but frustrated by continually not being allowed to do so at the Salon, organized an association for that purpose.  Soon this group was joined by Berthe Morisot, Paul Cézanne, and Edgar Degas. Read more...

Impression, maison

Musée Claude Debussy Part 2

11 March 2011 

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The Musée Claude Debussy is located in the second-floor flat where Debussy was born in 1862.  The building, constructed in the seventeenth century, has two sections, front and back, that open onto a central courtyard.  Also within the same building today is an auditorium for concerts (we could hear rehearsals taking place while we were there), and various rooms and offices for scholars.

We browsed through the first room of the museum.  There are mementos of Debussy as a child, including photographs as a baby and as a child of around three on a little tricycle.  But Debussy did not remain in St-Germain-en-Laye.  When he was five his parents moved to Paris, and then at age eight, he and his mother moved to Cannes to escape the hostilities of the Franco-Prussian War.  While in Cannes, he started piano lessons.

Returning to Paris, Debussy entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 10, studying there for eleven years.  His piano teacher, Antoine Marmontel, said that Debussy at the age of 11 had a “véritable tempérament d'artiste.”  Later, as a teen, Debussy had the opportunity to give music lessons to the children of Nadezhda von Meck, patroness of Tchaikovsky.  For three summers (1880-2) he traveled with her family throughout Europe and Russia. Read more...

Impression, maison

Musée Claude Debussy Part 1

11 March 2011 

As promised, after an unanticipated, desultory detour on the métro in my last entry, this time we’ll discuss the birthplace of one of France’s greatest composers, Claude-Achille Debussy.  But, a friendly warning here:  as with my previous museum descriptions, perhaps 38.19660112501. . .% of this entry will have to do with what can actually be seen (ahem, you must visit the museum for that), but the rest will provide a convenient framework for, oh, let’s see,  art appreciation, music theory, history, and reflection — possibly entailing a consideration of practices and customs, or a contemplation of manners and mores, or an examination of attitudes and outlooks — and in general, a chance to offer candid observations about French culture and those who find themselves in la France.

When Colleen and I arrived in St-Germain-en-Laye, about 22 kilometers west of Paris, we climbed to the surface to get our bearings.  (The RER travels mostly above ground — in fact, there is a nice view of the Seine River from a bridge used by the A line  — but it moves underground in urban areas.)  The maps of St-Germain-en-Laye that I had wrung from the Internet were infinitely more detailed than those of Montfort-l’Amaury.  We strolled down rue de la Paroisse and then found a little marché on rue de la République, where we bought some water to replace that which we had been squirting out of our pores during our métro sprints the last hour-and-a-half.  We then followed signs to “l’Office municipal de Tourisme,” assuming that they could tell us where the Musée Claude Debussy was.  We walked past a pâtisserie, the pastries in the window holding out a promise of both physical and emotional assistance to assuage our recent bout of métro terror, but — business first — it seemed best to accomplish our strategic goals. Read more...

Le Métro de Paris Part 3

4 March 2011 

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So here is my theory about the tie between métro stations and all of those battles described in Part 2 of this blog entry.

Just as experiencing Paris requires an admission price (the cost in currency for airfare and the cost in time to get there — basically two entire days for the round trip from the west coast of North America), experiencing the beauty of its art and music also requires an admission price:  museum/concert tickets and, of a necessity, time in the discordant environment of the métro.  It is a yang that balances out the yin.

Thus far I have observed first-hand over many long hours the radical dichotomy of the two Parises — one above ground, the other below.  For, in order to be intellectually and aesthetically gratified on the surface (in a museum or at a concert, for example), one must venture beneath the surface and brave the harsh gates and turn-styles of the métro, pass through its barren corridors that entail a gauntlet of unrelenting corporate advertising (possibly interesting on the first encounter, but draining one’s psychic energy thereafter) while being jostled by fellow denizens of this bleak underworld, and after frequent uncertainties in regard to destination, pressing onto a car where one is bumped, knocked, goosed, and stepped upon all the while remaining hyper-vigilant in regard to potential pick-pockets.  At this point, the intense assault on the senses has only begun. Read more...

Le Métro de Paris Part 2

4 March 2011 

Having just described in Part 1 of this blog entry our arrival in St-Germain-en-Laye, it would be marvelous at this point to talk about the Musée Claude Debussy.  But, like the métro that strolled under Paris and “gently hurls itself and then flies away” (merci encore, Edith), it looks like that topic will have to wait until my next post.  Beckoning now is the Paris subway system in all its magnificence.

The Paris métro (the term “métro" being an abbreviation of the name of the company that first operated the system in 1900, La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain), transports almost five million passengers a day.  In fact, so many human bodies pass through one particular métro station that the warmth they generate is used to heat an apartment building above ground.  It’s better not to think too much about that.

