A Look at the Nocturnal Sky on the Longest Day

Castillon piano concerto
Solstice. © Charles Thibo

16 hours and 18 minutes of daylight. Solstice. The longest day of the year. The sun has risen at 05:28 and sets – right now, at 21:46. Nautical twilight will start at 22:30, astronomical twilight at 23:34. There will be no official night as astronomical twilight will last until 03:40 when the next day is well underway. For ten thousands of years, solstice has occupied Man’s mind for reasons linked to practical life, worshipping and science. A moment of magic. I invite you to contemplate the nocturnal sky if the sky is clear and to ponder the fact that during Stone Age already men, women and children contemplated this very sky, searched for the brightest stars and wondered whether it all had a deeper meaning. Man meets infinity when he looks up at the sky at night and realizes how small he actually is.

When you are done with the sky you may not want to go to sleep immediately. I suggest you listen to Alexis de Castillon’s Piano Concerto in D Major, op. 12. De Castillon wrote it in 1871; it had its premiere a year later with Castillon’s friend Camille de Saint-Saëns performing the solo part. The premiere was a disaster, the audience went on a rampage. The music magazine “Gramophone” speculated that public may have disliked it because concertos simply were not the fashion of the time or  because of “the character of the work, which, though clearly influenced by Schumann, stylistically was decidedly unusual: […] a broad, rhapsodic piano solo lasting well over a minute before the orchestra has any say […]”.

It’s precisely this long solo introduction that makes the concerto a good companion for the night. Reflective, nostalgic, dreamy – very much in line with Romanticism. The orchestra than takes up the mood, an elevating melody gradually evolving into a more tense phrasing – I love that transition. Halfway through the movement, there is a burst of energy, unannounced, unexpected, a musical supernova, bright, powerful, an explosion with a long afterglow. The second movement is comparatively short, well-balanced, imaginative, languorous, while the last movement, almost as long as the first, is marked by a forceful start of the orchestra, with the piano intervening just occasionally and gradually taking up a more dominant part.

The Palazzetto Bru Zane, a foundation dedicated to French Romantic music, characterized Castillon’s piano concerto by “melodic generosity and a high degree of freedom, a tender Romanticism, forceful and limpid, enhanced by the piano in a brilliant yet measured way.” Vincent d’Indy recommended the work to his composition class as the last maintaining a balance between the orchestra and the soloist without sliding into a cheap virtuosity.

Aldo Ciccolini has recorded the piano concerto with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo under Georges Prêtre, but the CD is a little difficult to get. You may find it like I did as second-hand purchase on that big online shopping platform, you know which one. The one selling CDs, books and dishwasher. A low quality recording can be found on Youtube.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.