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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).  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. 

            Divertissement is a 1930 reworking of incidental music that Ibert had composed the year before for a well-known theatrical farce, The Italian Straw Hat, from 1851 by the nineteenth-century dramatists, Labiche and Marc-Michel.   While perhaps obscure to most Americans today, the play has an important place in the genre.  In France it was an immediate success, later variously made into six films in four countries—from 1910 to 1974.  And in New York City it was a stage hit in 1936, in a production directed by Orson Wells as part of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, starring, among others, Joseph Cotton and Arlene Francis.  So, it’s certainly not an obscure little drama.  As a farce, the plot is rather absurd, involving a search for a straw hat to replace the one eaten by a horse while the hat’s owner is canoodling in the bushes with her lover.   The problem is that it is her wedding day, her understandably jealous bridegroom is mystified and astonished at the hat’s disappearance, and the guilty lovers demand that the owner of the horse find an exact copy of the digested hat before all is revealed to the bridegroom.   All of the ensuing action stems from this ridiculous state of affairs.

            Ibert’s music for this inanity is perfectly apropos, and written in his best burlesque style.  There are six movements, opening with an “Introduction,” a suitably frenetic affair, completely reflecting the chaos in the whole ridiculous chase for a new hat.  The following “Cortège” starts the little procession out in a tranquil mood, but abruptly accelerates into an attractive succession of melodies tossed around to almost all of the instruments—replete with snatches of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.”  Ironic comments from various soloists weave into the march of marital complications.  The ensuing “Nocturne” reflects some darker moments—probably for the cuckolded bridegroom.  A satiric waltz then minces into view, starting with a music box invoked by the flutes.  Its prosaic wanderings and stuttering is perfect—enhanced by music hall smears in the trombone and avian chattering in the woodwinds.  The bassoon announces the following “Parade,” a rather grotesque one, which segues from one absurd banality to another.  The “Finale” starts with crashing dissonances in the solo piano, but quickly moves to a crazy quilt of scurrying clown music.  It’s clearly disintegrating into slapstick chaos, and if you listen carefully, the horse has the last laugh.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan