André Caplet

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Conte Fantastique for Piano or Harp and String Quartet

Conte Fantastique began life as a tone poem Caplet composed for harp and orchestra in 1908, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Masque of the Red Death. He called it Legende. In 1922, he decided to adapt it for a string quartet with piano or harp. To remove all doubt that it was a programmatic work, Caplet noted in the title that it was based on The Masque of the Red Death. If this were not enough, Caplet provided a lengthy description of what the music describes in a preface to the piano part. The story takes place in a time of a plague which causes bleeding and immediate death, and hence was known as the Red Death. Prince Prospero invites his friends and followers into his castle, locking it so that he and the others will be safe from the horrors outside the walls. As if to taunt the plague, the prince throws a gala masked ball. There is dancing and partying but each hour as an ancient ebony clock strikes the hour, it makes a sound so terrifying that it temporarily paralyzes the merry makers. Then at midnight, a grim visage, bleeding and clothed in rags like a burial shroud appears. Unknown to all, the Red Death has entered, Angered, the prince raises his dagger to stab the apparition but before he can do so, falls dead himself. The revelers grab the figure, rip off its rags and discover there is nothing beneath. The Red Death, now within the castle, quickly begins to kill the revelers until they are all dead and the clock is silent.


Caplet uses the piano (or harp) to express the most dramatic horror—it not only represents the sound of the striking clock, but also the arrival of the Red Death within the castle walls. The music is full of harmonics, glissandos, and other spooky effects which marvelously conjure up an aura of horror. The music is so evocative that the story can easily be discerned from its gloomy and ominous beginning, to the dancing at the ball, which though lively is nonetheless haunted by an uneasy specter of doom. The climax comes when the piano (harp) sounds the 12 strokes of midnight as the Red Death knocks on the door.


André Caplet (1878-1925) was born upon a boat underway between the French towns of Le Harve and Honfleur. He studied composition, piano and violin at the Paris Conservatory and was the winner of the 1901 Prix de Rome beating out Ravel for the honor. He subsequently studied conducting with Nikisch and served as conductor of the Boston Opera from 1910 until 1914. Debussy who was a close friend asked Caplet to orchestrate several of his works. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is for these orchestrations. This is unjust, for he was a fine composer in his own right who wrote several very original works. Among them is the Conte Fantastique for Piano or Harp and String Quintet.


This is an entirely original work by a composer who possessed an incredible compositional talent, no doubt the reason that Debussy asked him to orchestrate his works. Not a work for beginners, professionals who present it in concert are sure to find a receptive audience. Experienced amateurs of good ability will also be able to navigate this extraordinary piece. Please be aware when ordering--only the piano part has the string parts and is a piano score. The harp part does not.


(A) Piano, 2 Violins, Viola & Cello-Parts $39.95
(B) Harp, 2 Violins, Viola, & Cello-Parts $39.95
(C) All Six Parts $49.95



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