Season Opener: Russian Influences on French Composers

As an ensemble, Civitas has always been passionate about using music to bring cultures together. Last season, we invited Romani (gypsy) musicians from the Czech Republic to collaborate on a project that spanned two continents and celebrated cross-cultural influences on classical and commissioned pieces we performed together in Prague and Chicago. This season, we are excited to bring  our audiences a series of events created with musicians and composers from Beijing, China.

This same spirit of cross-cultural migration and collaboration inspired us to select the music of several French composers who were influenced by Russian composers for our upcoming Season Opener on Friday, October 6 at Gottlieb Hall, Merit School of Music.

We’ll be performing works by three French composers who lived in Paris during the early 20th Century: Camille Saint-Säens (1835−1921), Maurice Ravel (1875−1937) and Francis Poulenc (1899−1963).

At the time, Paris was a cultural magnet for musicians, writers and artists, of all types. Russians who flocked to the dynamic international scene in Paris, included painter Marc Chagall, composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, and Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes.

“Paris and Vienna at the turn of the century were the great mixing bowls of culture and art,” says J. Lawrie Bloom, Civitas’ clarinetist. “Clearly, composers were very influenced by what was going on there, whether it was Russians or jazz.”

Winston Choi, Civitas’ pianist, says it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just the foreigners who were influenced by the French, but that the French were influenced by the outsiders as well. “I guess what’s so obvious is the influence Paris had on Russian composers because it was such a hub, but it went the other way, too. It wasn’t just a one-way street,” he says.

The World’s Exposition in Paris in 1889, when visitors had the chance to hear Rimsky-Korsakov conducting his own works, was a significant and impactful introduction to Russian music for French composers. The experience left a lasting impression on the 14-year-old Ravel, who later wrote his own version of Sheherazade.

Another Russian composer who influenced many French composers was Stravinsky, who debuted his score for The Rite of Spring in Paris on May 29, 1913. The music sent shock waves throughout the musical world, changing how many composers thought about rhythm, harmonic structure, tonality, dissonance and the act of composing.

“It’s a ballet, but it’s totally non-symphonic. Its harmonic structure has almost no precedent,” Bloom says. “It’s guttural. It’s deeply sexual. People didn’t write music like that before.” Choi agrees that The Rite of Spring was groundbreaking music for its time. “It’s incredibly exciting, visceral music,” he says. “The way Stravinsky uses rhythm really shakes up the way we think about music.”

For some composers, such as Ravel and Poulenc, The Rite of Spring inspired them to experiment more and to push the boundaries of composition.

Ravel was in attendance at The Rite of Spring’s première and predicted it would become a historically important piece. Poulenc was too young to have been present at The Rite of Spring’s première, but his uncle introduced him to the music, and he said it was something that impacted him greatly and influenced him for the rest of his career.

For others, the audacity of The Rite of Spring sparked the opposite reaction, causing them to embrace more traditional music. Saint-Säens detested The Rite of Spring. “Saint-Säens was so conservative and neo-classical, I would expect him to hate it because it was completely against everything he stood for,” Bloom says.

However, Saint-Saens was influenced by a different Russian composer, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. The two first met in 1875 when Saint-Saens went on a concert tour to Moscow, and they became fast friends and admirers of each other’s music. In fact, it is thanks to Saint-Saens that Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture was first performed in Paris.

Choi says artists have always been influenced by the works of other artists on the international stage, but by the 20th century, it had become so easy to travel to other countries in Europe that this kind of cross-pollination became inevitable.

“We too often stereotype composers and lump them together nationally,” Choi says. “But really, it’s impossible for composers to escape the influence of people around them.”

Civitas looks forward to exploring these very themes all year, and to conversations this spring with our Chinese and Chinese-American collaborators, reflecting on the varied and complex personal, educational and professional cultural influences the four of us embody as artists and together as a chamber ensemble. We’ll hope you’ll join us on this journey starting October 6!