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Les Chants de l'aube, for cello and orchestra

Thierry Escaich's BSO co-commissioned concerto for French cellist Gautier Capuçon explores lyricism and the transformation of melody.

Thierry Joseph-Louis Escaich was born May 8, 1965, in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, and lives in Paris. He composed his cello concerto Les Chants de l’aube for soloist Gautier Capuçon on a joint commission from the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, Gewandhauskapellmeister, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, through the generous support of Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser. The commission is part of the ongoing partnership between the GHO and the BSO. Gautier Capuçon was soloist in the world premiere performances given by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, conductor, at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, March 16-17, 2023. The BSO's April 13-15, 2023, performances constitute the American premiere of Les Chants de l’aube; on April 24, the BSO, Nelsons, and Capuçon perform the piece at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In addition to the solo cello, the score for Les Chants de l’aube calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets in B-flat (2nd doubling clarinet in A and bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, 2 percussion (crotales, vibraphone, marimba, tubular bells, metal chimes, clash cymbals, small, medium, and large suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, medium/large tam-tams, whip, claves, snare drum, bass drum), harp, celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 24 minutes long.

Born in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, Thierry Escaich attended the Paris Conservatoire as a student in organ, composition, and improvisation; since 1992 he has himself taught composition and improvisation there. In 1996 he, along with Vincent Warnier, succeeded Maurice Duruflé as organist at Paris’s Saint-Étienne du Mont. Escaich’s reputation rests nearly equally on his accomplishments as an organist and as a composer. He tours and records frequently as a performer, and his music is played by orchestras and chamber groups throughout Europe and by major ensembles in the U.S., including the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. With his new cello concerto, Escaich has now collaborated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as both composer and performer: he made his BSO debut as an organist in January 2020, performing Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings and Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 under Alain Altinoglu’s direction at Symphony Hall.

Organ is rarely a child’s first instrument; those who do become professional organists often begin as pianists. For Escaich, playing accordion as a child was a formative experience, leading to his first stage time and introducing him to folk and dance music—including the tango and the waltz—that he says continues to inform the energy and movement underlying all of his work. He professes to being unable to do without both the spontaneous, unpredictable excitement of improvising and the planning, long-term exploration of poetic and technical ideas, and problem-solving that go into composing. In his organ recitals, he programs standard repertoire and his own music along with allotting time for improvisation. Both processes might unearth new ways of doing things. While improvising, a performer may get stuck in the rut of muscle memory and learned tropes, but happy accidents and new inspirations also occur. Escaich finds that improvising in accompaniment to silent films, such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, stimulates new performance and expressive pathways. Composing, too, can reveal new possibilities by demanding new solutions to depicting a mood or action or by posing abstract problems—a fugue or other existing formal design is a good example—that need to be solved with expressive musicality.

Escaich cites Gregorian chant as well as medieval and Renaissance sacred music as fundamental influences, along with the music of such 20th-century composers as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and György Ligeti. He points to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as a model of marshaling dramatic and psychological energies over the course of a piece. Escaich, when a piece calls for it, can also draw on elements of dance, popular, and jazz styles. Although he suggests that his compositional voice was largely in place by his late teens, with each new piece he seeks new territory and new forms.

Along with music, visual art, especially painting and film, and literature continue to shape Escaich’s aesthetic. He points to his 2004 orchestral work Vertiges de la croix (“Vertigo of the cross”) as a watershed: the piece is a musical “transcription” of Peter Paul Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, attempting to reflect in musical form the colors, contrasts of light and dark, overall form, and emotional impact of Rubens’ early Baroque masterwork. Films by such directors as Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, as well as Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, provide models for his music in the natural fluidity of the action within scenes and the organic movement from one scene to another.