Today there are sixteen lines, mostly underground, and 300 stations that handle over one-and-one-half billion passengers per year.  More than a quarter of these stations still have their iconic, cast iron entrances from the early 1900s.  These entrances with Art Nouveau, plant-inspired motifs were superbly designed by architect Hector Guimard.

 

édicule (kiosk) of the station Abbesses

Read more...

Le Métro de Paris Part 1

4 March 2011 

Des escaliers mécaniques,
Portillons automatiques,
Couloirs de correspondance,
Heures de pointe et d'affluence,
Portières en mosaïque,
Labyrinthe fantastique
Et toujours, en courant,
Des gens qui vont et viennent
Et encore, en courant,
Les mêmes gens qui reviennent
Et le métro qui flânait sous Paris
Doucement s'élance et puis s'envole,
S'envole sur les toits de Paris.
Escalators,
Automatic wickets,
Correspondence corridors,
Rush hours and crowds,
Mosaic doors,
Fantastic labyrinth
And always, while running,
People that go and come
And again, while running,
The same people that return
And the subway that strolled under Paris
Gently hurls itself and then flies away,
Flies away on the roofs of Paris.

Le Métro de Paris, as sung by Edith Piaf

 

 

In my last post (Ravel and Le Belvédère), I described how we had reached Montfort-l’Amaury by train, intimating that it was an intricate maneuver.  I should point out that to get anywhere within Paris, the métro is extremely easy and often the fastest way to take; it is only when one tries to reach a faubourg (suburb) — actually, two suburbs in one day in our case — that it becomes challenging.

Due to the fact that both the Ravel and Debussy museums are located outside Paris, we had even considered renting a car for this day, but as with the proverbial mountain, we chose the métro — because it is there.  And, as with mountaineering, expeditions such as these require the ability to endure long periods of tedium, which in turn may be punctuated by brief moments of angst and intense exertion. Read more...

Impression, maison

Ravel and Le Belvédère Part 3

25 February 2011 

The music room at the Maison Musée Maurice Ravel held Ravel’s Érard piano, dating from the early 1900s.  I once had a chance to play a historic Érard at a little piano shop in San Francisco:  I was taken with its smooth, light, singing tone and its wide range of colors including its bell-like high notes.  It didn’t have the power of the modern Steinway; its sound was more intimate and harp-like.  In fact, Sébastien Érard (1752 – 1831), the instrument maker who founded the company, was proficient at designing harps as well as pianos.  Perhaps some of his ideas cross-pollinated.

Érard made great contributions to both harp and piano.  His "double movement" seven-pedal action for the harp, which he patented, allows a harpist to perform in any key and is still used today.  And modern grand pianos use a mechanism based on the "double escapement" action that he invented and also patented, allowing notes to be repeated more easily.  The Transcendental Etudes, composed by Franz Liszt (who played Érard pianos), would be impossible without Érard’s action.  The  Érard was Ravel’s preferred instrument.

I think it is interesting that Ravel had so frequently orchestrated works that he had originally written for piano, pieces that seem to thrive in both versions.  Read more...

Impression, maison

Ravel and Le Belvédère Part 2

25 February 2011 

(Read Part 1)

There in front of us was the curious house in which Maurice Ravel spent the last 17 years of his life.  Described as a Camembert by a friend of Ravel’s, it is a sort of wedge with a poniard-roofed gothic tower set on a sharp curve on a steep hill.  It would be difficult to find a house with a more distinctive silhouette than that, I thought.

 

Maison-musée de Maurice Ravel in Montfort-l’Amaury

 

Perhaps Ravel’s remarkable tastes were inherited.  His father was a Swiss inventor who was famous for designing a circus machine, Le tourbillon de la mort (“The Whirlwind of Death”:  a car somersault).  Then again, his mother was Basque and spoke a language, Euskara, that linguists cannot agree as to where it came from due to its being pre-Indo-European.  She also spoke Spanish, having grown up in Madrid, and of course French.  These parents Maurice loved, and never left them, living with his widowed mother until her death when he was in his forties.  He then stayed with friends or in hotels for several years until he bought this house — Le Belvédère — in Monfort-l’Amaury in 1921. Read more...

Impression, maison

Ravel and Le Belvédère Part 1

25 February 2011 

“I think and feel in sounds.”

— Maurice Ravel, quoted in Jules Renard’s Journal, 1907

 

On previous trips to Paris, in view of the fact that we were traveling elsewhere in France as well, we had always rented a car and roulé — rolled (see Driving in France). For this visit, as we were to remain within the limits of the city with the exception of today’s excursion, we had decided to traverse the underground empire of le Métro, Paris’ vast subway system.

Our targets today were museums dedicated to the two greatest French composers of the twentieth century (both strategically located outside of Paris and off the beaten path), Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

Getting to these museums appeared to be child’s play when compared with other days on our agenda, belying the fact that a complex three-dimensional sequential-move puzzle algorithm was required to negotiate a myriad of métro, suburban (RER), and national (SNCF) trains with split-second timing.  But, as they say, “Impossible n’est pas français” — impossible is not French. Read more...

