The French-Moravian Connection

Opus Osm

Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont studied at the Prague Conservatory and feels a special connection with Czech music.

The French-Moravian Connection

There’s Maurice Ravel. And then there’s Leoš Janáček. A young French pianist put this French-Moravian pairing on his first CD.

At first glance, you might think “escargots and Moravian wine?” But why not? A traditional delicacy from France, paired with the famous flavors of Moravia, might just make a tasty musical combination. You can sample some yourself by listening to, downloading, or buying the CD by the pianist at

Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont, 33, was born and raised in France. But his curiosity about Czech music led him to study at the Prague Conservatory, to live in Prague for 7 years, and ultimately to premiere new works by Czech composers such as Pavel Trojan Jr and Petr Pokorný.

Mr Dablemont’s first task when he came to Prague in 2004 was to learn the Czech language so that he could take the classes given in Czech, he tells Opus Osm. “I got my literature classes, harmony, counterpoint, analysis and history of music, background on Czech composers and the creation of the Czech national ‘school,’ all from a Czech perspective,” which is radically different from the French point of view, he says.

Denying the existence of “the Czech nature” in Czech music is “absolutely impossible,” he concludes.

Ravel, Janáček: The Same, Only Different
In a recent radio interview, Mr Dablemont explained the differences between Janáček’s and Ravel’s uses of modality. He describes it here in more detail for Opus Osm.

“Ravel’s point of view is directly inherited from Gregorian chant, from the erudite music of the past thousand years. His melodies are almost exclusively modal, using predominantly the ancient *Dorian and Phrygian modes,” he says. “In harmonies, Ravel didn’t use major or minor, but preferred ancient modes with major or minor flavors (for example, Mixolydian mode for major, Aeolian mode for minor). Ravel then creates a modal/tonal ambiguity in his pieces.”

*Modalities, simplified: If you don’t know much about the technical side of music, think of modes in this over-simplified way, Mr Dablemont suggests: Ravel creates a unique color of sound by incorporating special scales which came from the Middle-Ages’ Gregorian chant. Janáček uses very similar scales, but not the same ones: they are derived from Moravian folk songs, like the minor, ’gypsy’ scale, for example. Janáček’s resulting sound color is very different from Ravel’s. “You can see that both styles have something in common, but both are different, too,” he says.

But, “For Janáček, this is a completely different story. From his childhood, he began collecting songs from the deeply-rooted folk culture characterizing the region where he was born. This led Janáček to an extensive use of modality and pentatonic scales typical of Moravian folk music,” the young pianist explains. This is completely different from church modes and Ravel’s composing style. “In Czech folk songs, for example, a modal change can affect just a single beat or several measures. Janáček’s modally-changed harmonies came from a completely new source, unfamiliar to Western composers up to that time.”

Although composers of many nationalities have used elements of folk music in some of their works, Janáček’s fresh perspective came from his deep analyses of rhythm and melody in folk music, along with his analyses of speech intonation and folk performers’ speech in acting, says Mr Dablemont. “That’s why, for me, it’s very important to mention this connection with Moravian folk culture. Janáček was, in fact, one of the first composers caught up in the inception of ethnomusicology.”

Like many of us, Mr Dablemont didn’t have a childhood filled with Czech classical music. “Nobody talked to me about Dvořák, Smetana, or Martinů when I was little,” he says. “Before my studies in Prague I knew only Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, a little bit of Smetana, and that was all. Janáček was my first conscious encounter with Czech music.”

He credits composer/conductor Pierre Boulez with this introduction. “I studied in France in a time when Boulez was still one of the most influential characters in the music world,” Mr Dablemont says, “and Boulez played, wrote, and spoke a lot about Janáček. Thanks to his work, I had enough knowledge about him to understand his music, enabling me to like it and to create a special link to it.”

You can find this special link for yourself on Mr Dablemont’s first CD. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Julien Richard

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