The great French novelist and poet Victor Hugo factors powerfully among Escaich’s literary heroes. Hugo’s short story “Claude Gueux” was the basis for Escaich’s opera Claude, premiered by Opéra de Lyon in 2013. Hugo’s poetry collection Les Rayons et les ombres (“Rays and shadows”) provided the title and the impetus for the musical mood of the opening movement of Escaich’s new cello concerto. The composer’s opera Shirine, premiered in 2022 also in Lyon, sets Atiq Rahimi’s libretto based on the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s epic Khosrow and Shirin. Escaich is currently deciding among subjects for his next opera, in which he hopes to include film or video elements. Meanwhile, having written several orchestral works in recent months, he felt the need to focus on the more intimate and transparent medium of chamber music. He is composing a work for violin, cello, and piano plus three percussion for summer 2023.

Escaich has composed more than 100 pieces, including a large catalog of chamber music, solo works for organ, and works for accompanied and unaccompanied chorus. Works with orchestra include the viola concerto Les Nuits de chants for Antoine Tamestit, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, and the NDR Elbphilharmonie; a Concerto for Flute and Orchestra for Joséphine Olech and the Rotterdam Philharmonic; a Concerto for Orchestra for Orchestra de Paris and Neeme Järvi, and many other works for orchestra including concertos for clarinet, guitar, and violin. His double concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra Miroir d’ombres (“Mirror of shadows”) was composed for the brothers Renaud (violin) and Gautier (cello) Capuçon, who premiered the piece with Orchestre national de Lille in Belgium in 2006. (The composer’s chiaroscuro preoccupation with the visual is reinforced in many of his titles.) That concerto led to commissions for solo concertos for both Renaud and Gautier, both of whom the composer has known for many years through association with the Paris Conservatoire. The concerto for the older brother, Renaud, was composed first but will receive its premiere in 2024. The present concerto for Gautier took some time to develop, due to other projects; it was ultimately commissioned by the BSO and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig as part of the ensembles’ ongoing partnership.

Les Chants de l’aube (“Songs of the Dawn”) is constructed in an outwardly conventional three-movement form, with the movements linked by cadenzas for the soloist. Escaich relates that in this concerto he was primarily concerned with lyricism, which is constantly audible in both the soloist’s music and in the orchestra. He achieves variety by requiring the soloist to use a wide range of timbres, from rich, sustained, bowed passages to pizzicato, ponticello (a wiry sound made by bowing near the instrument’s bridge), and flutelike harmonics. He also explored the entire range of the instrument as well, contrasting the cello’s high range with its middle and low registers.

The title of the first movement, Des Rayons et des ombres (“Of rays and shadows”) underlines Escaich’s strategy of juxtaposing passages of great transparency with denser ones. The title, as mentioned, alludes to poems of Victor Hugo, but the composer aimed not for depiction but a suggestion of mood. The opening reveals one of the composer’s characteristic methods: the solo cellist states a fragment of melody that grows and transforms over the course of the movement. Escaich writes that it “looks like a kind of stained-glass window because it is clearly based on three superimposed musical worlds: a peaceful and limpid chorale in the high register, a dark and distorted ’mirror’ of this chorale in the low winds, and some crumbs of Baroque phrases exchanged between the soloist and orchestra” presented in canon, that is, imitation, in the middle register. “The cello solo attempts to escape from this universe, introducing new rhythmic elements and leading the piece toward a more lyrical and dramatic climate.”

In the cadenza linking the first movement to the second, the soloist begins to create the new character of the second movement, “Le Rivage des chants” (“Riverbank of songs”). Escaich layers melodies of different characters and styles—e.g., imagined “traditional” songs of Africa and invented Gregorian chant—that transform into “grooving” music that hints at jazz. The transitional second cadenza “leads the piece into an unreal, transparent moment, like a sunrise where time seems stopped.”

In the last movement, “Danse de l’aube” (“Dawn dance”) the cello plays a “long and peaceful song,” but from the orchestra gradually emerges a “ritual and obstinate dance” that grows in intensity and draws on music from the two earlier movements. The three sharply defined planes of register, high, medium, and low, that are a defining feature of the piece confront each other in quick succession for an intense, rhythmically lively conclusion.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.