St John's, Totnes St Peter's, Shaldon

Debussy: Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune”

Shostakovich: Concerto no. 2 for Cello (Soloist: Valerie Welbanks)

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade

TSO Concert Ticket
Adult Full 08-06-2024

Valerie Welbanks

Valerie Welbanks

Canadian-born Val Welbanks leads a busy chamber music career in London as the cellist of both the Marsyas Trio and Ligeti Quartet, with whom she has been playing for nearly fourteen years. With both groups, Val has accrued experience globally and built a reputation for thoughtful performances of contemporary music.

The Ligeti Quartet has held residencies at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Goldsmiths University of London, as well as Nottingham High School. This year they are showcasing all of György Ligeti's string music for the centenary of his birth, and they are touring music by Anna Meredith to promote their latest CD. The Quartet has recorded for the Nonclassical and Mercury KX labels.

The Marsyas Trio is one of the rare flute-cello-piano ensembles - their repertoire ranges from the early Classical to the contemporary. With eighteen funding awards to their name, the Trio has been heading collaborative projects the most recent of which involves many new works by Michael Finnissy and a children’s radio play by Robin Haigh, narrated by Janey Godley and Ed Balls.

Val also regularly plays with the London Contemporary Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of London to record scores for film and television, and has recorded several discs with the Longbow Ensemble and GPlus Ensemble.

In 2016, Val completed her PhD thesis Foundations of Modern Cello Technique, codifying extended techniques for cello (Goldsmiths, University of London) under the supervision of composer Roger Redgate, and previously the late cellist Alexander Ivashkin. Her thesis has presently over 14,000 downloads, and is being used by composition teachers and students, as well as cellists interested in contemporary music, around the world.

Debussy: Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune”

We were inquisitive (this can happen when playing the viola) about the typography on the front of the part – see above. Why the inverted commas? Did Debussy write another piece with that title with this for its prelude? The answer is worth having if only because Pierre Boulez, the master moderniser, called this single 1894 piece ‘the birth of modern music’. It is. The buoy that music sailed round.

In the inverted commas there is a finished work. It's a poem by Mallarmé written in 1866, eventually published in 1876. If you are curious like us, the poem is hard work but not impossible; it seems best if you read it aloud (and are pleasing to bear in mind that Proust said Mallarmé was a good fellow but insane when he picked up a pen.) The poem is at the end of the programme and here is a link . A translation is is printed at the end of these notes.

Here is its shape to help you, as the French say, to ‘assiste’ at the concert: the faun has been asleep, as he says having ‘sucé la clarté du raisin’ (sucked up the clarity of the grape). He speaks. He’s been dreaming of nymphs and wants to retrieve his dreams. Although he starts clearly enough ‘Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer’ he’s not so sure that they are dreams. He says ‘Aimai-je un rêve?’ (Was it a dream I loved?). This is a very early Symbolist poem: Mallarmé was following Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal was 1857) and the breakout idea was to make the writing express feelings. Not unlike the music, the rest of the poem is wafty, but there are some handholds. It’s the faun playing his flute; he addresses it as Syrinx – a reference to the Greek myth in which Pan falls for the nymph Syrinx, who leaps into a river to avoid him and becomes reeds, which Pan then gathers for a Pan pipe to remember her by; he calls this flute ‘instrument des fuites’ (flights, in more than one sense). It has ‘deux tuyaux’ – two pipes, in the myth Pan’s had seven – but what could Debussy do? The faun points to ‘un solo long’ and ‘une sonore, vaine et monotone ligne’. At the end he is off, going back to sleep – ‘il faut dormir’. This programme note is simply unpicking the inverted commas and not rehearsing the music - you can hear all of this.

Why was the poem written in 1866 and the music in 1894? The mould-breaking expressions and descriptions of feeling – which bled across the arts - started with the poets. The artists followed – the energetic flowering of the Impressionists is commonly set as 1866-84. The musicians came last – first performance of The Ring cycle was still 1876. The birth of modern music came almost 40 years after the poets started and, say, 20 years after the painters.

To complete our puzzle, the house elves of the Breitkopf & Härtel music publisher’s edition explain that Debussy did plan a free-form 3-movement faun symphony in 1892. But he got excited and distracted by the appearance of the Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande in that year – his opera took ten years before it appeared in 1902. By 1894 only our prelude had been written and Debussy never went back to the plan. The two other movements were a bit uninspiringly called Interlude and Paraphrase, so it is hard to imagine what any other music he might have come up with could have possibly said.

