Lecture-Recital: A Musico-Sociological Study of Paul Dukas’s French-Jewish Identity Manifested in “Variations, Interlude, et Finale Sur un Thème de Rameau.”
Published online: 5 November 2023
[PowerPoint Slide 1]
Hello! Welcome to my lecture-recital. My name is Seulki Susie Yoo, and I am very excited to discuss Paul Dukas’s Variations, Interlude, et Finale Sur un Thème de Rameau from a musicological-sociological perspective.
While the Rameau Variations was applauded during Dukas’s time, it became a rather obscure repertoire today. How familiar are you with Dukas’s Rameau Variations? Usually, the reaction I get is “I have been playing the piano for entire of my life, but I never heard of that piece!” There are several possible reasons that contribute to this piece’s obscurity.
First, Dukas was extremely perfectionist, and so he discarded the majority of his compositions, and among his few surviving repertoires, the famous L’apprenti Sorcier from the Disney movie overshadowed Dukas’s other remaining compositions.
However, in the past, the Rameau variations received high praise. For example, Alfred Cortot praised it as “French lucid principles of balance and logic,” and Irving Schwerke described the piece as “a piece with Mastery, virtuosity, poetic quality, and Dukas’s friend and colleague Pierre Lalo said, “It is impossible to unify and combine the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements that comprise the Rameau theme with more variety and brilliance than Mr. Dukas does”.
So, I am excited to share my performance of Dukas’s Rameau Variations along with my presentation, and I will discuss the background of the piece for a deeper understanding of the piece. It was written during the turmoil of the Third Republic of France and I will discuss how this period of time imprinted on the work of French musicians, artist, and intellectuals of the time.
We are looking at several major figures during the Third Republic. The Third Public was proclaimed on September 4, 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed during the Franco- Prussian War. And it ended July 10, 1940, during World War 2, which led to the formation of the Vichy government.
The top middle picture is the Palais Bourbon on September 4, 1870, the date of Third Republic establishment. On the bottom left corner pictured is Alfred Dreyfus, who was a French artillery officer of Jewish descent. He was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life in prison. His second trial, which wasn’t granted until 1899, further divided French society into two groups; Pro-Republican and church clergy who were opposed to the supporters of Dreyfusards.
Emile Zola, next to Dreyfus, wrote a famous letter J’accuse to the president in defense of Dreyfus, and many of his writings explored the themes of individual and collective identity, and truth and justice. Painter Henri-Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings symbolize freedom and resistance in the modern Paris scene.
While musicians such as Vincent d’Indy and Saint Saens supported French national traditions and cultural heritage, Paul Dukas who came from a Jewish heritage wrote compositions with subtle but powerful symbolism that reflected the experiences and emotions of Dreyfusards during the Affair.
In fact, Dukas was a lifelong Parisian musician, and Dukas’s generation was often described as “the first generation of more Frenchmen than Jews”. Dukas’s ancestors served and dedicated themselves to the French military. And during the Dreyfus affair, Dukas’s diplomatic personality did not allow him to make any direct public statement about the affair, and that Dukas maintained a professional relationship with antisemitic Vincent D’indy shows his diplomatic personality or even neutral stance in public.
However, descending from Jewish Bourgeois background, Dukas wholeheartedly admired Emile Zola’s capacity for empathy and humanity, and his aversion to the French military service unlike his ancestors often seen as his siding with the Dreyfusards.
Also, Dukas always advocated individual liberty. He believed in the right to create art according to one’s will, which allowed him to be experimental in his music, and most importantly, his musical themes continually convey ‘freedom’ and ‘truth’ in music.
To be specific, these themes are Reconciliation and Contrast, advocating ‘good’ and ‘truth’.
We are looking at a timeline from the Third Republic establishment until World War 1, and Dukas’s major compositions during that time.
The pre-Dreyfus Affair piece, the overture “Polyeucte” delivers reconciliation materials between Christian faith and love, and delivers his afterlife belief, while pro-Dreyfusard piece Ariane et Barbe-Bleue which is his single opera more precisely responds to the Dreyfus Affair with themes of truth, deception, and freedom, referencing Emile Zola’s philosophy. Dukas’s ballet piece La Peri sends a message about the search for redemption and the struggle between good and evil, while his post WW1 piece Victory explores the reconciliation of past and future.
The Rameau Variations links his previous work and later work. The subtle but powerful symbolism in the variation references Polyeucte, and foreshadows Ariane. The music also links past and future by paying homage to Rameau as a seminal figure in French music, and incorporating Dukas’s avant-garde compositional and harmonic tools to further define this bridge.
Now, I’d like to discuss the Rameau Variations' form, genre, and a narrative quality to explain how the piece is expressing Dukas’s identity in the music.
In the Rameau Variations, Dukas borrows Musique Pure which is similar to Absolute music genre. Dukas was fond of this genre, expressing that “Musique pure emphasizes internal structural motivation” and as “a wonderful balance between form and content,” and “expression exclusively by way of its proper, internal resources, the subtle and undulating play of its sonorous combinations. This expression remains purely musical.”
Through this, Dukas’s artistic/musical response to the Dreyfus Affair appeared in the variation is poetically and intellectually expressed rather than explicitly or programmatically manifested.
What kind of poetical and intellectual expression am I talking about? And how are they shown?
