Friday 19 January 2024

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Bostoniana

The orchestral work, Bostoniana was originally to have been Jacques Ibert’s Second Symphony. It was commissioned as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, only two movements were completed before the composer’s death on 5 February 1962. To make matters worse, the manuscript was lost whilst the composer was in Rome. Only the first movement was recovered. The work was premiered on 25 January 1963 by the BSO under the baton of Charles Munch.

French composer Jacques Ibert was born in Paris on 15 August 1890. He was schooled at the College Rollin in his hometown, then at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1919 he won the coveted Prix de Rome with his La Ballade de la geôle de Reading, inspired by Oscar Wilde's poem. Much of his career was spent writing music for the theatre – ballet, opera, and incidental music, often in an approachable style. He was director of the Académie de France between 1937 and 1960, and, for a brief period, director of the Opera-Comique in Paris.

Ibert is best remembered for his witty orchestral Divertissement, the short piano piece, Le petit âne blanc, and his sumptuous portrayal of the Mediterranean in Escales. His characteristic qualities included “brilliant humour, rapier-like wit, charm and originality.” Stylistically, he ranged from neo-impressionistic, “with subtle moods and delicate effects” to the satirical. Towards the end of his life, a new tauter mood appeared in some of his work. Jacques Ibert died in Paris on 5 February 1962.

The programme notes for the premiere performance of Bostoniana explained that “the movement has the indication Allegro comodo. After an introduction conspicuous for rhythmic chords by the woodwinds and brass, the main part of the movement begins, the signature changing from common time to an established 3/8. The principal theme is set forth by the strings, marcato. A quieter section, poco piu tranquillo, begins with a sustained melody from the strings with harp accompaniment. The music gathers liveliness and substance in development, and at last broadens out to a close in triple forte.”

Andre Jolivet, reviewing the first Parisian performance of Bostoniana wrote: “The piece is remarkable for the clear arrangement of its argument and the economy of orchestral material. When one peruses the score, one is bewildered by its masterful simplicity and by the easy way in which every resource of an art devoted to sensibility and logic, to music in short, is brought into play.”

Ibert’s Bostoniana can be heard on YouTube played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Louis Frémaux, here. The same recording can be heard with the orchestral score, here. The version by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit is here.

In fact, compared to some of Ibert’s earlier music it is more spartan in impact, less witty, but still full of orchestral magic. Hubert Culot, appraising Frémaux’s account (EMI Classics Gemini 5176392) suggested that “…this short symphonic movement may be the real surprise in this compilation of Ibert’s orchestral output, for it has a muscular and forceful energy reminiscent of the composer’s great friend Arthur Honegger. It amply shows that Ibert was also capable of great things.” (MusicWeb International 8 June 2008).

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