Conte fantastique (1908)

By Roger Nichols

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Unlike Schmitt, who lived on until 1958 and came to be regarded, in the age of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, as some kind of fossil, André Caplet died in 1925 from the effects of poison gas in the trenches of the First World War. He was only forty-seven.

His death was widely regarded as a great tragedy for French music. In the years before the war he had revealed himself as a fine conductor (he directed the premiere of Debussy’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, as well as being responsible for much of the orchestration) and as a promising composer. He won the Grand Prix de Rome the year after Schmitt with a cantata entitled Myrrha, beating Ravel into third place, and in the light of the Conte fantastique it is interesting to note that he must here have impressed the jury with his virtuosity in depicting a catastrophe: in this case “the sudden roaring of the floodwater.”

Like Sir Simon Rattle nearly a century later, Caplet began his professional life as a timpanist, in the Colonne Orchestra. It is possible at least that this experience sharpened his rhythmic sense, but certainly his music from his earliest compositions is largely free of that languid drifting associated with the so-called Impressionist school. He was also restrained in his textures, never using five instruments when three would do.

The Conte fantastique for harp and strings, inspired by Poe’s tale “The Masque of the Red Death,” was published in 1924, but was based on an unpublished “symphonic study” dating from 1909. It is impossible therefore, without seeing this study, to be certain of what in the Conte is post-war and what pre-war. What is unmistakable, though, is Caplet’s determination to rethink instrumental capabilities. Just as he did with the solo instrument in the Epiphanie for cello and orchestra of 1923, and before that with the voice in the Inscriptions champêtres of 1914, so here he liberates the harp from its traditional role of being purely pastoral, decorative, and decorous.

Poe’s tale can be read as a development of “The Haunted Palace.” Whereas in the poem the evil force invades arbitrarily, in the tale it is present from the start, giving the “deep seclusion” of Prince Prospero’s “castellated abbey” a provisional air. Caplet’s choice of the harp may initially seem odd, but in fact it works wonderfully well exactly because of the instrument’s 19th-century connotations — and indeed early 20th-century ones, as in the two Danses by Debussy and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Caplet employs this traditional language and these traditional textures in the central part of the piece in order to give it the feeling of a fairy tale: the cut of the melodies here is modal or pentatonic — both traditionally signifying “far away and long ago.”

His depiction of the Red Death, by contrast, draws on the most recent melodic and harmonic sources. The very first page of the score shows how far Caplet has moved in twenty years from orthodox, Prix de Rome platitudes. The harp’s first notes are marked “haletant” — “breathless.” Since the harp cannot breathe, and not breathing will hardly help the harpist, this may seem on the face of it a nonsensical instruction. But Caplet’s idea is surely that the phrase should give the impression of the harp as a wind instrument whose breath is abruptly cut off after just six notes, where the player is ordered to damp the strings (“étouffez”). Admittedly, the structure of this opening, of an idea gradually burgeoning between silences, is borrowed from Debussy (see the opening bars of Pelléas et Mélisande), but Caplet’s chromaticism comes nearer to Schoenberg; and it is perhaps relevant to note that Caplet conducted the first performance in France of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in 1922, before a scandalized audience. The harp’s third phrase here uses ten of the twelve chromatic notes to paint the picture of the Red Death stalking the countryside.

Any composer would have to incorporate somehow the chiming of the ebony clock to mark the hours of the revels, at which “the dreams are still-frozen as they stand.” Caplet chooses to give the harpist only the chimes of eleven o’clock and the more fateful ones of midnight, upon which the masked figure of the Red Death appears, “tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave.” The “buzz, or murmur” of the assembled company at this apparition is expressed in string tremolos, glissandos and harmonics that truly look forward to the textures imagined by Boulez thirty years later. Caplet’s death was indeed a great tragedy.