Dukas: La Péri
Paul Abraham Dukas
BORN: October 1, 1865. Paris, France
DIED: May 17, 1935. Paris
COMPOSED: 1909 through December 1910, with the introductory Fanfare following in February and March 1912. Dedicated to Natacha Touchanova
WORLD PREMIERE: April 22, 1912. The composer conducted the Orchestre Lamoureux, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1916. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—The Orchestra played the Fanfare from La Péri in April 2001. Lawrence Foster conducted. The complete music to La Péri was last heard in February 1936, led by Pierre Monteux
INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings
DURATION: About 19 mins
THE BACKSTORY First off, let us pronounce Paul Dukas’s surname correctly. You will most often hear it rendered as “Du- KAH,” in France and elsewhere, but Dukas was adamant about pronouncing it “Du-KAHSS,” with the “s” articulated at the end. His friend Georges Enescu, the violinist-composer, documented that Dukas rhymed his name with the French word hélas (“alas”), in which the final “s” is always pronounced, insisting: “Look, would you say héla? No? Well then …”
Were it not for one fantastically successful work, Dukas would be almost a complete stranger to music lovers today. L’Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), a symphonic poem premiered in 1897, has all but single-handedly kept his name before the concertgoing public. Even before Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia catapulted it to mass-media celebrity, with Mickey Mouse in the starring role as the Apprentice, it was one of the most frequently performed of all “modern” compositions. Still, acquainting oneself with Dukas’s entire output would not be a lengthy task: he brought few compositions to completion, destroyed some that he did not (as well as some works he did finish), and in the end left a slender catalogue of only a dozen published compositions: L’Apprenti sorcier, the Polyeucte Overture (for Corneille’s drama), one symphony, two substantial piano works (the Sonata in E-flat major and the Variations, interlude et final sur un thème de Rameau) and two short ones (including the interesting La plainte, au loin, du faune . . ., a riposte of sorts to Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune), two pieces for voice and piano (a “vocalise-étude” and a Ronsard setting), a Villanelle for horn and piano (for which hornists are grateful), the opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, and the ballet La Péri (with its appended Fanfare).
Born into a highly musical family—his mother, it was said, had talent that would have enabled her to become a concert pianist, had she wished—Dukas studied at the Paris Conservatory from 1882–88. There he played timpani in the orchestra, received a first prize in counterpoint and fugue, struck up close friendships with Debussy and Vincent d’Indy, and was awarded second place in the Prix de Rome competition for a student cantata. He began writing music reviews in 1892 and would go on to become a notable critic for the Revue hebdomadaire, Gazette des beaux-arts, Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, and Revue musicale. As his career progressed, he became active as a teacher at the Conservatory and the École Normale de Musique and as an editor of “ancient music”—that is, by Couperin, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Beethoven. As a teacher, he was surly and intimidating at first; but many pupils who survived beyond the initial onslaught grew to view him with affection. Quite a few went on to greatness, including Jehan Alain, Carlos Chávez, Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, Walter Piston, Manuel Ponce, and Joaquín Rodrigo.
A mystery surrounds the genesis of Dukas’s La Péri, which was described when published as a poème dansé (danced poem) although he told his friend Pierre Lalo (a prominent music critic) that he “might call it whatever you want—pantomime, ballet, danced scene.” He also revealed to Lalo, “I had lost a wager; to pay off my debt, I had to promise to write this thing.” The word he used was gageure, which might mean just a “challenge”; but given the context of that statement, it does appear to have been an actual bet—though we know not with whom or over what. Perhaps it involved, directly or indirectly, Natacha Trouhanova, born in Kiev in 1885, who had entered the Moscow Conservatory’s acting program but, beset with frequent laryngitis, turned instead to dance. She arrived in Paris in 1907, creating a sensation dancing the Bacchanale in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila at the Opéra. She danced in Parisian establishments of varying aesthetic persuasions—not only the Opéra but also the Folies Bergère and, beginning in 1911, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
This “archangel” (as Dukas called her) was with Diaghilev’s company when he wrote La Péri for her—and dedicated the score to her, and gave her sole performing rights to it for five years. The work was to be unveiled in a four-performance run in June 1911, but plans went awry as the date approached, apparently due to a contractual dispute between Trouhanova and Diaghilev. The impresario cancelled the planned premiere, limiting the run to three go-rounds—to none of which critics would be admitted. The press went berserk, Trouhanova went into a sulk, and Dukas withdrew his score. Diaghilev offered to mount it immediately in London and then in an American tour—offers Dukas met with refusal.
THE MUSIC La Péri finally reached the stage almost a year later than planned, in a non-Diaghilev “danced concert,” with sets and costumes, in Paris. Also on the program were works by d’Indy, Florent Schmitt, and Maurice Ravel, each piece conducted by its respective composer. The press was abundantly in attendance, and critics widely proclaimed La Péri to be the cream of the crop. Typical was Robert Brussel’s assessment in Le Figaro: “To what can we attribute the deep impression caused by this work, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece? To the expressive virtues of its melodic invention, to its marvelous architecture, to the richness of its logic, to its flexible yet firm rhythm, with the intoxicating effect of an orchestra that joins strength to fluidity? I believe that it is an element that cannot be measured, the only one that mediates about perfect beauty: poetry.”
The ballet’s scenario, drawn from Persian folklore, is printed in the score. Iskender (a prince) traverses Iran seeking the Flower of Immortality (a lotus) and spies said flower in the hands of a sleeping peri, an exquisite winged spirit of female gender. He steals it; it turns purple due to the passion he feels; she earns it back by dancing; returned to her hands, the flower emits a brilliant light; and, as she and the flower disappear into thin air, Iskender realizes that his own end is near.
Dukas introduced his piece with a two-minute Fanfare for brass choir, not part of the original score but added for the delayed 1912 premiere. This scintillating call-to-order yields to the mysterious sounds of strings, then joined by horns and woodwinds. The texture fills out, sounding unmistakably French; the sound shimmers. Dukas introduces the principal themes associated with Iskender (horns and woodwinds playing a melody in long-short rhythms, with violins swirling gently above) and then the Peri (a dignified theme played in medium register by English horn, French horns, and cellos). At the six-minute mark, the percussion section comes vibrantly alive as Iskender steals the flower. With a sudden change of mood (and key) the Peri begins her dance (flutes low in their range, horns, and violas, perhaps recalling the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’s Salome, another Trouhanova specialty); she continues through six variations. At the work’s end, the Peri shimmers away into nothingness, leaving Iskender to contemplate his end through memories of his rhythmically pointed theme and the ever-receding sounds of strings and high woodwinds.—James M. Keller