Program Notes/Texts & Translations

March 2, 2007

by Jeremy Beck

Sinfonietta for string orchestra was composed in Yorba Linda, California, in the Fall of 1999 to the Spring of 2000. It is in four movements, paired in a non-linear fashion. The opening Allegro furioso, is interrupted by a brief Allegretto, which acts more as an interlude to the music than as a complete contrasting section. This more graceful music is, in fact, a foreshadowing of the third movement, and is more fully developed when it returns at that time. The second movement, Grave, is in the character of a hymn or spiritual. The music from this movement will return towards the end of the last movement, both as a reminiscence, and as a part of a summary and closing of the entire work. Brief gestures from the opening movement attempt to break in to the final bars, as well, but the energy from these gestures is not enough to rouse the music at the end, which soon disappears in a tonal haze of floating harmonies.

- Jeremy Beck


Symphony No.52 in C minor (1772)
by Joseph Haydn (Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732 – Vienna, 1809)

One of the most remarkable symphonies that Haydn wrote, this works shows what has been called the composer’s proto-Romantic “storm and stress” period at its stormiest.  In his classic book on the Haydn symphonies, H.C. Robbins Landon uses words like “brutal” and “violent”; and if that seems overstating the case a bit, there is no doubt that this is a symphony like no other:  an unusually bold dissonance treatment and a strong rhythmic drive with unexpected accents are indications that Haydn was exploring the tragic genre within the symphonic form.  That tragic genre predominates in all movements; even the second-movement Andante, which begins as a rather jovial slow dance, contains occasional dark moments.  But the minuet is utterly serious, filled with rather harsh melodic intervals (such as the diminished fourth, always a symbol of anguish in classical music); only the central trio section provides temporary relief.  The Presto finale concludes the symphony in an unremittingly dramatic manner, denying the conventional switch to the major mode which would have resolved the tensions.  Instead, this symphony goes out with a bang!

Les Illuminations, Op.18 (1939)
by Benjamin Britten  (Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, 1913 – Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 1976)

It was a momentous choice on the part of the young Benjamin Britten to set to music excerpts from Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations.  The French poet (1854-1891), one of the most important precursors of modernism in poetry, produced his entire output within three years (1872-1875) as a literary wunderkind.  At the age of 21, he gave up writing and became a traveling salesman in several remote regions of Asia and Africa.  This decision put an end to a short but brilliant career marked by extreme restlessness and disillusionment, and came on the heels of a series of scandals involving Rimbaud and his fellow poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896).  Les Illuminations (probably Rimbaud’s last poetic work) is, despite its title, a rather dark opus, partially inspired by hashish.  Its main themes are the theatricality of life, the chaos of the big cities, and the tragic, painful aspect of beauty.  (Some of the prose poems were written in London, which explains why certain titles are in English in the original.)

Britten was deeply affected by the emotional intensity of these prose poems and decided to set them to music as soon as he had read them.  As the soprano Sophie Wyss, the dedicatee of the cycle, recalled:  “He was so full of this poetry he just could not stop talking about it, I suspect he must have seen a copy of Rimbaud’s works while he was recently staying with [W.H.] Auden in Birmingham.”

Britten chose a sentence from one of the poems as the motto for his cycle:  “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone have the key to this savage parade”).  This sentence also provides the “key” to Britten’s view of Rimbaud’s poetry:  only the artist, observing the world from the outside, can hope to make sense of the “savage parade” that is life.

This motto is sung three times in the course of the cycle.  In the first-movement “Fanfare” and the sixth-movement “Interlude,” this one sentence is all the soloist sings.  The motto reappears at the end of movement 8, as part of the poem to which it belongs.  Each time, the words are recited mostly on a single note.  They are proclaimed fortissimo the first time, whispered pianissimo the second time, and finally uttered with full force again, with the last note held out for several measures.

The intervening movements present a colorful panoply of the “savage parade,” starting with “Villes,” about which Britten wrote to Wyss:

This poem, I believe, was written in London and certainly is a very good impression of the chaotic modern city life (although it cannot apply, I gather, to London at the moment).  I want it sung in a metallic and relentless fashion with the exclamation:  “Ce sont des villes!” somewhat sarcastically sung.  The end is simply a prayer for a little peace.

Movement 3 begins with a short “Sentence”, “slow and ecstatic,” with the singer presented with the challenge of singing some very high notes pianissimo to the accompaniment of harmonics in the strings.  Without a break, there follows “Antique,” with a lyrical and graceful melody made up almost entirely of the notes of the major triad and shared by the singer and a solo violin.  (This movement was dedicated to Wulff Scherchen, a close friend of Britten’s who was the son of the famous conductor Hermann Scherchen.)

Movement 4, “Royalty,” strikes a very different tone.  In Britten’s own words, it is…

…pompous and satirical.  The idea merely is that, given the right circumstances, it is in the power of anyone, however humble, to imagine himself King or God, whichever you prefer.

