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!

Inter­est­ed in learn­ing more? Don’t miss our Sea­son Open­er on Oct 6. Get your tick­ets today!



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