Aux Étoiles

Henri Duparc (1848-1933)

Henri Duparc was one of the major French composers of the late Romantic period, and yet we only know him today from the small selection of his music that remains—most notably the songs for which he is best known, a number of instrumental works, and part of his opera Roussalka. Born in Paris and surrounded by the city’s thriving cultural scene, wherein took place many important developments in French music during his life, he was firmly integrated in the milieu: he studied with César Franck, and was one of the founding members of the Société Nationale de Musique. And yet, in 1885, at age 37, Duparc abruptly stopped composing after being diagnosed with a psychological condition diagnosed during his day as “neurasthenia.” He retreated to the countryside with his family, took up other pursuits, such as watercolors, and never composed again so far as anyone knows. He later burned many of his works from his earlier career, writing to friend and composer Jean Cras that they no longer had any connection with his life, and that furthermore, the idea of composing now abhorred him. Duparc lived until age 85, going blind towards the end of his life, but with his composing days long behind him.

Fortunately for us, Aux étoiles is one of the works that survived, though the rest of the larger work from which it came did not. The short piece was originally intended as the first movement of a three movement piece called Poème nocturne; the other two movements were called Lutins et follets (Imps and Will o’ the wisps) and l’Aurore (The Dawn). The piece was performed, for the first and probably only time in its entirety, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in April 1874 at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique. Following Duparc’s 1910 revisions, Aux étoiles was next performed in 1911 in Paris; it was also first published in the same year by Rouart in its orchestral version and in a piano arrangement by Gustave Samazeuilh, though Duparc wrote to Jean Cras that he was not pleased with the latter. The edition also included the subtitle that Duparc requested: “entracte pour un drame inédit” (entr’acte for an unpublished drama). This likely came out of Duparc’s original intention to publish another piece, possibly written for Roussalka, in the same edition, with the volume titled “Deux petites pièces d’orchestre etraites d’un drame inédit” (Two small pieces for orchestra extracted from an unpublished drama); however, the other piece was not ready in time.
The piece, though small, has an expansive quality—it slowly grows and unfolds, as though gently peeling back the layers of peaceful, awe-inspiring rapture inspired by the vast atmosphere of the night sky. The opening muted strings, against the gentle pulse of the horns, create a serene atmosphere, and the piece moves at an unhurried pace. Much of the material of the piece is gracefully spun out of two motives, the first occurring right at the opening with the strings’ entrance on a repeated rising gesture, taken up by the winds as the music begins to blossom. Next, a descending arpeggio motive leads into the rest of the opening section.

In the center of the piece, solo violin begins a delicate dance with solo cello before floating up on its own in a poignant dreamlike passage, descending to meet the cello again. The rest of the orchestra reenters, bringing back the two motives, and as a whole the ensemble swells in rapture. A horn call brings the piece back to a quieter mood and thinner texture. The opening rising motive is played in the strings while the rest of the orchestra begins to recede with gentle pinpricks in the dark. Solo clarinet plays the rising gesture one last time before a soft chord in the strings closes the piece, and the reverie softly fades away.

© Pamela Feo