In Movement 5, “Seascape,” the accented notes and rapid scales in the vocal line and the agitated accompaniment figures palpably illustrate the sea waves beating against the shore.

Movement 6 is an orchestral interlude (to be played “with passion”) in which the instrumental lines imitate each other in a contrapuntal texture that gradually thins out.  The soloist sings the motto to the dreamy, meditative accompaniment of a solo viola and a solo cello. 

Movement 7, “Being Beauteous,” dedicated to Peter Pears, is a declaration of love to Britten’s lifelong companion, written early during their relationship.  The title was in English in the original. Ethereal and refined, it is carried by an even pulsation of chords, mostly clear and bright major triads, against which Britten wrote a vocal melody in pure operatic bel canto style, interrupted only occasionally at the “raucous” or “spectral” images that cast transient shadows on the idyll in Rimbaud’s poem.

Movement 8, “Parade,” returns to the agitated tone of “Villes.”  As Britten wrote to Sophie Wyss:

“Parade” you will enjoy, because it is a picture of the underworld.  It should be made to sound creepy, evil, dirty (apologies!), and really desperate.  I think it is the most terrific poem and at the moment I feel the music has got something of the poem!!

The song culminates in the restatement of the motto which, presented in its original context, finally takes its full poetic meaning.

In the last movement (“Leaving”) the repeated chords and broad melodic lines of “Being Beauteous” reappear in a Largo mesto (“slow and sad”) tempo, full of pain and nostalgia.  The “parade” is over, and although the text promises “new affection and new noise,” the cycle ends, heart-rendingly, in complete resignation.


Les Illuminations

words by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

1. Fanfare

J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.

1. Fanfare

I alone have the key to this savage parade.

2. Villes

Ce sont des villes!  C’est un peuple pour qui se sont montés ces Alleghanys et ces Libans de rêve!  Des chalets de cristal et de bois se meuvent sur des rails et des poulies invisibles.  Les vieux cratères ceints de colosses et de palmiers de cuivre rugissent mélodieusement dans les feux…Des cortèges de Mabs en robes rousses, opalines, montent des ravines.  Là-haut, les pieds dans la cascade et les ronces, les cerfs tettent Diane.  Les Bacchantes des banlieues sanglotent et la lune brûle et hurle.  Vénus entre dans les cavernes des forgerons et des ermites.  Des groupes de beffrois chantent les idées des peuples.  Des châteaux bâtis en os sort la musique inconnue…Le paradis des orages s’effondre…Les sauvages dansent sans cesse la fête de la nuit…

Quels bons bras, quelle belle heure me rendront cette région d’où viennent mes sommeils et mes moindres mouvements?

2. Towns

These are towns!  This is a people for whom these dreamlike Alleghanies and Lebanons arose.  Chalets of crystal and wood move on invisible rails and pulleys.  The old craters, girdled with colossi and copper palm trees, roar melodiously in the fires…Processions of Mabs in russet and opaline dresses climb from the ravines.  Up there, their feet in the waterfall and the brambles, the stags suckle Diana.  Suburban Bacchantes sob and the moon burns and howls.  Venus enters the caves of the blacksmiths and the hermits.  From groups of bell-towers the ideas of peoples sing out.  From castles of bone the unknown music sounds…The paradise of storm collapses…The savages dance ceaselessly the festival of the night…

What kind arms, what fine hour will give me back this country from which come my slumbers and my smallest movements?


3a. Phrase

J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre; des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse.

3a. Sentence

I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance.

3b. Antique

Gracieux fils de Pan!  Autour de ton front couronné de fleurettes et de baies, tes yeux, des boules précieuses, remuent.  Tachées de lies brunes, tes joues se creusent.  Tes crocs luisent.  Ta poitrine ressemble à une cithare, des tintements circulent dans tes bras blonds.  Ton cœur bat dans ce ventre où dort le double sexe.  Promène-toi, la nuit, en mouvant doucement cette cuisse, cette seconde cuisse et cette jambe de gauche.

3b. Antique

Graceful son of Pan!  About your brow crowned with small flowers and berries move your eyes, precious spheres.  Stained with brown dregs, your cheeks grow gaunt.  Your fangs glisten.  Your breast is like a cithara, tinglings circulate in your blond arms.  Your heart beats in this belly where sleeps the dual sex.  Walk, at night, gently moving this thigh, this second thigh, and this left leg.

4. Royauté

Un beau matin, chez un peuple fort doux, un homme et une femme superbes criaient sur la place publique:  “Mes amis, je veux qu’elle soit reine!”  “Je veux être reine!”  Elle riait et tremblait.  Il parlait aux amis de révélation, d’épreuve terminée.  Ils se pâmaient l’un contre l’autre.

En effet ils furent rois toute une matinée où les tentures carminées se relevèrent sur les maisons, et toute l’après-midi, où ils s’avancèrent du côté des jardins de palmes.

