Full programme

  • Debussy, Nocturnes  (23mins)
  • Ravel, Shéhérazade  (17mins)
  • Debussy, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune  (10mins)
  • Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements  (23mins)



Welcome to a captivating journey through the enchanting landscapes of French music. As we embark on this musical odyssey, we invite you to immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of sounds, textures, and narratives woven by some of the greatest composers of the late 19th and early 20th Century.

At the heart of tonight's programme lies a celebration of the French Impressionist movement, a period marked by its revolutionary approach to music, characterized by fluidity, colour, and a profound connection to nature. Claude Debussy takes center stage with his ethereal "Nocturnes." Through shimmering orchestration and evocative harmonies, Debussy transports us to a dreamlike realm, where moonlit landscapes and mysterious waterscapes unfold before our very ears.

Following Debussy's evocative nocturnal scenes, we delve into Maurice Ravel's evocative "Shéhérazade." Inspired by the tales of the Arabian Nights, Ravel's masterful orchestration and exotic melodies transport us to the opulent courts of ancient Persia, where love, longing, and adventure intertwine in a captivating musical narrative.

We then encounter Claude Debussy's suggestive "Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune." Debussy's composition represents a pivotal moment in music history as it marks a departure from traditional forms and structures, embracing a more fluid and atmospheric approach to composition.

Through Debussy's lush orchestration and innovative use of harmony, the listener is transported to the mythical realm of the faun, where fleeting impressions and delicate nuances paint a vivid portrait of nature's beauty and mystery.

Our journey reaches its climax with Igor Stravinsky's monumental "Symphony in Three Movements." While not French by birth, Stravinsky's ground-breaking work embodies the spirit of innovation and experimentation that defined the early 20th-century French musical landscape. With its pulsating rhythms, kaleidoscopic orchestration, and relentless energy, Stravinsky's symphony stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of French musical thought.

As we come together to experience the magic of "French Fantasies," I invite you to revel in the diversity of perspectives offered by tonight's repertoire, each piece a unique window into the boundless creativity and imagination of the French musical tradition.

I wish you an exciting journey of discovery and delight.

Jérémie Rhorer, Conductor

Programme Notes

Starry nights, exotic voyages and all the colours of the symphony orchestra. It’s all about colour: and from the subtle impressionist tints of Debussy to Stravinsky’s gleaming, streamlined symphony from wartime LA, guest conductor Jérémie Rhorer knows just how to make this music glow. The CBSO Youth Chorus adds its own magic, and we’re thrilled to welcome British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn in Ravel’s luscious Shéhérazade. “A voice of pure operatic joy” say the critics – but come and hear for yourself.


I. Nuages [Clouds]
II. Fêtes [Festivals]
III. Sirènes [Sirens]

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Debussy’s music is frequently described as luscious, or magical, or mysterious. His orchestral works in particular seem to comprise wave upon wave of sensuous sound. They also have an air of improvisation – ‘Nuages’ (the first of Nocturnes) sounds almost as if the orchestra is collectively riffing on the opening bars – yet Debussy worked obsessively on his scores, frequently fussing at them even after publication.

His works also reflect his resolute - sometimes prickly – sense of independence. He sometimes went so far as to declare he didn’t really listen to music or find much inspiration in it. Certainly, around the time of Nocturnes’ composition visual art seemed of more importance to him: the work’s title was taken from a series of night scenes painted by James Whistler.

‘Nuages’ ebbs and flows, depicting – as Debussy himself wrote – ‘the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white.’ The two main themes – the first heard at the start, the second introduced by harp and flute – drift across the orchestra, evoking a peaceful night, suspended in time. ‘Fêtes’, on the other hand, is a very different kind of ‘night-life’: a boisterous, carnival-like whirl, through which a procession passes (this brilliantly atmospheric section is heralded by timpanis and harp, joined by muted trumpets). The carnival ultimately moves from view – or out of earshot – fading into the distance at the end.

Debussy wrote of ‘Sirènes’ that it ‘depicts the sea and its countless rhythms’ and that from the start we hear ‘the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.’ The movement begins, subtly, as if in mid-thought with a two-note motif in the strings, echoed immediately the wordless female chorus, the ‘sirens’ themselves. Musical motifs pass between orchestra and the chorus, the voices aiming for an instrumental, ethereal quality. ‘Sirènes’ ends quietly, with a falling figure in the low voices, disappearing under a high string chord.


