String Trio for Violin, Viola & Cello
"I strongly recommend Jean Cras' String Trio for public performance. Nor should experienced amateurs overlook this challenging but outstanding work." So wrote the highly respected critic Wilhelm Altmann in his Handbook for String Players.
Nearly forgotten now for more than a half century, Jean Cras (1879-1932) stands out in stark contrast to virtually every other French composer of his generation. He was born in the coastal town of Brest into a family with a long naval tradition. Although his affinity for music and his talent showed itself early, he was, nevertheless, enrolled at the Naval Academy in 1896. But, in his spare time, he studied orchestration, counterpoint and composition. Feeling he could go no farther alone, he sought out a respected teacher, Henri Duparc. Duparc was astounded by Cras’ talent and meticulously exposed him to compositional techniques of Bach, Beethoven and his own teacher, César Franck. These were Cras' only lessons in composition.
As a composer, Cras' greatest problem was a chronic lack of time to devote to his art as he became a fully commissioned officer in the French Navy. He loved the sea, but served in the navy only out of a sense of patriotism and family tradition. Unlike Rimsky-Korsakov and Albert Roussel, both of whom had begun careers in the navy but later resigned, Cras never left the navy and eventually rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral. His maritime experiences sowed the seeds of an imagination and introspection which enabled him to understand profoundly the alienation of the human condition. And it is this which truly provides the key to his music.
Although he was, as so many other of his contemporaries, drawn to cyclical composition pioneered by Franck, he employed it with a unique iconoclastic language of his own. It was a meticulous and sophisticated autobiographical synthesis of the things which were paramount in his life: the sea, the Church, his native Brittany, and the exoticisms discovered on his many voyages. He reached the peak of his powers during the 1920's and it was then that Cras composed some of the most inventive compositions of the twentieth century, of which his String Trio is among the foremost.
Dating from 1925, the opening movement which is without any tempo marking other than a metronome indication begins with a searching melody over the pulsating 8th notes of the cello. After a reprise, one hears a series of jazz rhythms as the development proceeds. The second subject, is gentler but is interrupted by a search light call from the viola. The extraordinary second movement--there is nothing like it in the trio literature, Lent, is a serious of unrelated episodes. The first is religious, the strings create a soft, meditative organ-like sound that one might well hear in Church. Next comes a peasant dance, perhaps a musette with just a touch of the exotic. Then, the violin is given a long wailing solo in the exotic sounds of the Levant and beyond. This is in turn followed by a haunting viola solo. The movement closes much as it began. A quick movement, Animé, presents a broad panorama of traveling music. The lower strings strum, guitar-like, as each voice takes turns bringing out a bright melody. The development introduces an exotic element. Then the tempo begins to increase until it reaches a wild whirling feverish pitch before the main theme is reprised. In the finale, Tres anime, the cello begins a Bach-like etude which as it goes along morphs into a Gaelic dance which must have come from his native Brittany. A lyrical second theme is sung over the soft ponticello voices in the background.
This is an amazing modern work. Of course, it belongs in the concert hall, but experienced and diligent amateurs will also revel in its beauty and originality. Only published once, our edition is a reprint of the original.
Parts & Score: $26.95