Paris, An Oboe Recital, and A Tribute to French Music
This post is long, but it also includes a donation link to directly aid the victims of the Paris attacks. If you don’t have time to read the post but would like to contribute, feel free to scroll to the bottom of the post directly, or click here.
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT THE 11/13 ATTACKS ON PARIS, FRANCE on my way to a prime Friday night activity–an oboe recital.
Minding my own business scrolling through the general social media channels, I pick up this gem:
Dozens killed in Paris shooting attacks, French media say – hostages taken at Bataclan arts centre https://t.co/HCargsHMT0
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) November 13, 2015
My reaction can only be summed up in what I uttered, audibly, upon seeing the headline: ..Shit. As I learned more details (and followed a rising death toll) via Twitter, Facebook, and multiple news outlets, I sank further into sadness. Tears welled in my eyes. I still kept vivid memories from my time in Paris three years ago. Sadness quickly turned to panic: I quickly messaged two friends that had moved to Paris, not knowing if I was going to get a reply (they were safe). My heart was heavy, but I needed to stand up and walk downstairs to the recital hall, or I would have been late to hear one of the most moving recitals of my lifetime.
BEAUTY AMIDST ENTROPY
Having been fortunate enough to hear Lauren Williams‘s 1 brilliance firsthand in an orchestra performance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D, 2 I spent Friday in eager anticipation of her graduate solo recital, a rare departure from the usual mere supporting of a colleague. 3 It having been about 45 minutes since news broke of initial deaths, I wondered if anyone else in the audience had heard the news. Indeed, in whispers before Lauren walked on stage, I heard “did you hear…“s and “Oh my God”s. At the time, news updates were still unfolding and the attackers were not yet accounted for, at least as reported by news outlets. We knew not the scale of the attacks; if more were on the way, if New York was somehow next. Glows of phones permeated the hall: New York Times and CNN live updates illuminated the faces of those around and in front of me. As we were waiting, a friend pulled up this chilling tweet:
Words fail–“tense” doesn’t quite capture the pre-concert atmosphere as we all sat and filled the hall with nervous chatter. As I looked at the program, a greater chill came over me as I saw its eerie relevance: the program was bookended by two French composers, Saint Saëns and Poulenc, and also featured Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations, a series of “war-time vignettes“, featuring movements like March and Exercises.
However, when the side doors opened and Lauren stepped on stage, something beautiful happened. The crowd of over a hundred clapped and cheered in a collective vociferousness that breathed happiness and warmth among the whole audience. A smile washed over my face almost involuntarily–even Lauren, with a bemused grin, herself seemed somewhat surprised at the volume of her supporters.
It was doubtful that she had knowledge of the attacks prior to playing her first note–she certainly didn’t play like I would have (see: hot mess) if someone had told me of a terrorist massacre immediately prior to a graduation recital: rather, she played with poise and flair. An audience member even humorously fanned himself, markedly impressed during a particularly sultry section in the Poulenc. 4 But what was truly striking over the course of her opening piece was the sense of gratitude that washed over me, and perhaps the rest of the audience, as we took in the performance.
In a time when we swam in a collective shock, this music recital gave us an outlet for our grief. Amidst chaos, uncertainty, and fear, we had something to celebrate: great music. For all of the moving power of the symphony orchestra, we, the audience, experienced something different yet equally profound in that intimate recital hall. Lauren Williams, with her sometimes dazzling, sometimes tender oboe playing, represented in that moment the immortal vitality of the human spirit.
With the perky, joyous melody of the solo English horn in pianist-composer Robert Fleitz’s wallflower 5, we saw and felt someone dancing in the face of tragedy.
When oboe, bassoon, and piano traded melodies in Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, it felt as if both audience and performer was a participant in an active, intangible retaliation against those who wished to sow mistrust and hatred.
A stretch? Maybe. But I know for an hour of our lives, we thought not about death, uncertainty, or fear.
We thought about music.
“PARIS” IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR “TRAGEDY”
I need to take a brief aside to say something about the media coverage of this incident.
Look at these headlines:
- Could Paris Happen Here? | New York Times
- After Paris: War is Not What It Used To Be | Huffington Post
- What Will Come After Paris | New York Times
- The Exploitation of Paris | New York Times
“Paris”, a lovely city the last time I checked, has apparently been redefined as:
Paris (n.) a mass slaughter of innocent people by a fringe group of radicals that stands to threaten the Western way of life.
I thoroughly detest this practice. 6 Paris is far more than a senseless act of violence. We should not hear that name and feel fear, uncertainty, or doubt in our own safety. We should feel pride, inspiration, and energy. France has an incredible influence on our culture, even today. After all, French, for many centuries, was the dominant global language–it was English before English. Much like Western and American culture permeates the rest of the world, French culture dominated the philosophy and prevailing thought of global affairs and global influence for a longer chunk of human history than English and American culture.
We see this influence in music history, as well. France has an incredibly rich history of compositional genius, from as early as Machaut to Spotify Easy-Listening Playlist staples Debussy, Faure, and Ravel. I have been swept away by the impressionist blur that is Debussy many times–his second Arabesque is still, to this day, the only piece I can still play on the piano.
