Soaring to the sun to celebrate youth and freedom

The sky is the limit. © Charles Thibo

Are you familiar with the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus? Father and son were held prisoner on the island of Crete and since Crete’s ruler, King Minos, controlled the land and sea routes, Daedalus built artificial wings for himself and his son in order to flee. Before take-off, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, because the sun would melt the wax that held the wings together, nor too low, because the sea foam would soak the feathers. Once in the air, Icarus, exhilarated by the experience of flying, forgot his father’s warning and soared higher and higher. The heat of the sun melt the wax, the wings fell apart and Icarus drowned in the Aegean Sea.

Whenever I hear the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, I must think of Icarus and his fate. You can fly, but respect your limits. If you trespass a certain red line, you will meet a tragic end. Prokofiev would learn this lesson too. While he stayed outside the Russian Empire and the newly born Soviet Union, he could explore any compositional fantasy he wanted. After his return to the Soviet Union, the limits were set by the official cultural doctrine of “Socialist Realism”.

Old world meets new world

Prokofiev started to put to paper the first sketches for his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1913, he revisited those sketches in 1916/17, interrupted the work again. He finished the score in 1921; the premiere took place on 16 December 1921 in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the composer playing the solo part. The recording I have explored has been produced by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, and the pianist Evgeny Kissin.

The piece illustrates the new roads that Russian and French composers were taking: the influence of French Impressionism in painting and the idea of “luminous” music fixing a momentarily impression or emotion, the influence of American jazz music, the lessons learnt from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, an overall modern touch, embracing atonality, broken melodies, overcoming the traditional sonata form.

White keys only

Laurel Fay, author of a riveting biography of Dmitry Shostatkovich, explains that “in 1916-17 [Prokofiev] had toyed with the idea of writing a ‘white-key’ string quartet, music that can be played using only the white keys on the piano. Two themes for the finale of his concerto were retrieved from this project.” She praises “the powers of invention and the felicitous balance of signature elements of Prokofiev’s style – irrepressible rhythmic energy, a steely percussive edge, flashes of impish wit, a vivid orchestral palette, and a warm lyrical impulse.” Every bar exudes the feeling that the world belongs to the youth.

While Prokofiev was about to finish the concerto in his summer residence in Brittany, he socialized with the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942), who stayed nearby. After he had introduced the writer to his concerto, Balmont wrote these lines:

Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you, the orchestra yearned for resonant summer
And the invincible Scythian strikes the tambourine of the sun.

© Charles Thibo


Impressions or a souvenir from the sea

Serenity on water © Charles Thibo

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – gently the boat rocks and rolls in the bay, pushed by a light sea breeze, swayed by the rippling waves. While I did  not intend to blog during my summer vacation1, a picture I shot a few days ago in Brittany reminded me of Maurice Ravel’s piano piece “Une barque sur l’océan” (A boat on the ocean). A beautiful piece Ravel wrote in two versions: one for the piano (1904/05) and a fully orchestrated one. The first one has been recorded by Pierre-Laurent Aimard the second one by the London Symphony Orchestra, two amazing productions.

Continue reading

How Mozart leaked a secret score to the public

Baroque theme
The Vatican’s once hidden splendor. © Charles Thibo

The Vatican and its many secrets – we didn’t need Dan Brown, author of the bestseller “The Da Vinci Code”, to lift the veil that hid what the Papal State wanted to remain unknown. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did it before. While he stayed in Rome in 1770  he heard Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere”, which is performed annually during the Holy Week by the Papal choir. He memorised the ornamented sections, kept secret up to then, copied them to paper and had them published through a middleman, the organist, composer and music scholar Charles Burney.

Continue reading!

A work in progress – half serenade, half symphony


Jubilant splendor. © Charles Thibo

“Sonnez cors et trompettes!” (Sound the horns and trumpets).  This French expression came to my mind when I listened to Johannes Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, especially to the jubilant first movement. It has been recorded by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, back to back with Schumann’s Cello Concerto that I have presented in a post two days ago. I never had really cared to listen to Brahms’ serenade in D consciously before I began to study Schumann’s piece. An omission I later regretted! Because… because it is incredibly beautiful, rich, melodious – very much a reverence to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It displays an overall sunny, optimistic mood, a piece that requires no effort to listen to and has no deeper meaning thant to give the audience 55 minutes of pleasure.

Continue reading!