a cantata, a symphony, a lyrical drama
Dare to rejoice in the beauty of the world to find the strength to return to the fight against all forms of oppression and injustice. This humanist ideal is reflected in three works of Tomasi which the composer Régis Campo so presents.
Retour à Tipasa (Return to Tipasa, 1966) is a strange southern symphony for narrator, chorus, and orchestra. In the very first minutes of the composition, a hypnotic sixteenth-note theme (F-sharp, G, A, B-flat) evokes an unrelenting, enduring white light. This is the musical setting that enfolds Albert Camus’ simple and beautiful words.
Henri Tomasi describes an aspect of nature which is massive, granular, and powerful using short musical motifs which are not further developed. Everything is exposed in utter simplicity with chords in superimposed fifths – simple major chords like hints of December light.
A chorus then appears as an echo of this nature, a sort of gentle incantation.
Next comes a dance which is slow and filled with mystery: a barcarole. A hushed village, the presence of stone, an immobile sun…
A rooster, a blackbird, and birdsong pull us out of this torpor. Quarter-note ostinatos rhythm the march, expressing the beating heart of nature.
The chorus brings the opus to a close with these words, “O! Vibrant light! Tipasa.” It is a last, languorous glance at that “invincible summer in the midst of winter”, and a source of immense joy. ”
Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1959) has a surprising structure. It is all at once a chamber opera based on a text by Vercors, a lyrical drama, and also a sort of film with dialogues, sound effects, and musical interludes.
Early in the first measures, we hear a few notes of Bach’s Prelude No. 8, played on the piano by a young girl.
Thanks to his magnificent talent as a writer for voice, Tomasi has brought a grand recitative accompanied by orchestra into play, thereby suggesting a 17C lyrical tragedy. Thus the singer’s declamation follows as closely as possible the movement and natural rhythms of Vercors’s heartrending text. The tone is grave and embittered: confronted with the horrors of war, the music-loving officer has lost heart. Bach’s Prelude No. 8, piano with strings, briefly reappears like a specter, but it is only an interlude: the officer must leave again to go to war. “Tomorrow, I have permission to leave for hell,” he says. Sometimes the music has an expressionistic quality: the chords are harsh, the melodies angular. This composition can be compared to Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, written in 1947 for narrator, men’s chorus, and orchestra, based on a text from Deuteronomy. Schoenberg wrote it after having been visited by a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. It presents the same violence, the same harshness.
La Symphonie du Tiers monde (Third World Symphony, 1968) is certainly one of the chefs d’oeuvre of Tomasi’s last period. The first movement (Lamentation) is characteristic of a muscial style depicting walking: a slow march, harp accents, the sound of chains, bits of melodies with certain indications strewn here and there in the score: lamentoso, plaintive, weighty, wearily, con dolore, with sadness… We are in South Africa, and we are following the footsteps of a slave in chains.
A lamento slowly captures the violins, then the entire orchestra. Finally, we come back to the slave’s footsteps.
With this, Tomasi has created a quasi-cinematographic storyline: we are close to Shostakovich and his symphonies (the 7th, the 9th…); we perceive great, sweeping symphonic design. The camera envelops all of a world alive with suffering, but also with hope.
The second movement (Révolte) is a cry where French horns, kettledrums, and a brass fanfare convey a terrible battle.
It is here that the tragic character of the symphony is carried to its zenith. A great arsenal of percussions (xylophone, whip, gong, bass drum, anvil, Chinese blocks, and chains) rhythms this wild, tormented music which underlines Aimé Césaire’s phrase, “Leave here, you assassins of Christ!”
Then, in contrast, the third and last movement (Allegro giocoso) begins by surprising the listener with falsely light and carefree early melodies in the form of a jig – a scherzando ritornello set in motion by the small antique cymbal’s luminous C-sharp. Soon, a narration brings us gradually back to an obstinate march in a motif of triplets.
It concludes with a wild and thunderous orgy (not unlike the end of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé). With superbly orchestrated music, Tomasi ends on a point of proud and global symphonic protest, inspired by Aimé Césaire’s words, “Let us go forward into a new time with a unanimous, jubilant step!” The orchestra’s brass section, playing all bells to the sky, here sings a final cry of joy.
In 1968, Tomasi’s approach was far from the avant-garde techniques whose laboratory esthetics tended to embroider pretty little bits of fragile and ephemeral musical lace.
Beyond trends, Tomasi, broadminded citizen of the world, has portrayed an era – his era.
His style of composition has embraced the modal, the tonal, the atonal, the diatonic and the chromatic, all guided by profoundly dramatic and humanistic values.
Forty years later, his independent voice remains fresh, new, and pertinent… universal.
Régis Campo, May 2008, Paris