As a small means of standing with Paris, I asked some of my incredibly successful colleagues to share how French music or experiences in France have affected them. All of the responses were beautiful; some of them incredibly striking, even surprising.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO VISIT PARIS?
It was Henri Dutilleux, or rather his music, that made me move to Paris in 2012. He showed me that music can be completely new and exciting without having to depart from its origins and heritage nurtured by Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen.
So I moved there, set on meeting him, set on getting a lesson, but more naïve than anything else. I didn’t have a phone number or an email or a home address. He was nowhere to be found. After about 4 months of searching I got a severe flu and went to see a doctor. During my appointment we were making chit-chat and he mentioned he has another patient who’s a composer… I didn’t think anything of it, until he named Dutilleux himself.
I asked if I can leave a letter for him to give Dutilleux the next time they meet, but he amusingly laughed and said “Je peux vous-donnez son adresse” (I can give you his address). So he did. Ironically Dutilleux for whom I was looking restlessly lived on the same block as me on Ile Saint-Michel.
I wrote a letter and left it in his semi-transparent mailbox. On following days I went to peek and see if my letter is still in the box. It was.
Not more than a few days later, Le Monde bore this headline: Le compositeur français Henri Dutilleux est mort. (“The French composer, Henri Dutilleux is dead.”). He passed-away aged 97.
That marked the end of my search for him. And so, I left Paris.
Michael Seltenreich, composer, Juilliard MM ’16
I visited Paris this summer. I had been there when I was 13, but I was too young to appreciate it then. This time though, every corner I visited was a surprise. Through walking on the streets where Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz and Dutilleux might have walked on, visiting the concert halls where some of the most influential pieces (to me and to the world) got premiered, and seeing the great artwork that I only experienced through books, I became a different person. After being in schools and struggling with deadlines for so long, I had forgotten the beauty and magical moments of art and music. It was thrilling to be in such an inspirational place at just the right time in my life that reminded of why I wanted to become a composer in the first place. Paris is the place where most of the the influential art that inspired me to become a composer was created. To be there as a young adult, it reawakened my passion and enthusiasm for music and art.
Nicky Sohn, composer, Juilliard MM ’16 | Website
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE FRENCH WORKS OR COMPOSERS?
Ever since I was a kid, I loved French music. I first became familiar with Debussy’s piano miniatures, particularly his Golliwog’s Cakewalk. I remember dancing at home to the capricious melodies, enjoying his quirky writing. Later on as a singer, one of my biggest projects was to learn his song cycle, Songs of Youth – something I spent many hours learning, then performing it in my final singing recital of my undergrad.
As a viola player, I have incredibly fond memories of Ravel’s String Quartet. It was one of the first quartets I ever played and one that I revisited during my time at Juilliard. In my opinion, it is one of the most enchanting, transcendent and exciting pieces in the quartet repertoire. In both instances when I was learning it, my quartet focused on finding the beautiful French sound, something that everyone searches for in performing works of French composers.
Let us remember the beauty of France and the music that was composed by French composers over the years.
Bryony Gibson-Cornish, violist, Juilliard Alumna ’15 | Website
Many of my favorite works were written by French composers, but if I were to choose just one that has been particularly meaningful to learn and perform it would be the “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen, not only because of its musical significance from a compositional perspective, but also its historical and expressive value.
The work itself and the story behind its creation show how music has the ability to deliver a message that transcends conflict and circumstances and is able to unite people that otherwise are in disagreement and – if even for just a moment – put everyone on the same page. It also proves the cliche that “music takes over where words end”, that even in times of terror it is a medium of expression and an emotional outlet for its creator, the performer and the audience.
Hulda Jónsdóttir, Violinist, Juilliard Alumna ’15
My favorite French piece is “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin” (the Girl with the Flaxen Hair) by Debussy, especially the double bass transcription of it. It is beautiful because of its simplicity and elegance as well as its ability to portray a story by following the girl through different emotions. Debussy portrays innocence and youth through the simple opening melody with a constant rise and fall motion that carries through out the entire piece. The piece grows away from the opening and travels through different keys and different emotions, gaining intensity as it progresses until the end where suddenly the melody comes out again on its own, simple and small but still strong. It’s an optimistic piece, emphasizing the importance of persistent child-like wonder in an intimidating and often frightening world.
Katieryn Stewart, double bassist, Juilliard BM ’18
Carmen is one of the world’s most popular and enduring operas, and also the first one that I came to love when I was younger and new to classical music. The music isn’t decidedly French (because Georges Bizet wanted to make it sound Spanish), but every so often there is something that sounds a little more like the French that I now know and love: the entr’acte to act 3 for, instance, in its grace, charm, and subtlety — and that gorgeous melody! If Bizet had lived longer… what great music he could have written.
Joshua Cerdenia, composer, Juilliard MM ’16 | YouTube
WHAT COMES TO YOUR MIND WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT FRENCH MUSIC?