I. Asie [Asia]
II. La Flûte enchantée [The Enchanted Flute]
III. L'Indifférent [The Indifferent One]

Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937)

The 1903 orchestral songs comprising Shéhérezade are a brilliant fusion of several of Ravel’s preoccupations. Principally, the figure of Shéhérezade herself, the famous narrator of ‘1001 Arabian Nights’, who told fantastical stories to a murderous king every night for nearly three years in order to save her life. Ravel had initially planned an opera around this character, but only managed an Overture in 1898. A few years later, a French poet – writing under the Wagnerian name Tristan Klingsor - read his Shéhérezade poems to Ravel, who was captivated by the vivid depictions of ‘Asie’ as well as the beauty and music of these ‘other’ lands. French composers and other artists were riveted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, by the ‘exotic’ of the east, although many of them - including Ravel - never travelled there. For Ravel, it was the ‘idea’ of the east that mattered: he firmly believed that art was self-consciously artificial (as he put it, ‘Art is a beautiful lie’) so questions of ‘authenticity’ were of little concern to him.

The first and longest movement reads – as some have suggested – like a travelogue: or rather, a wistful yearning to go to the ‘ancient, wonderful land’ expressed through a series of rising, questioning figures in orchestra and voice. The voice has an almost conversational style for much of the movement, outlining the wonderful sights the singer wishes to see, under which the orchestral responds with beautifully illustrative colours. At other times, such as at the repeated lines of ‘Je voudrais’ towards the end, the voice rises in agitation, leading the orchestra in a magnificent, dramatic build. In the delicate, melancholy second movement a solo flute symbolises the freedom of the outdoors. A servant girl, stuck inside looking after her sleeping master, hears her lover playing his flute through the window. The flute’s motif is bittersweet in its evocation of sunshine, and ‘mysterious kisses’. The yearning ‘L’indifférent’ outlines a would-be seducer’s attempt to lure a somewhat androgynous figure inside for a drink – yet is disappointed by their ‘indifference’. The dynamics range from ‘very soft’ to ‘very, very soft’ throughout. This is no grand drama of rejection, but rather a hopeful invitation – gently rebuffed.

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

For the arch-modernist composer Pierre Boulez, Debussy’s Prelude à l’après midi d’un faune, composed in 1894, was an absolute game-changer. Boulez wrote, ‘the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music; what was overthrown was not so much the art of development, as the very concept of form itself.’ Today it perhaps doesn’t sound so revolutionary, with its serene opening, beguiling themes, and general air of a languorous nap. But it certainly broke away from the harmonic conventions of the time. Rather than working through a series of harmonic ‘tussles’ towards a resolution, Debussy’s Prelude roams freely across the musical spectrum, lingering in some areas, or changing direction to pursue another thought, the whole prelude maintaining an atmosphere of loose-limbed fluidity.

Yet Debussy managed this subversiveness so charmingly that at the premiere the audience was in raptures. The lengthy poem (by Mallarmé) on which the work is based is elusive and sensual: a faun wakes from sleep, half-remembering a dreamt (or possibly real) amorous encounter with two nymphs. He goes back to sleep, hoping to meet them again. Many of Debussy’s themes, stemming from the opening flute solo, have a flowing, suitably dream-like quality, while a broader, more climactic theme blossoms briefly in a central episode. This is really the only dynamic disruption to this sleepy afternoon, rich in allusion and longed-for pleasure.

Symphony in Three Movements

I. Allegro
II. Andante - Interlude
III. Con moto

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)

Stravinsky, like Debussy, had a restless attitude to composition and was constantly seeking new forms and new means of expressing his musical ideas. By the time he composed the Symphony in Three Movements between 1942-5, he was in the final stages of his ‘neclassical’ period (‘classical’ forms but in ‘new’ contexts). But, by now living in Hollywood, California, he was also steeping himself in American culture: jazz, and the movies. The Symphony, premiered in New York in 1946, fuses classical form with a ‘cinematic’ quality, touches of jazz and some throwbacks to Stravinsky’s earlier, more violent music. As it says on the tin, it is in three movements, the outer two displaying a ferocious energy while the ‘Andante’ is gentler and more reflective. The opening fanfare, which recurs throughout in various forms, could come straight from a film noir score, defined by a series of melodramatic chords. Among the fanfares are passages of almost obsessive repetition and a prominent role for the piano, lending the movement a vigorous, punchy energy. The movement returns to the ‘Hollywood’ fanfare at the end and a surprisingly upbeat major chord.

The amiable nature of the middle movement perhaps comes from its origins as a discarded draft soundtrack for a film about St Bernadette (The Song of Bernadette). The harp takes over from the piano as principal soloist, sensitively accompanied by solo strings and high woodwind. The final movement resembles the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ from Stravinsky’s earlier The Rite of Spring in its pounding bass, complex rhythms, and braying brass, as well as a gathering sense of menace. The final section comprises an extraordinarily sustained passage of momentum: from a quiet duet for piano and trombone to the gradual addition of all instruments it builds to an uninhibited, almost demonic conclusion for the whole orchestra.

© Lucy Walker

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