Orchestral Music: Divertissement (Jacques Ibert)

(Born August 15, 1890, in Paris; died there February 5, 1962)

Although Jacques Ibert’s education was interrupted by service in the French Navy during World War I, on his return home in 1919, he won the greatest honor that his country bestowed on its young artists, the Prix de Rome.  He was a pupil of Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatory.  While in residence at the French Academy, he composed one of his most popular works, the suite Escales (“Ports of Call”).  In 1937, he became the director of the Academy in Rome, the first musician to be honored with that post.  Later he served as director of the Paris Opera and Opera-Comique.

A distinguished critic of the arts once wrote of Ibert’s music, “There is about it, as about his person, an air of good fellowship and amiability that shows the artist of breeding.  He pleases without trifling.  Generously gifted as he is in many directions, his musical temperament expands with singular felicity in the orchestra, where he revels in the subtlest management of exquisite sound values . . . . His music is always found to reflect his apt sense of color and his gift for contriving those iridescent effects which are so striking a feature of his work.”   He was also an independent composer, a member of no “school” or esthetic pressure-group, who wrote in a clear and direct musical language.

Divertissement is the French equivalent of “diversion,” in the sense of amusement or entertainment; this title Ibert gave to the concert suite he drew from his incidental music to a 1929 production of one of the greatest French farces, The Italian Straw Hat, by Eugène Labiche (1815-1858).  The piece was performed for the first time on November 30, 1930, in Paris.  There are six movements and the music almost overflows with wit and high spirits.

The Introduction is a miniature comic-opera overture.  Next is a Cortège, in French, a procession, usually a funeral procession, but this cortège is too perky for such an occasion and manages somehow to work a quotation from Mendelssohn’s Wedding March into the music.  Then comes the quiet night-music of a Nocturne, which is followed by a little wrong-note Waltz that pokes fun at every known waltz, from the French ballet to the Blue Danube.  After, the sounds of a Parade approach from the distance and pass by, a wildly haphazard piano cadenza introduces the Finale, which is a furiously funny dance and march.   An orchestra of modest size produces the brilliant sound of this entertaining score: piccolo and flute, clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, celesta, piano and strings.  The string section was divided, in the original chamber-ensemble scoring, in an unconventional way: three violins, two violas, two cellos and double bass.

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