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Ibert was one of the last composers dedicated to preserving the French classical tradition. Born in 1890, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire and was a lifelong Parisian, apart from a period as director of the Academy of Rome. He was a contemporary of ‘Les Six’—the group of early 20th-century French composers whose music represented a strong reaction against heavy German Romanticism, as well as against the chromaticism and rich orchestration of Claude Debussy. However, he was kept from joining this clique partly by the First World War, which saw him work as a stretcher-bearer and a naval officer.
In any case, Ibert’s ethos may not have been suited to the radical opinions of his contemporaries. Although his use of harmony was progressive—he typically makes use of chords of the 9th, 11th and 13th, and much of his music was infused with elements of Impressionism and Neoclassicism—most of his work was firmly rooted in the classical tradition. In fact, he deliberately eschewed most of the fads and fashions of the time. ‘All systems are valid, provided one derives music from them,’ he said. His biographer, Alexandra Laederich, writes of his wide range of influences: ‘His music can be festive and gay […], lyrical and inspired, or descriptive and evocative […], often tinged with gentle humour.’
Humour is certainly one of the defining features of Ibert’s flute concerto. Written in 1933 for French flautist Marcel Moyse, it was premiered at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire the following year. The brilliant third movement immediately became a test piece at the Conservatoire. Like most of Ibert’s work, it represents a wide variety of styles and influences. It is treasured by flautists for its masterful orchestration, virtuosic writing for the soloist and vivid, picturesque charm. However, it was not performed in England or the U.S. until 1948, mainly because of its fiendish technical challenges.
The work opens with a rapid torrent of 16th notes, followed by a contrasting lyrical, expressive second theme. The 16ths soon make a second appearance, with the soloist having to contend with several bars of rapidly changing time signatures. Ahead of a performance of the work with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 2009, flautist Bart Feller said: ‘The flautist has to concentrate on projecting above the orchestra, grabbing a breath and capturing Ibert’s jazzy lightness. It’s a challenge to make it sound effortless and French’.
The central ‘Andante’ is lyrical and has a dreamy quality that is reminiscent of the central movement of what is probably Ibert’s best-known work: the orchestral suite Escales (Ports of Call), inspired by his travels around the Mediterranean. During the years he spent in Italy, Ibert travelled extensively in Europe. On the evening of the premiere of his flute concerto, sitting in a hotel room in Marseille, he told a reporter: ‘I’ve always loved travel and setting out on journeys. I think if I hadn’t been a musician I would have been a sailor’.
The closing ‘Allegro scherzando’—the flashy Conservatoire showpiece—is lively and distinctly jazz-influenced, with more rhythmic challenges for the soloist. Before embarking on formal study, Ibert worked for a short time as a cinema pianist. He later became a prolific composer of film music, employing a wide variety of popular styles, and also wrote extensively for live theatre. This theatrical influence is very much evident in the third movement of the flute concerto, which bristles with uniquely French drama and poise.
from notes by Femke Colborne © 2013