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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

A Celebration of French Music

5-Session Daytime Course on Zoom

Monday, May 3, 2021 - 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1K0091
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Materials for this program

  1. A Celebration of French Music Series | Syllabus

Lithographic poster for the premiere of Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen", 1875

France is an immeasurable powerhouse of cultural achievement. Through French politics and history, philosophy, fine arts, and cuisine, our lives continue to be influenced by the Gallic vision of society. And in many ways, the history of French music is also the history of Western music. But what makes French music French?

Popular speaker and concert pianist Rachel Franklin combines lectures and piano demonstrations to explore the social, political, religious, and cultural influences that shaped the output of France’s great composers, and presents a selection of the greatest works in the literature.

British-born Franklin has been a featured speaker for organizations including the Library of Congress and NPR, exploring intersections among classical and jazz music, film scores, and the fine arts.

MAY 3  700 Years in 90 Minutes

Franklin leads a lightning tour of French music written before the 19th century, beginning with the mystery and beauty of early 12th-century polyphony by Léonin and Pérotin from the mighty School of Notre-Dame. Touching briefly on exquisite work by Guillaume de Machaut (14th century) and Josquin des Prez (15th century), jump forward to the Baroque period, which saw the meteoric rise of French opera and non-vocal instrumental music. Then enjoy splendid dance music and opera selections by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau, plus witty keyboard pieces by master clavecinist Francois Couperin.

MAY 4  Excess and Outrage

In the 1800s, it seemed that the horrors of the French Revolution had unleashed a taste for massive scale and spectacle. The startling musical program of Hector Berlioz’s brilliant Symphonie Fantastique combines sexuality, drugs, and diabolism. Equally mesmerizing for Parisians was the glorious gigantism of grand opera, a new style that demanded extreme melodrama, much death and destruction, and perilous stage machinery. Get a taste of this with Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer.

MAY 5  Breaking Norms and Creating Virtuosity

The magnificent Carmen by Georges Bizet was a very different kind of opera, featuring a revolutionary heroine who defies the social hypocrisies of the time. It caused a furor and failed utterly at its premiere. Although opera was the main public obsession in Paris, the 19th century also saw the city become a glittering center for pianism when the twin constellations Liszt and Chopin came to town. Franklin shares some indigenous offerings, selections of solo French piano music by the reclusive Charles Valentin Alkan, and piano concertos by Camille Saint-Saëns.

MAY 6  Passing the Flame

Saint-Saëns was Gabriel Fauré’s deeply revered teacher. And Fauré was equally influential as the chief mentor for Maurice Ravel. Connections continue on a less exalted level, as singer Emma Bardac was mistress to both Fauré and Claude Debussy. Whether composing religious works or fantasy tableaux, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel combined sensuosity and extreme refinement, frequently inspired by Symbolist poetry. Explore Fauré’s beautiful Requiem, Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and Ravel’s extraordinary journey into the supernatural in his piano masterpiece Gaspard de la Nuit.

MAY 7  Modernism Smashes Old Idols

"Enough of clouds, waves, aquariums, water sprites, and nocturnal scents; what we need is a music of the earth, everyday music." With those inflammatory words, mover, shaker, and trouble-maker Jean Cocteau relegated Debussy to the musical history books and ushered in the reign of eccentric genius Erik Satie and his group of rambunctious protegés Les Six, which included Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. Finally, Franklin spotlights the great Olivier Messiaen, whose place in musical modernism is utterly unique. His Quartet for the End of Time is a deeply moving 20th-century landmark.

5 sessions

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.