Review: A Musico-Sociological Study of Paul Dukas’s French-Jewish Identity Manifested in Variations, Interlude, et Finale Sur Un Thème de Rameau. Seulki Susie Yoo, speaker and piano. June 2nd, 2023.
Published online: 5 November 2023
Review: A Musico-Sociological Study of Paul Dukas’s French-Jewish Identity Manifested in Variations, Interlude, et Finale Sur Un Thème de Rameau. Seulki Susie Yoo, speaker and piano. June 2nd, 2023. Music Building 1, Classroom #122 (Lecture-Recital Hall), School of Music, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
This lecture-recital presented by Dr. Seulki Susie Yoo focuses on a work by little-known French composer Paul Dukas (1865 -1935). Dukas achieved some degree of fame after his death thanks to his composition L’ Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), which appeared in the Disney movie Fantasia. Yoo discusses a few possible reasons why Dukas did not become a house-hold name in the world of mainstream classical music, citing the composer’s extreme perfectionism, tumultuous times for all artists during the Third Republic of France (1870 -1940), as well as a possibility that the success of L’ Apprenti Sorcier overshadowed Dukas’s other compositions. According to the presenter, it is now time to revive our interest in another piece by Dukas: Variations, Interlude and Finale on the Theme by Rameau or Rameau Variations, which were once highly praised by greats like Alfred Courtot.
Yoo’s explanations are fascinating, as she lays out the political and social context in France between the fall of the Second Empire and the formation of the Vichy government in 1940. She discusses the vicious political divide surrounding Alfred Dreifus, a French officer of Jewish descent whose triall and wrongful conviction on charges of treason in 1894 became one of the most polarizing battles in French society. According to Yoo, Dukas’s own life encapsulates the ambiguity of his own Jewish upbringing and his personal affiliation with French culture and values, his dedication to the French military and his personal philosophical views of liberty and humanism, largely inspired by Emile Zola (1840-1902).
Yoo points out that the Rameau Variations, composed in the middle of the Dreifus political drama (1899-1902), become Dukas’s attempt to reconcile past tendencies and future directions of French society, its national music, and its soul. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), as a father of French national music, represents its reverent and dignified past. At the same time, the avant-garde compositional techniques used by Dukas transform the original theme, forecasting change and the future.
The Variations follow the model laid out by Beethoven in his symphonies, in which the musical gestures are poised to represent the hero’s struggles toward a victorious end, much like Dukas’s own sympathies toward Dreifus and his hopes for justice. The presenter’s vision of the musical narrative is clearly laid out in graph form to illustrate structural intersections of the musical form and notable melodic gestures. The entire set illustrates the evolution of Dukas’s compositional language, from his homage to Rameau through the masterful citation of Dies Irae and skillful imitation of the famed French Baroque style, to ultimate reconciliation and victory. Dukas’s musical language is full of symbols, including distant relationships between the main key areas and their own symbolism in music repertoire, juxtaposition of the musical elements to represent struggle, and finally superimposition of the main thematic elements in a reconciliatory manner. Yoo says that in retrospect, multilayered texture and psychological trajectory of composition paves the way for composers such as Lutoslawski, Copland, and Vaughan Williams, all of whom came to prominence after Dukas.
Yoo closes the presentation with a complete performance of the Dukas Rameau Variations. It is a rare treat to hear this composition performed. From the first notes, it became clear that the theoretical underpinnings discussed in the presentation slides found their complete realization in Yoo’s interpretation. Her understanding of textural complexities and the formal structure of each variation is evident in the impeccable voice leading and various articulations she selects for her performance. Especially remarkable are sudden dynamic shifts that are perfectly timed. It is an absolute pleasure to hear this rendition of Dukas’s composition, and the background information provided by Yoo amplifies the impression of the piece.
Diana Shapiro, DMA, serves as an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater. As part of the Piano Duo Varshavski-Shapiro, she has won numerous international competitions. She regularly presents her research at conferences, adjudicates at competitions, and gives masterclasses across the Midwest.