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A focus on music in Paris in the early 20th century

The French conductor François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles bring the famous ballet compositions of Stravinsky and Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy to life in a literally unheard-of way – in the sound of their time of origin. In 2022/23, they will be the focus of a separate programme focus at the Musikverein: Paris is Dancing! Movement also comes into play with other programmes: from chamber music concerts to word-music projects and concerts for children and young people.

A very special original sound troupe, founded in 2003 by François-Xavier Roth, the son of organist Daniel Roth, who was born in Paris in 1971. His goal was to perform music from five centuries on the instruments of the respective time in a stylish way – inspired by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who had conjured this up as “music of the future”. What initially seemed utopian developed into a success story based not only on careful research, endless diligence and a few happy coincidences. The musical, spirited attitude of the ensemble and its palpable joy in musical adventure always make the performances an experience.

Roth and his orchestra have made a special contribution to the repertoire of the early 20th century, specifically in the field of masterpieces that the composers created for the legendary impresario Serge Diaghilev and his “Ballets Russes”. Diaghilev’s spectacular initiative in the spirit of the Russian dance tradition, founded in Paris in 1911, was shaped by luminaries such as Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonid Massine and George Balanchine in the almost two decades of its existence and was also a source of fascination for artists of all disciplines.
With the reconstruction of the original versions of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and “Le Sacre du Printemps”, François-Xavier Roth has rewritten an important chapter in performance history with Les Siècles. And even if the conductor admits that he is not a dancer personally, as a French musician he regards dance as an elementary part of music in general.

The concerts of conductor François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles combine with a series of programmes from the fields of chamber music and education to create an exciting kaleidoscope of music in Paris in the early 20th century.

Monsieur, dance has always had a special place in French music. What significance did that have for your work?
Like all French musicians, I was exposed to dance at a very early age, because it actually plays an important role in French culture. Think of Louis XIV’s direct influence on Jean-Baptiste Lully. Dances such as the bourrée, the minuet and the forlane were found in the 16th and 17th centuries, and one can see how these baroque forms continue to have an impact on cultural heritage internationally. In practice, I have participated as a flutist in ballet evenings at the Paris Opera. As a conductor, I have often performed excerpts from the great French ballet music, by Camille Saint-Saëns and Léo Delibes, and in particular the famous music for “Namouna” by Édouard Lalo, which in its time had a strong influence on the young generation of composers, i.e. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

To what extent does music composed for ballet – specifically the music for the Ballets Russes – not also require choreographic implementation?
This grandiose project of the Ballets Russes, as Serge Diaghilev dreamed, initiated and organized at the beginning of the 20th century, was initially about maintaining the reputation of Russian dance. But then the greatest artists gathered around his project, musicians, dancers, choreographers, directors, sculptors, theatre people … it was a firework display, an artistic epoch of unique liveliness, almost unleashed. Through the radiance of Diaghilev, the ballet became the inspiration for musical masterpieces, and these can exist quite independently of the scene, without the support of the choreography – above all that of Stravinsky.

How did you go about preparing the “Ballets Russes” project?
I practically had the idea for this project when the orchestra was founded, when I was still a student. I thought that my generation would have the opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes. I conducted a lot of research on the programmes that Diaghilev put together for the various performances in Paris. These were patchwork pieces, Russian repertoire, combined with works orchestrated for this purpose, such as Schumann’s “Carnaval”, which exists in a plethora of arrangements; but there were also world premieres. I tried to track down the programmes scientifically. And when we began to rediscover this music a hundred years after it was created on instruments of that time, it was a tremendous impulse.

What insights have emerged from studying the original scores?
We were in the fortunate situation that the Sacher Foundation had offered copies of Stravinsky’s original manuscripts for sale – including “Firebird” and “Le Sacre du Printemps”. It was fascinating to reconstruct the original version of “Le Sacre” from 1913. It was precisely this score that had been heavily edited since then, until the “final” version, which Stravinsky’s publishing house Boosey & Hawkes published in 1947. Seeing the extent to which Stravinsky had made changes to make the work easier to play for his contemporaries was a wonderful adventure; there were far bolder technical details in the original version. For example, there is a passage at the beginning of the sacrificial dance where the strings alternately play arco and sul ponticello – this has not been done since 1913.

As far as the instruments you use for this repertoire are concerned, the differences to today’s modern orchestra lie mainly in the wind instruments …
I have to emphasise that the orchestra for the Ballets Russes is French, indeed Parisian, which we have re-created with restored original instruments. There was a separate production in Paris, for the wind instruments, but also for pianos, harps and percussion. These instruments were famous for their typical coloring and for that specific sharpness of articulation that can only be achieved with them. – The result was overwhelming. The sound and expressiveness of the music were downright shocking for us. How the colors of the brass mingle with the sound of the gut strings is always fascinating. The dynamic shades and musical rhetoric are also much easier to realize than with modern instruments.

How would you describe the philosophy of Les Siècles?
When it was founded, this was a utopian project, which I was able to undertake thanks to the forward-looking statement of one of the greatest musicians in the world dared to make in the 20th century. It was Nikolaus Harnoncourt with his prophetic sentence that the musician of the 21st century would be able to play a piece by Berlioz on a modern instrument in the morning and Bach’s Chaconne on an 18th century instrument in the afternoon. When I read that, I thought to myself: This is exactly the orchestra of the future! Like an actor who changes costumes, he can change instruments across the ages without limiting himself to one set of instruments, finding the appropriate ways of playing and expressing himself for every time.

And in which direction do you plan to go next?
We have big plans. In the future, we want to focus more on Mahler, Schumann, Bruckner and Wagner, i.e. expand our repertoire to include works written beyond the Rhine border, and we want to take greater account of the contemporary. We continue to work on the great drivers that are simply so important for the orchestra, such as Berlioz and Beethoven. And I think the opera activities for Les Siècles will also increase in intensity in the future.

This interview was conducted by Monika Mertl.

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