Hommage à Mozart

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            The music of Ibert is probably more familiar to music students and faculty, owing to his many contributions of interesting and apt chamber and solo instrumental compositions, as well as a large body of songs.  But, American symphony audiences may well be familiar with his evergreen, early work Escales (Ports of Call), composed in a rather lush, impressionistic style.  It was written soon after World War I, and based upon his experiences during the war in the Mediterranean as a naval officer.  The son of two professors at the Paris Conservatoire, he received a solid music education, later moonlighting as a pianist in the silent movie houses—an experience that played some part in his musical style.   Service during the war interrupted his musical career, but he astounded everyone by winning the Prix du Rome on his first attempt, in 1919.  He went on to become one of France’s most important composers, music administrators, and pundits until his death in 1962. 

            In the midst of major changes in musical style during the twentieth-century, while living among a phalanx of bold innovators, Ibert nevertheless maintained his own course, not following any of the diverse, major “schools” of folks like Schoenberg, Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, and Stravinsky.  His music fundamentally reflects a remarkable stylistic diversity—almost chameleon-like—each composition suitable to the task and subject at hand, whether lush, exotic, and somewhat impressionistic, like Escales, or biting and satirical, such some of his many scores for films and theatre.  But throughout, the common element is typically French:  clear, balanced, form; elegant and often witty melody; and a mastery of colorful, but transparent orchestration.  Clichés, perhaps, but nevertheless true.

            Ibert’s charming little musical bonbon, Hommage à Mozart, was composed in 1955 in tribute to Mozart’s upcoming bicentennial of his birth.   So, from Ibert’s formidable “variety pack” of musical styles, he pulled out his personal take on what has come to be called “neo-classicism.”  We may be familiar with Stravinsky’s brief foray into that new simplicity right after World War I—exemplified, among other works, by his Octet for Wind Instruments (1923).  Other compositions that may come to mind in this new simplicity are Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances (1917) and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (1918).  So, after the dense orchestral “cobwebs,” extended chromatic harmonies, lengthy musical structures--and all the rest of complex late romantic music—many composers sought and enjoyed a new clarity and simplicity, inspired by the music of the past.  

            Ibert’s short tribute to the virtues of eighteenth-century musical style is cast into one of the favorite forms of the time—the rondo.  Simply, a happy, brisk single movement that features an opening section that returns after a parade of contrasting sections—the latter conveniently easy to differentiate from the cheerful opening one.  And so it is, here.  After a brief introduction, the opening main idea is followed by a new one that begins with a flute solo.  Soon, our familiar first idea returns, shortly followed by the second new idea, led by the trumpets.  After some vigorous development, it all concludes with a return to the initial material.  Throughout, Ibert indulges himself with his mastery of counterpoint—learned from the master at the French Conservatory, Gedalge, and a perfect tribute to Mozart’s musical style.

            In reality, a musical tribute to Mozart would difficult to pull off in many of the more cerebral and complex styles of the “modern” 20th century.  But, Ibert’s scintillating and bubbly homage was a most apt and entertaining response.    

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2022 William E. Runyan