Friday, December 9, 2011

Dukas - La Péri

Musically, France in the time of Paul Dukas ( 1865 - 1935) was of two camps, conservative and progressive. Dukas was not a member of either, but was admired by both sides, a feat that says much about the man himself.

He was a composer, critic and member of the faculty at the Paris conservatory.  He was severely self-critical as a composer and destroyed much of his work.  The music he published is of a very high quality, with his best known work being the symphonic poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice , very popular even before Walt Disney included it in his film Fantasia.   There is also a symphony, an overture, a piano sonata and other pieces for solo piano, one opera, and a ballet La Péri .  Dukas was well-known as a teacher of composition later in his life, and for his knowledge of historical music and its forms.

La Péri was written in 1911 and was commissioned by  the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev.  The fanfare for brass that opens the work was composed at a later date and was inserted at the beginning of the work because the original tone poem begins very quietly and Dukas was concerned that the audience would miss it.  Dukas called the piece a 'dance poem in one scene', and it is his last published work.  The original scenic and costume designs for the ballet were by Leon Bakst an example of his design for the costume for Iskender is shown below.

The story of the ballet comes from an ancient Persian legend. A prince named Iskender travels to the end of the world in search of the flower of immortality. He finds a péri  (a fallen angel) that has fallen asleep with a lotus flower in her hand.  He steals the flower, the péri wakes up and proceeds to dance and through her dance takes back the lotus. The prince feels as if his life were over, as the péri and the lotus fade away. The lotus flower was indeed the flower of immortality and without it the prince slowly dies.

Dukas was a fellow student of Debussy and admired his music.  La Péri shows that Dukas knew Debussy's music very well, for it is somewhat impressionistic like Debussy's, but in Dukas' own personal style.

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