Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-Log

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was the grand old man of the French avant-garde and the unsung hero of the twentieth century French music. Koechlin’s longevity, extraordinary productivity, eclecticism and reputation as theorist and teacher (Poulenc studied counterpoint and composition with him from 1921-1924) all have failed to rescue his music from oblivion. Few Twentieth-century figures in music, however, present as fascinating and subtle a subject for exploration and rediscovery. In the context of a concert inspired by the work of a Belgian surrealist who spent almost all of his life in Belgium, it is ironic that perhaps Koechlin’s greatest triumph as a composer occurred in Brussels during the 1930’s.

In 1933 Koechlin wrote a ballet L’Errante for the “Ballet Russe,” choreographed by Balanchine with sets by the surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew. Like the surrealists, Koechlin shared sympathies with communism. In the interwar period he sought to write music for “the people”. Koechlin’s own estimate of his artistic credo revealed further similarities with surrealism. Surface style was of little concern. Rather his art was “dictated” by the interior imagination, by “intuitive power”, and by an “unpremeditated” instinct. At the same time a quite traditional sense of form emerges from his works which might be compared with the compositional and imagistic conservatism of the nearly photographic pictorialism of many surrealist painters.

As Les Bandar-Log illustrates, Koechlin possessed an uneasy relationship to musical modernism comparable to pictorial surrealism’s rejection of many modernist aesthetic strategies. It was the way in which musical elements were organized and formulated rather than the distinct originality of style which concerned Koechlin. Koechlin, like many surrealists also embraced cinema. Among his most interesting works is a work entitled Seven Stars Symphony in seven movements (entitled Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin).

Les Bandar-Log is part of Koechlin’s nearly lifelong effort to set Kipling’s The Jungle Book to music. It was first sketched in 1923 and written out in 1939 and orchestrated in 1940. Subtitled “Scherzo of the Monkey’s”, it is based on “Kaals Hunting” from Volume 1 of Kipling’s book. It was premiered in 1946 in Brussels and is perhaps Koechlin’s best known work. It was recorded by Antal Dorati in the mid 1960’s and used for a ballet by Anthony Tudor.

This work shares with surrealism a sharp critical intent toward assumptions of the communication of meaning through sounds, images, and words. Koechlin utilizes nearly all the stylistic elements of twentieth-century musical modernism. Taking the idea of the monkeys making sounds in the forest as his premise, Koechlin attacked the delusions and arrogant claims of twelve-tone writing, neo-classicism, polytonality and atonality. It is as if Koechlin approached this work as a surrealist painter who generates the appearance of a narrative (much in the way Magritte did in the painting entitled The Murderer Threatened from 1927) and who then inverts meanings, time and spatial relations for the viewer. Taking the ironic subject of the “primitive” monkey, Koechlin opens the work with a depiction of the “calm of the luminous morning”. This calm is interrupted by the “procedures of modern harmony”. The monkeys are vain and seek to display their “secrets”. They lurch from romanticism to neo-classicism and “pretend” to return to Back. However within this satire “there is a genuine homage to polytonal language and even to atonality”.

Koechlin, like Magritte, toyed with different styles—photographic realism, impressionism, cubism—but in the end returned to his own virtuosic vocabulary. The orchestration is splendid. Out of distorted juxtapositions and a seemingly disjointed and allusive set of episodes comes a coherent musical reconfiguration. An underlying unity is revealed through disparate parte. Despite themselves, the monkeys manage to make the forest sing. Koechlin mixes illustration with transformation, through a sequence of musical images mediated by reaction of the listener and the plot of the score (e.g., how the monkeys act and finally flee the arrival of the lords of the jungle). Musical illustration and narrative are turned on their heads through the manipulation of the modernist strategies which depict human behavior as if humans were monkeys in a jungle. A dreamlike and almost cinematic effect is achieved.