Best wishes from the viola section. (Notes: John Sanderson 2023)

L’Apres-midi d’un Faune

Eclogue- The Faun

These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.

So bright

Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light

In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.

Did I love a dream?

My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme

In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true

Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too

Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.


Let’s see….

or if those women you note

Reflect your fabulous senses’ desire!

Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,

Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste:

But the other, she, all sighs, contrasts you say

Like a breeze of day warm on your fleece?

No! Through the swoon, heavy and motionless

Stifling with heat the cool morning’s struggles

No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs

To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze

Out of the twin pipes, quick to breathe

Before it scatters the sound in an arid rain,

Is unstirred by any wrinkle of the horizon,

The visible breath, artificial and serene,

Of inspiration returning to heights unseen.


O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm

My vanity plunders vying with the sun,

Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE

That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed

By talent: when, on the green gold of distant

Verdure offering its vine to the fountains,

An animal whiteness undulates to rest:

And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist

This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower

Or plunge…

Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour

Not seeing by what art there fled away together

Too much of hymen desired by one who seeks there

The natural A: then I’ll wake to the primal fever

Erect, alone, beneath the ancient flood, light’s power,

Lily! And the one among you all for artlessness.


Other than this sweet nothing shown by their lip, the kiss

That softly gives assurance of treachery,

My breast, virgin of proof, reveals the mystery

Of the bite from some illustrious tooth planted;

Let that go! Such the arcane chose for confidant,

The great twin reed we play under the azure ceiling,

That turning towards itself the cheek’s quivering,

Dreams, in a long solo, so we might amuse

The beauties round about by false notes that confuse

Between itself and our credulous singing;

And create as far as love can, modulating,

The vanishing, from the common dream of pure flank

Or back followed by my shuttered glances,

Of a sonorous, empty and monotonous line.


Try then, instrument of flights, O malign

Syrinx by the lake where you await me, to flower again!

I, proud of my murmur, intend to speak at length

Of goddesses: and with idolatrous paintings

Remove again from shadow their waists’ bindings:

So that when I’ve sucked the grapes’ brightness

To banish a regret done away with by my pretence,

Laughing, I raise the emptied stem to the summer’s sky

And breathing into those luminous skins, then I,

Desiring drunkenness, gaze through them till evening.


O nymphs, let’s rise again with many memories.

My eye, piercing the reeds, speared each immortal

Neck that drowns its burning in the water

With a cry of rage towards the forest sky;

And the splendid bath of hair slipped by

In brightness and shuddering, O jewels!

I rush there: when, at my feet, entwine (bruised

By the languor tasted in their being-two’s evil)

Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril:

I seize them without untangling them and run

To this bank of roses wasting in the sun

All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade

Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.’


I adore you, wrath of virgins, O shy

Delight of the nude sacred burden that glides

Away to flee my fiery lip, drinking

The secret terrors of the flesh like quivering

Lightning: from the feet of the heartless one

To the heart of the timid, in a moment abandoned

By innocence wet with wild tears or less sad vapours.

Happy at conquering these treacherous fears

My crime’s to have parted the dishevelled tangle

Of kisses that the gods kept so well mingled:

For I’d scarcely begun to hide an ardent laugh

In one girl’s happy depths (holding back

With only a finger, so that her feathery candour

Might be tinted by the passion of her burning sister,

The little one, naïve and not even blushing)

Than from my arms, undone by vague dying,

This prey, forever ungrateful, frees itself and is gone,

Not pitying the sob with which I was still drunk.


No matter! Others will lead me towards happiness

By the horns on my brow knotted with many a tress:

You know, my passion, how ripe and purple already

Every pomegranate bursts, murmuring with the bees:

And our blood, enamoured of what will seize it,

Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire yet.

At the hour when this wood with gold and ashes heaves

A feast’s excited among the extinguished leaves:

Etna! It’s on your slopes, visited by Venus

Setting in your lava her heels so artless,

When a sad slumber thunders where the flame burns low.


I hold the queen!


O certain punishment…

No, but the soul

Void of words, and this heavy body,

Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:

With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I

Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I

Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!


Farewell to you, both: I go to see the shadow you have become.

