Escales (Ports of Call)
BORN: August 15, 1890. Paris, France
DIED: February 5, 1962. Paris
WORLD PREMIERE: January 6, 1924. Paul Paray led the Lamoureux Orchestra, in Paris
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—January 1946. Pierre Monteux conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo (1 flute doubling 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, castanets, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps, celesta, and strings
DURATION: About 15 mins
THE BACKSTORY Jacques Ibert represents the quintessence of the Parisian composer of the early-to-mid twentieth century—cultivated but not pompous, technically adept but self-effacing, blending the “serious” with the “popular,” typically good-spirited and often witty. He was born in Paris during the Belle Epoque and died there seventy-two years later, having weathered two world wars. His mother had studied piano at the Paris Conservatory and encouraged his musical education as a child. He was drawn to both music and the theater, and after graduating from high school he took acting lessons. His parents were aghast at the idea of his pursuing his livelihood in the theater, but they allowed him to enroll as a music student at the Paris Conservatory in 1910—as long as he understood that the burden of a poorly paying career would be one he would need to shoulder without any parental bail-outs.
At the Conservatory, he studied counterpoint with André Gédalge (his fellow students included Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Jean Wiéner) and composition with Paul Vidal. To support himself, he gave music lessons, worked as a movie-hall pianist, and wrote popular songs and dance tunes, which he published under the pseudonym William Berty. World War I intruded just when Ibert would have begun the school’s orchestration curriculum; he headed off instead to the front to become a nurse and stretcher-bearer. He was discharged a couple of years later following a bout with paratyphoid, but he re-enlisted—this time in the Navy—where he was elevated to an officership, served at Dunkirk, and earned the Croix de Guerre. When the War ended, in 1918, he rapidly returned to his composing and was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome on his first try, in 1919. In October 1922, he enjoyed the first-ever all-Ibert concert in Paris, presented by the respected Concerts Colonne, and on January 6, 1924, Paul Paray conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in the premiere of Escales, which would become Ibert’s most enduringly successful piece.
A decade later, Ibert extended his activities to include music administration. In 1937 he was named director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome, where Prix de Rome winners were sent to soak up Italian (and by extension Classical) culture. He held that position until 1960, commuting between Paris and Rome, though with a break during the World War II years. He fell into trouble with French officialdom during that war. The Vichy Régime found him abhorrent (to his great credit) and banned his music. He responded by retreating from Paris to Antibes (on the Riviera); he moved to spend 1942-43 in neutral Switzerland, and then again to Haute-Savoie in the French Alps, where he stayed through 1944, at which point General Charles de Gaulle ordered him back to Paris to resume his directorial position.
In 1955, Ibert was named Administrator of the Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, in which capacity he oversaw both of the principal opera houses in Paris, the Opéra de Paris and the Opéra Comique. Ill health forced him to resign less than a year later, but his spirit was boosted when, shortly thereafter, he was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Ibert never departed much from an essentially traditional approach to composing, and he used explicitly modern harmonies principally as surface details in his scores. His oeuvre included contributions to most of the major musical genres (except sacred music), including operas (one of which, L’Aiglon, he composed jointly with Honegger), ballets (his neo-Renaissance Diane de Poitiers score is occasionally played), incidental music for theater productions (lots of it), film scores (including the “Circus” section of the 1956 Invitation to the Dance—devised, directed, and danced by Gene Kelly but a flop nevertheless), songs, piano pieces, a good deal of chamber music (including his much-played Trois pièces brèves for wind quintet), and even, by way of curiosity, two cadenzas each for Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto and Clarinet Concerto. Escales remains the most performed of his orchestral scores.
His compositions were widely saluted by his contemporaries. The Belgian composer and actor Arthur Hoérée lauded him in 1929 as inheritor of the mantle of Emmanuel Chabrier, a master of musical wit for a preceding generation: “I would quite naturally see in Jacques Ibert the legacy of the highest virtues of the composer of the Bourrée fantasque, and . . . I dub him the ‘Contemporary Chabrier.’ It would have been a pity if, among its diverse expressions, the face of French music had lost the ironic smile which Ibert carries on even more than certain groupies who assemble in the shadows of Satie.” (Take that, Les Six!) In 1945 Henri Dutilleux said, “Of all our composers, Jacques Ibert is certainly the most authentically French. . . Ibert’s orchestration is straightforward, uncluttered, and clear, yet something about it also sounds new, as if never heard before. I think I am not mistaken in saying that his manner of treating the orchestra in layers, in reaction against the method of orchestration by touches of color, had a positive influence on a good many musicians of my generation.”
THE MUSIC Escales dates from Ibert’s stint as a Prix de Rome laureate. During their residencies in Rome, winners were asked to send specimens of their new work back to the administrators in Paris. Escales served as one of these envois (submitted pieces) from Ibert. The piece takes the form of three colorful postcards from locales around the Mediterranean. “Initially,” Ibert explained, “it was an orchestral suite of three numbers, which I had ingeniously titled 1, 2, and 3 . . . People felt, not unreasonably, that this was not very expressive. . . . They kindly asked me to be more explicit.”
“In the first movement,” he wrote, “the sounds of a tarantella occasionally appear against the heavy swells of the sea. Without much trouble it became Palerme”—which is to say that it documents the trip at sea from Rome south to Palermo in Sicily. The second evokes two cities of Tunisia—Tunis (on the northern coast) and Nefta, 300 miles inland, in the country’s desert southwest. “In fact,” he wrote, “when I travel I am interested in everything, from snake charmers to overcrowded neighborhoods. . . . Everything, and also the music. . . . Thus came about this motif I heard in Nefta, in southern Tunisia and which was transformed into Tunis, the second number of Escales.” The finale, with its “strongly marked Iberian character,” involves Valencia, on the eastern coast of Spain.
You may read that these pieces were inspired by Ibert’s military journeys during World War I, but they were not; “I often regret that my occasional sea-sailings during the war,” he said, “only allowed me to patrol up and down the quay Cronstadt [in Toulon] or the foggy shores of the Belgian beaches.” In fact, this work was born of happier circumstances: his honeymoon trip. He married Rose-Marie (Rosette) Veber, a sculptor, just after winning the Prix de Rome, and they departed on a Mediterranean cruise, embarking at these locations before settling in at Rome.
—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor Gold Seal) | Neeme Järvi conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Chandos) | Jean Martinon conducting the Orchestre National de I’ORTF (EMI, available as a re-release on ArkivMusic) | Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (RCA Victor Red Seal or Sony Classics) | Eduardo Mata conducting the Dallas Symphony (Sono Luminus)
Reading: Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), by Alexandra Laederich (Olms) | Jacques Ibert, l’homme et son oeuvre, by Gérard Michel (Seghers) | Jacques Ibert, by Jacques Feschotte (Ventadour)