Mickiewicz and Chopin Part 3

Polish Expats in Paris

18 February 2011

(Read Part 1)

The Salon Chopin of the Musée Adam Mickiewicz is the only space in Paris dedicated to this dynamic musician of both Polish and French ancestry.  In this room of the museum we saw many fascinating articles relating to the great composer and pianist: copies of Chopin's autograph manuscripts, a Pleyel piano from Chopin's time, a cast of Chopin's left hand, a lock of his hair, his favorite chair, the last photograph taken of Chopin, and his death mask.

There is also a Delacroix drawing of Chopin, which was a study for the famous painting that now hangs in the Louvre.  This oil painting of Chopin has an intriguing history.  It was originally a double portrait, with Chopin playing piano as writer George Sand (her pen name) listens and sews.  In 1838, when the painting was made, Delacroix’ friends Chopin and Sand were deeply in love.

 

 Frédéric Chopin and George Sand as painted by Eugène Delacroix
(photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Mickiewicz and Chopin Part 2

Polish Expats in Paris

18 February 2011

(Read Part 1)

Our guide at the Musée Adam Mickiewicz — who was intelligent but had an enigmatic accent — described the mission of the museum, which is dedicated to research, maintaining archives, and displaying artifacts related to Polish artists and writers who lived or are living in Paris.  She called our attention to the fact that the displays are divided into three areas:  1) Adam Mickiewicz’s life and times, 2) The Salon Chopin and 3) a sort of catch-all patrimoine area into which all other Polish artists are gathered.  We were charged up and ready to go.

The guide first led us through the Adam Mickiewicz room — the largest section of the museum — and described how the peregrinating poet had bounced around the world:  Vilnius, Saint Petersburg (where he was befriended by Aleksandr Pushkin), Weimar (where he met Goethe), Rome, Paris, and finally dying in Constantinople (Istanbul).  Traveling like this sounded like a good idea to me (except the part about mort à Constantinople.)  In fact, I had just been to Weimar last year and I would have gone back there immediately after our stay in Paris if anyone had only hinted at an invitation.  In a display concerning Mickiewicz’s life in Weimar, there is a letter to Mickiewicz from Goethe, containing a wax seal with the latter’s distinctive, quirky likeness.

 

Goethe's Gartenhaus in Weimar, Germany

Mickiewicz and Chopin Part 1

Polish Expats in Paris

18 February 2011

Our destination was only two bridge-spans away.  And so my wife Colleen and I walked across the Pont d’Arcole onto the Île de la Cité, and then the Pont St. Louis onto the second of Paris’ two islands in the Seine River, Île St. Louis, where we found the small museum on Quai d’Orléans.  The sign above the door says “Société Historique et Littéraire Polonaise/Biblioteka Polska,” the two languages neatly signifying the cross-cultural exchange.

 

 The Musée Adam Mickiewicz in Paris

 

The Musée Adam Mickiewicz is open only on Saturdays and Thursday afternoons, so one must plan carefully to get there, as there are many wonderful things to distract one in Paris.  My only previous contact with anything having to do with Mickiewicz had been the monument to the great Polish poet in Kraków’s Stare Miasto (Old Town), that seemed to serve as a giant magnet for the adolescents of the city. Read more...

Finding 21st Century Paris Part 2

11 February 2011

(Read Part 1)

Upon arrival at the airport, we were able to go through passport and customs control somewhat speedily and collected our baggage.  We didn’t, however, escape the gravitational field of the airport as quickly as we had hoped. This was due to a protracted hunting expedition for museum passes and no small confusion as to the exact desk where they might be hiding.

Apparently, there are at least two different species of information desks bearing the distinctive information icon:  airport information and Information Tourisme.  The people at the airport information desk informed us that we could find the other kind of information desk, with the desired museum passes, in terminal 2-B.

We were in terminal 2-A, so we began lugging our bags (I guess that’s why it’s called luggage) along with the rest of airport civilization, chanting, “2-B or not 2-B.” Read more...

Finding 21st Century Paris Part 1

11 February 2011

Marcel Marceau, the legendary French mime, had died just two weeks before on Yom Kippur, 22 September 2007.  He had already reached vieillesse when I had seen him years ago performing, as Bip, his Jeunesse, maturité, vieillesse et mort (Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death), so I guess it had to be the next logical step.  La France, and the world, has lost one of her most beloved.

When Marcel was buried at Père Lachaise, they played the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (Marcel included this music in one of his sublime mimodrames) and the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No. 5 in C minor for Unaccompanied ‘Cello.

My wife Colleen and I had already made plans to travel to Paris, but it seemed fitting now to rendre nos hommages to the master of mimetic art by stationing ourselves in various parts of the city for impromptu (no, involuntary) re-enactments of Marcel’s Paris qui rit, Paris qui pleure :  Paris Laughs — Paris Cries, which, I was certain, we would be doing plenty of both up to the minute of our return flight. Read more...

The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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