Kazushi Ono was musical director at the Monnaie from 2002 to 2007 and is back with us to conduct our Symphony Orchestra in three works composed or first performed in 1905 by three icons of the world of modern music: Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg. Because of their daring, or even revolutionary, musical language each of these works was initially met with incomprehension, indeed were considered scandalous. This is a mini panorama of the music at the dawn of the last century.
Why did you choose, for your programme, symphony music that first appeared on stage solely in 1905?
I chose this programme because the year 1905, without a doubt, marked the start of the modern era. It is very important to go back to the cradle of modernity in order to understand the music of the 20th century. 1905 was a significant date for many reasons. It was the year of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in St. Petersburg as well as the year that Einstein revealed his theory of relativity. The revolutionary zeitgeist was everywhere, not just in the history of music. Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande was in fact composed in 1903 but was not staged until 1905, along with Debussy’s La Mer. Richard Strauss presented his opera Salome that same year on the stage of the Semper Opera House in Dresden. Then let us look more carefully at how the development of sounds was revolutionised. In Salome the troubling sonority of the moonlight dominates the piece. The moment when Jochanaan (John the Baptist) is beheaded we can hear the cracking of his vertebrae thanks to the double basses scraping their bows above the bridge. In the last scene, Salome dies crushed by the soldiers’ shields, which are evoked by a massive orchestra. Music is no longer just beautiful for its own sake, it possesses an enormous power to evoke and destroy, which is truly revolutionary.
What is the link between the three composers in this programme? Strauss, Debussy and Schoenberg…
Richard Strauss was born in 1864, Claude Debussy in 1862 and Arnold Schoenberg in 1874. That means that Schoenberg is a bit younger than the others but the musical writing of all three composers was clearly influenced by Richard Wagner, even if they all went on to evolve their own style throughout their lives.
Tell us about Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils. What is special about this work, apart from the fact that it is the only symphonic extract from opera?
In fact, I would have liked to conduct the whole opera but of course the length of the concert doesn’t allow me to! The Dance of the Seven Veils does, however, have a symbolic role in the opera. In eight minutes Strauss manages to express an extraordinary exoticism and sensuality. In order to do this the percussion is hit loudly on a syncopated rhythm (accentuation of the weak beat prolonged to the next strong beat). Syncopes usually refer to a question of rhythm but here, in this work, Strauss treats them to a play of tonal colours. Listening to this strange sonority we feel unsettled and like someone obsessed. Obsession was one of the words studied by Sigmund Freud during this same period. Here is another example of the zeitgeist of the time!
Debussy’s La Mer is a work that is typically French – tell us about the musical style of this composer, particularly in this piece, which was his only symphony.
Debussy is a composer who enlarged the scale in a rather unconventional way. The three composers in this concert had been in contact with oriental music at the turn of the century. Influenced by this music, Debussy introduced the tonal scale and the pentatonic scale into the scale of classical oriental music. This system allowed him to see the world of shadows which is so sensitive and peaceful. In this way he freed himself from the classical sonority. Therefore, in La Mer, every sound is distinctive and floating. In other respects, this work is closely linked to Hokusai’s engravings.
Did you programme Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande as a nod to Debussy and to allow us to experience another musical world from the beginning of the 20th century?
Yes, you’re right. With Schoenberg the musical vocabulary and the musical texture have evolved enormously. This enrichment is part of the heritage that we find in the contemporary music of our own period.
Did you know that Richard Strauss suggested to Schoenberg that he should write an opera based on Maeterlinck’s play, but without any knowledge of Debussy’s work created in 1902?
Yes, that’s so. Pelleas und Melisande is, without a doubt, Schoenberg’s masterpiece but if he and Debussy had both produced an opera based on the play there is no doubt it would have proved very interesting.
This is the first time you have come back to conduct our orchestra since you left your post as musical director here in 2008.
I am very happy to meet the musicians again after five years. I hope we are going on a marvellous journey, as we so often did in the past.
Interview by Marie Goffette