Charles Koechlin and the Law of the Jungle

Jan 31, 2017

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection this Saturday, February 4th, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI...the music of Charles Koechlin is not performed much; that much is certain. We may even call it, in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth, neglected. While there are logical reasons his legacy may have suffered, we also can’t fully understand why.

The French composer worked at a time when the composers of every European nation were creating, in one way or another, music particular to their countries. There have always been regional colors in music—the Spanish Renaissance is tinted differently from the Italian—but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries nationalism was bubbling up all over Europe. It was fueled by political realities, by the re-discovery of folk cultures, and by Romanticism, which reigned in art, literature, and philosophy.

In France, the standard-bearers of a new French sound were Debussy, Ravel, and then the new generation who followed the modernism of Satie. Where did that leave Koechlin?

His music is not the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It has been called impressionistic, and while it is lovely, it is darker and cooler. Sometimes it is Bach-like in the inner workings of its voices. It is also modernist, but it isn’t the French modern of his time. A German piquancy of atonality runs, like allspice, through Koechlin’s music.

Its being hard to place may explain why it isn’t performed so much. But here’s where we may not understand the neglect of the music of Charles Koechlin: It is downright gorgeous.

Rudyard Kipling wrote his series of The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, and it grabbed the attention of Koechlin. Today we’ll hear three of his stand-alone Jungle Book works, in reverse order of their completion, although he worked on them over decades. The Law of the Jungle is not the me-first nihilism it has come to mean now. For Kipling and Koechlin, it is Baloo the Bear laying down the governing precepts of civilization to Mowgli the man-cub. It is Confucius rather than Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” A holy man’s mysticism and sacrifice informs The Meditation of Purun Bhagat. Spring Running, the longest, is in four sections: Spring in the Forest, Mowgli, The Running, and (when Mowgli leaves the jungle) Night.

Throughout these Jungle Book works and all of Koechlin’s music runs the aspiration to color (with exquisite orchestration) and concision that is, yes, very French. There is much else, also, leaving us still pondering his neglect.

PROGRAM:
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). The Law of the Jungle (1939)
Koechlin. The Meditation of Purun Bhagat (1936)
Koechlin. The Spring Running (1908-25)