Well, first of all, Dukas always idolized Beethoven and adopted Beethovenian Heroism “Kampf und Sieg” in English Struggle and Victory from Beethoven’s Eroica, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies. Dukas , in fact, said “Eroica Symphony is pure heroism, the heroism of all of humanity.”
So, the narrative and rhetoric projection of “Kampf und Sieg” reflects Dukas’s internal struggles living through the tumultuous time as a French Jewish and his envision of triumph, and his identification with the Dreyfusards in an intellectual way.
Theme of the variation Le Lardon that is borrowed from Jean Phillipe Rameau’s keyboard suite, and first few variations are written in French style, and some variations are reminiscent of French Baroque style such as French overture and keyboard Dance suite movements. Let’s hear a little bit of Le Lardon theme. After paying homage to Rameau, the music starts to be more independent from the theme and more personalized by Dukas; they show Dukas’s inner struggle by implementing musical quotations such as Dies Irae fragments, and certain key symbols such as D minor and B flat major. Reaching to the Finale, the music shows Dukas’s envision of Victory.
In this slide, I am showing how the narration of the Rameau variations coincides with the literary plot structure in four elements, through exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. In this context, the music delivers philosophical and psychological characteristics of "homage to Rameau" to "struggle and conflict" to "victory".
I will be focusing on variations 8 through 11 from rising action towards climax in the next slides. In particular, Variations no. 8 through 11 narrate death and redemption, while the Interlude suggests the emotion of struggle and conflict. The "reconciling" materials at the end of the movement link to the Finale, which is the clear trajectory of Dukas's aspiration towards "victory."
The Variation 8 features ‘Dies Irae’ fragments, which change intervallically, evolving from minor to major. Let’s hear the variation No. 8. (Music Example: Variation No.8 motifs)
The variation 11 is the only variation written in D minor. In the music, there is the constant descending four notes which sounds like modified Dies Irae in the slow tempo, almost like constant lamenting. (Music Example: the beginning of Variation No. 11) And there is a descending third passage inserted like a short interlude within this variation, which suggests decease. (Music example: descending motifs that suggest “decease”). Then, there is the sudden modulation to the contrasting B flat major. It characterizes serenity, contextually suggesting Heaven and redeemer. (Music example: B flat major).
So speaking of Heaven, Dukas in fact, strongly stated how music resembles a religious vocation, when explaining his compositional intention of the first song of Polyeucte being directed towards the heavens. And so, the Rameau Variations is looking back at Polyeucte on many levels.
Additionally the key D minor is often historically used for darkness and death, as in Mozart’s D minor Requiem, Liszt’s Totentant, La Folia, Schubert’s Death and Maiden, and Shostakovich last prelude and fugue.
While B flat major gives a sense of divine, transcendent, serenity, heaven and redeemer. Examples include along with Dukas’s polyeucte, Beethoven’s Szene am Bach, in English, At the brook, Pastoral symphony, Schubert’s last piano sonata, and Mozart’s last piano concerto.
Now I want to spend some time examining the most interesting Interlude movement. In the interlude movement, Dukas borrowed the free spirit of the Fantasy genre with rhetorical quality. Dukas said “Variation inherently gives more latitude to fantasy, the form of the varied theme appears like the true point of transition between the music of development and fantasy,”
And so, within the Fantasy genre frame, Dukas borrowed the idea from Berlioz; he highly respected the genre-defying Symphonic Poem from Berlioz, and the Beethovenian Kampf und Sieg narration is exhibited within Interlude.
To be specific, the beginning of the movement delivers the grieving in a somber mood which continues from the previous variation no. 11. The four successive D notes are modified from Le Lardon, A-A-A notes motif, and resemble the Fin-de-siècle church Bell that was used to announce someone’s death. Let’s hear a little bit of the beginning of Interlude. (Music example: the beginning of Interlude - Slide 13)
These moods develop into a section in which two motifs (A-A-A) and (F#-D) compete and raise the mood of struggle. (Music example: “Conflict” elements - Slide 14)
Then, these two motifs are juxtaposed as if they reconciled, leading to the finale. This is the clear trajectory of Dukas’s aspiration towards “victory.” (Music example: “Reconciliation” materials – Slide 15)
So, the Rameau Variations is valuable repertoire to Dukas’s legacy. The Rameau Variations is a hidden gem, which offers a unique insight into the musical world of the strife of the era. As an intellectual composer and critic, Dukas thoughtfully projects his personal belief through poetic expression in the Rameau Variations. Specifically, the reconciliation aspects of modern and
Classical harmonic elements, along with the psychological narrative projection perhaps shows Dukas’s approbation of Durkheim’s social theory, a French-Jewish sociologist’s emphasis on the balance between government and citizens in the French modern society. This musical artistry and craftmanship significantly influenced other musicians, such as Lutoslawki Ralph Vaughan Williams and even Aaron Copland.
I hope you enjoyed my lecture, and I also hope that you enjoy my performance of the Rameau Variations.
Thank you so much for watching my presentation!
Seulki Susie Yoo is a pianist, scholar, and pedagogue. As a performer, she has won prestigious international competitions and has been invited to perform at various international events in the USA, Germany, Spain, Austria, Japan, and South Korea. She is an accomplished educator and was nominated for the Penn State Harold F. Martin GA Outstanding Teaching Award. Seulki Yoo holds an AD from Peabody Conservatory, a DMA (2023) and MA from Penn State University, and MM/AD and BM from Korea National University of Arts. She is a member of the honor society Pi Kappa Lambda.