4. Royalty.

One fine morning, amongst a most gentle people, a magnificent couple were shouting in the square:  “My friends, I want her to be queen!”  “I want to be queen!”  She was laughing and trembling.  He spoke to friends of revelation, of trial ended.  They were swooning one against the other.
As a matter of fact they were royal one whole morning, when the crimson hangings were draped over the houses, and all afternoon, when they progressed towards the palm gardens.


5. Marine

Les chars d’argent et de cuivre —
Les proues d’acier et d’argent —
Battent l’écume, —
Soulèvent les souches des ronces.
Les courants de la lande,
Et les ornières immenses du reflux,
Filent circulairement vers l’est,
Vers les piliers de la forêt,
Vers les fûts de la jetée,
Dont l’angle est heurté par des tourbillons de lumière.

5. Seascape

The chariots of silver and copper —
The prows of steel and silver —
Beat the foam —
Raise the bramble stumps.
The streams of the moorland
And the huge ruts of the ebb-tide
Flow eastward in circles
Towards the shafts of the forest,
Towards the columns of the pier
Whose corner is struck by eddies of light.

6. Interlude

J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.

6. Interlude

I alone have the key to this savage parade.


7. Being Beauteous

Devant une neige un Être de Beauté de haute taille.  Des sifflements de morts et des cercles de musique sourde font monter, s’élargir et trembler comme un spectre ce corps adoré:  des blessures écarlates et noires éclatent dans les chairs superbes.  Les couleurs propres de la vie se foncent, dansent, et se dégagent autour de la Vision, sur le chantier.  Et les frissons s’élèvent et grondent, et la saveur forcenée de ces effets se chargeant avec les sifflements mortels et les rauques musiques que le monde, loin derrière nous, lance sur notre mère de beauté, — elle recule, elle se dresse.  Oh! nos os sont revêtus d’un nouveau corps amoureux.


O la face cendrée, l’écusson de crin, les bras de cristal!  Le canon sur lequel je dois m’abattre à travers la mêlée des arbres et de l’air léger!

7. Being Beauteous

Against a snowfall a Being Beauteous, tall of stature.  Whistlings of death and circles of muffled music make this adored body rise, swell and tremble like a spectre; wounds, scarlet and black, break out in the magnificent flesh.  The true colors of life deepen, dance and break off around the Vision, on the site.  And shivers rise and groan, and the frenzied flavor of these effects, being heightened by the deathly whistlings and the raucous music which the world, far behind us, casts on our mother of beauty, — she retreats, she rears up.  Oh! our bones are reclothed by a new, loving body.


O the ashen face, the shield of hair, the crystal arms!  The cannon on which I must hurl myself through the jumble of trees and buoyant air! 


8. Parade

Des drôles très solides.  Plusieurs ont exploité vos mondes.  Sans besoins, et peu pressés de mettre en oeuvre leurs brillantes facultés et leur expérience de vos consciences.  Quels hommes mûrs!  Des yeux hébétés à la façon de la nuit d’été, rouges et noirs, tricolorés, d’acier piqué d’étoiles d’or; des facies déformés, plombés, blêmis, incendiés; des enrouements folâtres!  La démarche cruelle des oripeaux!  Il y a quelques jeunes…

O le plus violent Paradis de la grimace enragée!…Chinois, Hottentots, bohémiens, niais, hyènes, Molochs, vieilles démences, démons sinistres, ils mêlent les tours populaires, maternels, avec les poses et les tendresses bestiales.  Ils interpréteraient des pièces nouvelles et des chansons “bonnes filles.”  Maîtres jongleurs, ils transforment le lieu et les personnes et usent de la comédie magnétique…

J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage.

8. Parade

Very secure rogues.  Several have exploited your worlds.  Without needs, and in no hurry to set their brilliant faculties and their experience of your consciences to work.  What mature men!  Eyes dulled like a summer night, red and black, tricolored, like steel spangled with gold stars; distorted features, leaden, pallid, burned; their playful croakings!  The cruel bearing of tawdry finery!  There are some young ones… 

Oh the most violent Paradise of the furious grimace!…Chinese, Hottentots, gypsies, simpletons, hyenas, Molochs, old madnesses, sinister demons, they mingle popular, motherly tricks with brutish poses and caresses.  They would interpret new plays and “respectable” songs.  Master jugglers, they transform the place and the people and make use of magnetic comedy…

I alone have the key to this savage parade.

9. Départ

Assez vu.  La vision s’est rencontrée à tous les airs.
Assez eu.  Rumeurs de villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.
Assez connu.  Les arrêts de la vie.  O Rumeurs et Visions!
Départ dans l’affections et le bruit neufs!

9. Leaving

Seen enough.  The vision was met with everywhere.
Had enough.  Sounds of towns, in the evening, and in sunlight, and always.
Known enough.  The setbacks of life.  O Sounds and Visions!
Leaving amid new affection and new noise!

English translation by George Hall, Copyright 1983
(from CD LONDON  417 153 - 2)