Rimsky Korsakov: Scheherazade

Curiosity rife in the violas once more with this piece. Did we know The Thousand and One Nights well enough to be able to match each movement to one of the tales? Or wasn’t that the point? Well, the title is the point, it turns out, not the tales.
The framework to be familiar: having run out of virgins to be married to the Sultan for one night before he beheaded them (an early trauma of faithlessness having shredded the ruler’s trust in women), his Vizier is reduced to offering his daughter Scheherazade. She is willing, she has a clever idea. This scheme of spinning out stories is a success: she is spared in the morning to continue each evening. Dickens was a beginner at cliffhangers compared to her. At the end of 1001 nights (and three children later), the Sultan’s trust is restored and he marries her, living happily ever after. Roughly speaking – there are many versions, starting in the 8th century in India and China.
The music is framed to reflect this: the threatening Sultan is the very first music heard. By the end it is easy to hear that his theme has mellowed. Scheherazade is the violin hosting each of the four movements. The slightest idea of the stories gives us the flavour of each one, but there is no detailed auditory storytelling to unearth. Rimsky-Korsakov saves us the attempt.
‘All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other…”
The rocking in the first movement comes from Sinbad the Sailor who in the Arabian Nights tells his adventures to Sinbad the Porter – the sea carries him to his adventures.
The second movement is also a composite.  It is titled ‘The fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalandar.’ In the medieval Islamic world, a Kalandar was a wandering mystic who led an ascetic lifestyle, relying on charity for his sustenance. The idea of a Kalandar-Prince seems paradoxical. In the Nights, there are in fact three Kalandar Princes and a pattern to them. Each begins life as a prince; through a series of fantastical misfortunes is blinded in one eye and reduced to the scruffy beggary of a Kalandar, and tells his tale. You can’t tell which of the three stories Rimsky-Korsakov had in mind - the music has a sense of adventure that fits them all.
It is also difficult to identify a particular story to go with the third movement, ‘The Prince and the Princess’. This is not a surprise. Love is a common throughout the Nights, and this movement shows Rimsky-Korsakov at his most lyrical. Not everyone has appreciated this tenderness. An early London performance of Scheherazade pleasingly provoked the prudish English press to debate whether this clarinet theme depicted kisses:


A black and white drawing of a guitar

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This may help to understand why Rimsky-Korsakov was hesitant to provide any  detail about his sources of inspiration.
In this movement, Scheherazade’s theme returns not at the beginning but in the middle as if she has paused for a moment to comment on the story. Her violin solo then blends with the music of the prince and princess. The climax that follows is said to represent the young lovers and Scheherazade and Shahryar as well. (The well-bred viola is full of doubt.)
The finale is given the title of “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. Ship Breaks upon a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.” After an introduction from Scheherazade the festival gets going and it is difficult again to identify a specific story to match the festival, but this passage describing the wedding of Scheherazade and Shahryar seems to fit:
“…they decorated the city after the goodliest fashion and diffused scents from censers and burnt aloes-wood and other perfumes in all the markets and thoroughfares while the drums beat and the flutes and pipes sounded and mimes and mountebanks played and plied their arts…”
Earlier tunes appear as this spectacle reaches its climax, the sea music from the first movement returns and we hear a shipwreck (the third Kalandar Prince’s tale hangs on one). The waves subside, Scheherazade rises high above the now low, slumbering melody of Shahryar, rising to the violin’s stratosphere and fading into nothing.
For the Persian and Eastern influence, think that Rimsky-Korsakov was soaked just then in his friend Borodin’s Prince Igor opera that he was finishing after Borodin dropped dead at 53. It’s about invaders from the East, called the Polovtsians. Think also about Saint Basil’s amusing turban (see picture), worn by one of the cathedral’s towers to celebrate the conquest of Astrakhan. This note isn’t a Russian history lesson, but the very strong oriental influence is worth a nod as we listen.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975) Cello Concerto No. 2 (1966)

