A Game of Memories in Three Movements

Composer and organist Thierry Escaich presents a new piece for violoncello played by Gautier Capuçon at Orchestra Concert II.

© Marie Rolland

Thierry Escaich, you’re an organist and a composer. Where do you feel the difference lies between composing and performing music?

For me, the two things are very closely connected. I improvise a lot when I play the organ, and through this I have found a certain way to make an idea immediately effective. These ideas can be found again in my compositions. Improvisation offers a special feature on this path from the idea to the finished work: it nourishes the idea, brings it to fruition, and thereby leads me to the actual work. These two activities are thus completely interconnected, which is why I am continuing to pursue my career as a performer and an improviser, and why they are part and parcel of my work as a composer.

When you get a commission for a work, how do you embark on it? What is your source of inspiration, and how does the dramaturgy of the work arise?

When Gautier Capuçon asked me to write him a cello concerto, it was actually a long-held desire on his part. It’s been almost ten years since we first talked about it together. But when he named the orchestra for which it was to be composed, I knew immediately what I was going to do with this piece. I straightaway imagined it as an aria in the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach – music that you might say has something of a pompous or ecclesiastical touch to it, with its concomitant echoing acoustic, for instance. That was the catalyst, so to speak. I imagined the solo cello, and how the other cellos and other instruments would react to this kind of aria. That was my starting point for the piece. Then all the elements came together, like a symphonic poem. The idea of the aria continues to develop throughout the course of the piece that now opens up before us.

Alongside your work, the concert programme will feature music by Bach and Robert Schumann. What is your relationship to these two composers?

I’m often asked about the relationship of my music to that of composers like Bach or Schumann, and so I was delighted when I saw that both of them will also feature in the second orchestral concert in Salzburg.
Quite simply, Bach forms the basis of my discourse as an organist. I play Bach, I also improvise in the Baroque spirit of Bach, and as I’ve already explained, I think you will also find him in the music of my piece. On the one hand, Bach is the fugue; but on the other hand, Bach is also the dance, and this piece is very closely bound up with the idea of dance. You’ll experience that in the course of the work. As far as Schumann is concerned, I think that the work’s title, »Les Chants de l’Aube« (»Songs of the dawn«, Ed.), refers directly to Schumann’s Romanticism. This Romanticism, which is sometimes indeed a little dusky, provides you with a good idea of how the first movement of »Les Chants de l’Aube« will sound.

What’s important to you when you write a work for orchestra and solo instrument? How would you describe their relationship to each other?

I often ask myself why we should still be writing concertos today, and just what the relationship should be between the orchestra and a soloist – like the cello. Every epoch, I think, ought to have its own idea about what a concerto should be. Today, that might no longer quite correspond exactly to the ideas that a composer like Camille Saint-Saëns might have had, for example.
You really have to think of this concerto – »Les Chants de l’Aube« – as being just like any other. Rather like a concerto grosso in which the cello sort of enters into a dialogue with different sections of the orchestra. But there are also moments – such as in the middle movement – where it is integrated in the orchestra. It’s simply one of the cellos of the cello group that sets off on a big, narrative melody that they play together. It’s as if Gautier’s cello has been multiplied by the other cellos. But I think that every composer will come up with his own means of creating a concerto.

Christian Gerhaher als Wolfram von Eschenbach ©?

The piece of yours that’s being performed at the Easter Festival is for cello and orchestra. What do you find special about the cello?

I have a special relationship with this instrument because many of my recent works have been written for it, including orchestral pieces. I think that composers write less often for the cello or viola than for the violin, for example, simply because they tend to appear in the middle of the orchestra and are seen more as part of the whole. Perhaps this is what led me to develop several works for the cello, and Gautier is obviously a very good ambassador for his instrument. His cello has a really very full sound. In a certain way, it sings. Since being given the commission for this piece, I have listened to his cello in its high and low registers. This was especially inspiring; it just seemed to respond to the other cellos and to the orchestra.

What does your music sound like – how would you describe it in words?

My musical style is difficult to describe (laughs). I would say that this piece, which is divided into three movements, reflects different styles. It is a hybrid that comprises arias a bit Baroque in style, you could say. At the same time, this is all emphasised by reminiscences in other levels of the orchestra. It is really a play of reminiscences, of memories, in three movements.
In the second movement we are more in a kind of polyphonic song, maybe even traditional music. This is what interests me the most at the moment – finding music based on traditional music out of which I might then create my own “traditional” music. The last movement is simply the dance of the dawn, the »Danse de l’Aube« – and we’ll see how the dance emerges from nothing and then outstrips the orchestra in the end.

Easter is a time of new beginnings, and for Christians it’s the time of the Resurrection. To what extent is this sense of a new beginning important – both when you set out to create a new work and in music in general?

It’s true: Here in Salzburg, my piece is being performed at Eastertime, thus at the time of Christ’s Resurrection. I think that this connection is in any case so organic because the last movement really provides momentum – this is where the listener is reminded of the second movement, which is invoked here. We’ll hear how it comes out of the depths and is then catapulted across the valleys – this is really in keeping with the idea of rebirth. And I truly believe that this piece is connected with Eastertime in some way. It’s a kind of jubilation. If I wanted to give the composition a different title, it would be »D’exultait« (»Jubilation«, Ed.).

And a final question: What connects you to the city of Salzburg?

I was in Salzburg a year ago, and I have to say that this city is naturally inspiring for any composer, given its history. But it’s the mountain world and the environment most of all that I love as a tourist and a Nature-lover. I can still remember taking very beautiful walks, alone in Nature in the mountains around Salzburg. At least as far as this part of Europe is concerned, it’s there that I have enjoyed some of the loveliest moments of my life. Perhaps it’s my relationship with Nature that is particularly close to my heart when I hear the name of Salzburg.