Music Monday: Arrieu: Wind Quintet

As a wind player, I spend a lot of time playing repertoire that originated in Paris in the 1920s. There are a number of historical factors playing into this, from the relatively late development of modern woodwind playing mechanisms (at least compared to the string family) to the annual round of competition commissions from the Conservatoire de Paris, but the result is that wind players are disproportionately familiar with the style in vogue at the time, Parisian Neoclassicism.

Regrettably, I think this style is often misunderstood. On its surface, it is usually light, effervescent, and bubbly, and this sometimes leads people to dismiss it as trivial repertoire, fun listen to, sure, but lacking in real depth and musical substance. It isn't. I've written in various places on this blog in the past about the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) school of composition that arose in Germany as a response to the horrors of World War One, but it shouldn't surprise you to learn that that was not, in fact, the only such response. While the Neue Sachlichkeit reacted to the intense, hyper-emotional music from before the war with caustic mockery and sardonic wit, the Parisian Neoclassicists* reacted more by turning away, almost with a sense of resignation. If the extreme introspection of the late Romantics couldn't expose and scour away the darkness that led to the war, why believe that delving even deeper into the human psyche could help with the fallout from it? Better to set those things aside, leave them to things outside the realm of music.

Reading that, you might get the impression that this was a musical movement of stuffiness and repression, but that isn't the case. Instead, it's an aesthetic that makes a very conscious, deliberate choice to smile even tho it is surrounded by nightmares. After all, despite the many dead, the sun still shines. There are still birds singing in the savaged trees that survived the bombing. Even after the corpse factories of the Passchendaele and the Somme, some good things endure. The cheerful surface of this music is a mask, a papering over, a tacit acknowledgement that all is not well but music is not the medium for exploring these ills. It is music with a tremendous amount of pain hidden just beneath its glibness, and there are times where it spills into plain view, all the more heartbreaking because even the most determined joy could not keep it at bay.

If this seems like a lot to reconcile, an example will doubtless help. Claude Arrieu (originally Anne-Marie Simone, tho as this article mentions in passing, there appears to be some uncertainty on this point, as well as on why she ultimately changed it) was born to a musical family in Paris in 1903, and she spent the bulk of her life in that city. After graduating from the Conservatoire with the first prize in composition, she went to work as a radio producer, but composed prolifically the entire time. She worked in pretty much every genre out there, from operas to chamber music to film scores. (IMDB lists seven film credits to her name, tho other sources seem to indicate that she worked on considerably more.) Evidently she wrote prodigious amounts of vocal music, but very little of it has entered the standard performing repertoire. Indeed, very little of anything she's done has entered the standard repertoire, and there's almost no information about her or her works easily accessible online. I'm not sure why — she seems to have had a prolific and successful career right up until her death in 1990 — but for whatever reason, her extensive body of works hasn't inspired much interest of late.

Even so, it's quite good, and certainly deserves to be heard. So today, in the wind-dominated spirit of the Parisian Neoclassicists, we feature her wind quintet from 1955. The first movement jumps right into the fray with bustling theme that melds seamlessly into more lyrical interludes as the music progresses. There's a brief quote of the opening material towards the end, but for the most part, the music is non-repetitive, developing everything continuously in a heady rush. Next is a languid but no less sunny dalliance, or at least it starts that way. It cools as it progresses, until a stark passage in octaves seems to pull it up short. It tries to restart, but it seems haunted, and has a hard time holding on to perfect tranquillity.

Up next is the scherzo, which is at times almost borders on the snide. It's over in a flash, paving the way for the introspective fourth movement. A plaintive oboe solo sets the stage, and an air of melancholy settles over the proceedings. It is late, the sun is setting, there is too much time to fill, and weariness is creeping in from the corners. The finale sets things to rights. A breakneck dance, it balances out the frantic energy with elegance and poise, in true Parisian Neoclassical fashion, skating deftly around pools of darkness, choosing, with full knowledge of the alternative, to be happy in its final moments.

*Confusingly, many of the German composers working under the Neue Sachlichkeit umbrella are also referred to as Neoclassicists, the most famous of these being Paul Hindemith. There's a lot of validity to that label in terms of shared aesthetic principles and musical techniques, but there are also significant differences between the German and French Neoclassicists. For the purposes of this post, I will only be talking about the French side of this split. (Sergei Prokofiev and Bartók Béla are both also sometimes called Neoclassicists; for Prokofiev I think it's sometimes usefully applicable, but for Bartók I think it is generally a miscategorization.)