Soloist: Valerie Welbanks

It is impossible to separate Shostakovich and his music from the Soviet environment which dominated his whole life. By the time he composed this concerto, he had already been on the rollercoaster of denunciation and rehabilitation several times. Brezhnev had replaced Khrushchev two years earlier, so the pendulum had again swung in the direction of Soviet conservatism and all that it implied. It would be an error though to see this concerto as a mirror image of the state of Soviet society – Shostakovich had moved beyond that and he was very clear that there was no narrative behind the score.
This concerto is an intensely emotional work by a composer in his late period, beginning to feel the weight of ill health and frailty. He suffered a heart attack a few weeks after completing the piece, heralding a physical decline that would beset his final decade.
Those of you who have never heard this concerto are in for a surprise. (It is the 1st that is the ‘popular’ one and most well known) Firstly, its considerable power is not generated through the virtuosic cello techniques we would expect in a concerto, although it is extremely difficult technically for the soloist. Secondly, the orchestration is surprisingly sparse but also unique. A piccolo and flute, (rather than 2 flutes) 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and a contra-bassoon make up the woodwinds. There are only 2 French horns – no trumpets, trombones or tuba. Percussion (notably xylophone, tambourine, snare and bass drum), timpani, harp and strings make up the rest of the orchestra.
The horns play a central role throughout and musicians often call this a concerto for cello, horns and orchestra. In the third movement they are especially prominent and are used in an original and almost overwhelming way. Pure, sustained energy would be a good way of describing it. The contrabassoon takes on the same role that the contra-basses do in the strings – providing an extra lower octave to the woodwinds. Both the basses and the contra-bassoon contribute to the dark and sometimes sombre colour of large sections of the concerto. The harp comments on the solo cello every so often.
One other singularity is the tempo marking which is set to 100 bpm throughout. Shostakovich makes things go faster (or slower) by changing the time signature and applying this speed to different note values, e.g. a crotchet beat in the 1st movement or a minim (double beat) in the 2nd movement or 6/8 in the last. Ingenious and a wonderful way of adding the unifying parameter of a constant and unchanging pulse to the whole concerto, across all the movements.
Although the concerto follows a standard three movement structure, it started off as a movement for a symphonic work ‘for cello and orchestra’. It would have been Shostakovich’s 14th symphony and indeed the 15th symphony has many features that show its ancestry.
The concerto as a whole feels like a continuous work. The first movement is a dark and intense affair. Slow music, with mostly low strings (celli and basses) accompanying the solo cello throughout. Solo horn and the harp appear too. The music builds inexorably, deliberately and slowly. Odd outbursts in the winds punctuate the music at crucial moments and the music slowly subsides and ends as it started – quiet and contemplative.
Overall one has the feeling that, despite its length, the whole movement is almost akin to a slow introduction to a symphonic 1st movement, as if the scene is being set for what is to follow in the 2nd and 3rd ones. The key to understanding this movement musically is to follow the cello line as it wakes from its slumber and begins to articulate the story it has to tell, with the orchestra supplying the colour and perhaps the odd comment here and there. The cello line is very expressive and passionate throughout the concerto but especially so in this first movement.
The outer movements, of more or less equal length, are connected via a much shorter second movement which functions as an interlude. This arc-like structure is the framework that supports the musical evolution of the work. The second movement itself is based on a Russian folk tune, introduced at the outset (after a short fanfare-like introduction) by the solo cello. Shostakovich explained in a conversation with his close friend Isaak Glikman that he had felt inexplicably drawn to a tune that was popular with Odessa’s street vendors – to the lyrics ‘Pretzels, buy my Pretzels!’.
The whole movement is quicker and more lively than the first; the xylophone, woodwinds, timpani and horns start to express themselves with that typical Shostakovich sound which is so instantly recognisable – e.g. winds all playing the same notes across many octaves with angular melodies and rhythms.
The second movement flows seamlessly into the third – this is the movement where the horns are let loose – and they rampage wildly for 32 bars, accompanied by a snare drum. This really is an extraordinary passage, unlike anything else in the orchestral repertoire. When they are spent, the solo cello takes over in an extended cadenza, with a tambourine exchanged for the snare. Amazingly inventive orchestration sustaining a powerful musical energy.
The movement then settles into a kind of theme and variations, together with many moments where bits of thematic material from the previous two are recalled, e.g. the horn episode from the beginning of the 3rd movement, the tune from the 2nd, cello figurations from the 1st, etc.
All these build to a huge final fanfare, at which point a lesser composer would perhaps have ended the piece – but the music falters and subsides, and the concerto ends as it started, with plaintive sighs from the cello. One last bit of magic orchestration appears as the percussion accompany the solo cello through to the end.
I don’t usually write programme notes which attempt to describe the music and what happens when – but with this piece, I felt I had no choice. The orchestration is so extraordinary throughout, and the scope, the breadth and the arc of the music is so unrelentingly confident that you are swept away, willingly or not, and landmarks seemed a necessity. No fireworks here, but 35 minutes of intense musical focus instead.
Notes: Richard Gonski 2023