The Kennedy Center

Divertissement for bassoon and string quintet

About the Work

Jean Françaix Composer: Jean Françaix
© Richard Freed

Jean Françaix, one might observe, was well named, for his music represents not only his own personality but various characteristics we have come to identify with the French: urbane wit, elegance, élan, all manifesting themselves in ways that reminds us that wisdom and profundity need not be encased in gloomy tones or distended proportions. He was consistently productive from his teens to the end of his life, and early on found a level in which he was both ?comfortable? and constantly imaginative. In discussing his music he liked to quote a remark of Molière's which may be translated, ?It is a strange venture to make honest folk laugh.?

One of Françaix's early works is an enchanting score for the ballet Scuola di ballo (?Dancing School?), made up entirely of his stunning settings for small orchestra of movements from the string quartets of Luigi Boccherini?a piece in the tradition of Stravinsky's Pulcinella (on music attributed to Pergolesi) and Respighi's arrangement of Rossini material (for larger orchestra) for La Boutique fantasque. The most remarkable thing about Scuola di ballo , but which, puzzlingly, has yet to share the wide circulation enjoyed by those familiar works.

In the realm of chamber music Françaix wrote an especially string String Trio, many works for various wind instruments, and several in which strings and winds join forces. All of these are characteristically concise yet substantial, and the Divertissement performed this afternoon has established itself as one of the most popular. It was composed in 1968, and is in four brief movements. According to James Jeter, an American bassoonist who had an opportunity to be coached by Françaix himself in preparing the work for performance some twenty-five years ago, he composer characterized the spirit of the opening movement ( Vivace ) as ? à la burlesque ,? and stressed the importance of maintaining the brisk tempo (quarter-note = 144). Neither the term he used, however, nor his insistence on the steady tempo should be taken as an indication of slapstick: on the contrary, there are numerous subtleties in dynamics, and in rhythmic accents for the individual instruments.

The second movement ( Lento) , the only slow section of the work, is somewhat wistful, and the third is a kind of scherzo, though not so labeled: it is marked simply Vivo assai , and the composer asked that it be played ?as straightforwardly as possible.? He ruled out ?excessive rubato and retards,? and cautioned against letting the tempo lag. The final movement ( Allegro ) is one of those pieces that begin with mock seriousness and quickly turn into something utterly different. In this case the strings begin with emphatic solemnity and the bassoon eventually enters in a way calculated to create surprise and set off a playful celebration. Among the humorous touches, the composer noted that a solo for the first violin, not long after the bassoon's delayed entrance, must sound ?like a chanteuse , with a definite flavor of a French nightclub?lots of vibrato and sliding around.