Music Monday: Tailleferre: Harp Sonata

Today, we step back from the massive forces and raging sorrow of Corigliano to a work that's considerably more tranquil and serene. Germaine Tailleferre was born in a suburb of Paris in 1892, and originally studied piano with her mother before ultimately winding up in the Conservatoire de Paris. Her father refused to support her musical endeavors, and to spite him, she refused to go by the name she was given at birth. (Tailleferre had to deal with a lot of bullshit in her life as a female composer, living and working in a time when Aaron Copland could confidently proclaim that women had an innate block against composing well. It's hard to escape the feeling that one of the reasons she's so little known is pervasive sexism.)

At the Conservatoire, she fell under the sway of Erik Satie (an important and fascinating figure in his own right) and eventually became part of Les Six, an important and influential group of French composers in the early and mid twentieth century. Tailleferre became an adept interpreter of the works of Igor Stravinsky (whose neoclassical style was very much in vogue in the 1920s), and her performances of his music helped get her own career off the ground. 

In the 30s and 40s, as the heyday of Les Six drew to its close, Tailleferre continued to perform and write on commission, but never really regained the stature she'd had earlier. She spent a few years at the end of the Second World War in Philadelphia, but returned to Paris shortly after the war's conclusion. She dabbled briefly with serialism, but it wasn't really her style, and many of her later works are very much in line with the spry, graceful neoclassical creations of her earlier years. She died in 1983 in Paris, with much of her music remaining unpublished until years after her death.

Like many French composers, Tailleferre wrote extensively for the harp, and we feature one such work today, a sonata from 1953. The first movement opens with languid, rippling gestures over a happily burbling accompaniment. The easy, flowing motion continues thruout the movement, but several times it seems to run aground on something timid, cold, and brittle and comes up short. It ends somewhat abruptly, up in the air, and lands gently in the sentimental, nostalgic strumming of the second movement, which seems like it could be the ghost of a forgotten waltz. There are a few lively outbursts, but on the whole, the music seems unwilling to pursue them, settling instead into a carefully maintained floating imperturbable calm.

Last up is a whirling perpetuum mobile, but unlike many entries in that genre, this leaves room for delicate lyricism in the midst of the stream of dancing notes. A syncopated riff of four chords repeatedly interrupts the accompanimental whirligig at one point, but only briefly before the machine starts up again, spinning out ever more gossamer arabesques before leaving off with a final splashy gliss.