Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott: Suite by Fauré, Dvořák, Assad, and Boulanger

Written for Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott’s recital at the San Francisco Symphony. Not to be reprinted without permission.

  • Gabriel Fauré: Berceuse, Op. 16, and Papillon, Op. 77
  • Antonín Dvořák: Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55, No. 4
  • Sérgio Assad: Menino
  • Nadia Boulanger: Cantique

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott open their recital with a lyrical set of five pieces, most of which could almost be mistaken for folksongs. The first and last were composed by Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)whose often dreamy music was actually considered cutting edge in the last quarter of the 19th century. For much of his life, Fauré had a workmanlike career as an organist, choirmaster, and private music teacher. But in 1871 he helped found the Société Nationale de Musique, which offered a forum for French composers to share new works, and from there he rapidly climbed the French musical establishment, becoming choirmaster at Paris’s Madeline Church, and ultimately director of the Paris Conservatory, where he influenced the next generation of French composers.

Fauré composed the Berceuse in 1879 for violin and piano, and also made an orchestral arrangement. The lilting lullaby has since proved irresistible to cellists. Papillon from 1884, starts out like a showy salon piece, but then finds moments of unexpected expressivity in a long-lined second theme. The title, meaning “Butterfly,” was added by his publisher, Hamelle. Fauré supposedly replied: “Butterfly or Dung Fly, call it whatever you like.”

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) composed Songs My Mother Taught Me in 1880 as part of a song cycle set to poems by the Czech writer Adolf Heyduk. Ma and Stott recorded it together for their 2015 album Songs from the Arc of Life. In connection with that recording, Stott explained: “This is quite a short song, but it conveys such a deep sentiment. In the first part, a daughter recalls the songs she learned from her mother, melodies that her mother learned when she was just a child. As she sings, the mother tries to hold back tears of memory. In the second half . . . the daughter, now grown and a mother herself, is passing those same songs on to her own children, again, with tears in her eyes.”

Sérgio Assad (b. 1952) is a Brazilian guitarist and composer, one half of the Assad Brothers duo (the other half being Odair), with whom Ma record Menino for his 2003 album Obrigado Brazil. The title means “little boy” in Portuguese, and the song feels like a portrait or memory of childhood.

Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) studied with Fauré at the Paris Conservatory and then became a teacher herself, particularly sought by generations of aspiring American composers including Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. Her sister, Lili, was also a talented composer (more talented, Nadia thought), but she died in 1918 at age 24. Bereaved, Nadia essentially stopped writing anything of her own, leaving just a small body of work (though actually a bit more than often believed). Cantique, from 1909, sets Maurice Maeterlinck’s poem to tolling chords, tightly controlled but somehow also expansive. She later made a voice and chamber ensemble version, re-texted to the Lux aeterna from the Requiem Mass.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.