I’ve always been amazed by the sense of grace and life that characterizes so much of French classical music. As a pianist, it is a particular joy to play the works of composers like Debussy and Ravel, who lead us to explore previously uncharted realms of the sound world. The textures and colors to which they draw both musician and listener are a source of ongoing delight and wonder. To me, the music is like a celebration of the experience of life itself — life that is rich in sensations, images, memories, and visions. The contrast between this celebration of life and the hateful nihilism of those who perpetrated the attacks in Paris — and all who perpetrate such attacks elsewhere in the world — could not be greater. Our thoughts and prayers are with all victims and their families.
Jun Luke Foster, Pianist, Juilliard MM ’16 | Website
The thing I like about French music is that it is so easy to find the musical meaning when I’m playing it; the way the melodic lines are composed flow so freely and in ways that make so much sense to me. It has its own distinctive flavor that is so honest but is not afraid to be beautiful at the same time, with the ability to express the full range of emotions we experience in this human life in the most musical ways.
Elena Sloman, oboist, Eastman MM ’17
Throughout the centuries, France has been a multicultural hub, ever evolving in scope and identity. In their music we hear each thread- of love, war, passion, tragedy, and triumph, wound in to a single strand. Their music is our music, our story, a reminder of where we came from and where we are going. French music is humanity.
Trevor Bumgarner, composer, Juilliard Alumnus ’15 | SoundCloud
A large number of clarinetists in the United States, whether they are aware of this fact or not, have a direct connection to France. Most clarinetists today can draw a straight line from themselves to Robert Marcellus, Anthony Gigliotti, or Mitchell Lurie, all of whom studied with the great orchestral clarinetist, Daniel Bonade (1896-1976). Bonade studied at the Paris Conservatory with Henri Lefebvre who studied with Cyrille Rose (1830-1902) who studied with Hyacinthe Klose (1808-1880).
Klose, along with Louis-Auguste Buffet, developed what’s called the Boehm system clarinet. The music we study, the techniques we utilize, and the instrument we hold in our hands all have a direct, clear, and deep connection to France. A popular demonstration of solidarity is to state the phrase “we are France”. For myself and other American clarinetists, this could not be more true.
Oh yes, then there’s the music…
Mike Gersten, Clarinetist and Woodwind Instructor at South Texas College | Website
I have always been enamored with Satie. His simple piano pieces such as the Gymnopedies transcend reality in the sweetest way, but what I enjoy most is his creative convergence with Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Leonine Massine, Parade. Not only did this collaboration break the norms of ballet in the early 1900’s but it brought together four different art forms and three different cultures in one of the most memorable performances of all time. Though there were a few disagreements between these “greats” they set aside their differences and put forth a performance that redefined what we consider art today.
Jillian Honn, Principal Oboe, Syracuse Symphoria Orchestra
French music is like delicate pieces of glass art–all kinds of colors and harmony blend in together as a whole. I especially love Ravel’s piano concerto in G; the 2nd movement brings me to tears every time I listen to it. It’s just gorgeous.
Misaki Saito, Pianist, USC Thornton School of Music, MM ’16
French music has always been an influential part of my overall musical experience. I’ve played and had unforgettable experiences with many wonderful French players. Heck, even the outro of my YouTube videos features the beginning of the second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F.
When I’m feeling really sad or lonely, Gabriel Faure’s Elegie brings me a feeling of connectivity to grief and sorrow. Hearing Faure’s iconic, grief-stricken opening motive cried out by a cellist in the high register really moves my soul and takes me on an all-too-familiar journey through the five stages of grief. The throaty and realistic color of the beginning melodic line takes me quickly through denial and anger. In the development, Faure seemingly lingers upon the bargaining stage with his change to the major mode. Once the piece comes to its climax at the end of this happy turn of events, a short outburst of anger leads to a very quiet depression–and it lingers throughout he remainder of the piece. Although I feel a twinge of acceptance as the closing chords roll in, I feel depression winning out in the end.
Music like this connects me to the composer. In this case, it was a wonderful French composer, and his music has help me through some of the roughest times of my life. Just knowing that he was able to experience such harrowing pain, write it down, and continue on with his life, it gave me reason to believe that I too could overcome sorrow.
MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Finally, please consider donating money to aid those affected by the tragedy in Paris, even if only a few dollars. Currently, the most effective way to donate is with the French Red Cross, who are accepting American donations at this link:
To donate, click the link, then click the blue DONATE button. Even a small amount will go a long way. We must stand together in times of strife, no?
Thanks for reading. Come back for new content next Monday, every Monday. No clickbait, no fluff, just value. Thoughts? Leave a comment below, or send me an email. I respond to everyone. If you like what you read, I’d love for you to share it–I like the idea of a world where people share substantive content over “10 Reasons Why..” articles, don’t you?
- I did not collaborate with Lauren to write this article. ↩
- In Spring 2015, we also were members of a woodwind quintet compiled to premiere a piece by composer Will Stackpole. ↩
- I wasn’t the only one–Juilliard’s Paul Hall was unusually crowded for a student performance. ↩
- Okay, okay, it was me. ↩
- A premiere! ↩
- Indeed, other outlets have chosen the more appropriate (but less sensational) name of “Paris attacks.” ↩