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Learn music appreciation with the rousing “Overture to Colas Breugnon”

Sometimes the overture lives on for far longer than the rest of the show it introduces.

Wood-carved face
Wood-carved face by photosforyou. Used under CC0 Creative Commons license.

Such is the case of Colas Breugnon, an opera by Dmitry (Dmitri) Kabalevsky. You may have heard of Kabalevsky’s famous piece, “The Comedians.” The work was based on a 1918-9 novel of the same name by French author Romain Rolland. The overall plot of Colas Breugnon concerns the carpenter/wood carver/sculptor (depending on which synopsis you read!) of the same name. It is a bit involved, so head over to Gramophone or Boosey & Hawkes if you want to read a summary. I’m here to focus on the music.

Kabalevsky composed the opera in the mid- to late 1930s. Some sources say Rolland wasn’t entirely pleased with Kabalevsky’s treatment of the work, but I don’t have definitive proof. Whether that’s the case or not, the opera never gained enough traction in the theater world to become a standard of the repertoire, although it does get performed from time to time. The overture remains quite popular, though, and orchestras and concerts bands all over have enjoyed performing this piece.

Opening with a fanfare

Trumpets sound a fanfare while the strings and winds provide a whirlwind of flourishes, giving the piece a brilliant opening. Within just ten seconds, however (cue Rainbow Dash), we’ve arrived at our main theme.

The woodwinds give us the first rendition of the theme (A), with the horns interjecting at 0:44 (o, mamma mia!). Undeterred, the winds finish the first half of the theme. Listen for the middle-low voices around 0:47-0:49 as they add little bits of additional interest. The theme finishes with a great bit of syncopation (0:51)

Then the strings take over the melody (0:55), with the trumpets interjecting this time. The theme crescendos at the end, taking us into our next section.

Here at 1:09, we have a new take on the theme, along with adding xylophone to the texture. It starts the same, but we quickly go into new territory, with the line continuing to climb ever higher and growing in intensity. There’s some interplay between the strings/winds and the brass at 1:16 that pushes the energy further before coming back down to finish out the rest of the theme. I love the little modulation that happens around 1:19 – it’s a great transition into our next theme.

A new theme

The lower voices give us our new theme (B) at 1:28. We’ve switched to a minor key, and things feel a bit more sinister. Perhaps this is in reference to the character of Gifflard, who is the rival love interest in the plot. Listen for the syncopated motif throughout this section (i.e. at 1:29).

Kabalevsky builds things up again, hammering away with the rhythm and pushing the strings into a high register, until he has the trombones break out into another new theme (C, 1:43). It sounds rather heroic! Notice that this theme is slower, in that Kabalevsky is using half notes instead of eighth and quarter notes. The underlying tempo has stayed the same, however.

Theme C travels to the strings, winds, and xylophone next (1:48). It’s the same rhythm, but the notes are played staccato (separated). It gives an interesting break to the texture. From there, the low voices take over with gusto, holding the longest note of that theme even longer to give the upper voices a chance for some sweeping runs. There’s a sense of the world stopping during those moments, despite the movement in the upper voices. It’s a neat effect!

A timpani beat starting at 2:01 leads us into transition. There are plucked strings playing a motif and lots of mamma mias traveling throughout the rest of the orchestra. The horns blast through at 2:10 to start corralling the group together. The orchestra moves down as a whole toward the next section of the piece, finishing with the basses swirling around down below.

Oh, the drama!

The horns and other middle voices milk the melodrama in theme D (2:27). It’s very smooth and lush, and the bass voices are holding out chords, but there’s a lot of activity happening in the background. It’s the musical image of the duck looking serene on the water, but his webbed little feeties are zooming along underneath. The strings take over the theme around 2:42.

Kabalevsky’s not done wrenching our heartstrings. He builds up the tension again beginning at 2:53, and reaches the apex at 3:03, where he turns the drama up to 11. The trumpets add an extra layer of punctuation, upping the intensity.

Beginning around 3:22, Kabalevsky wrenches even more emotion out of the orchestra. Alack and alas! He leads us to a huge, loud ritardando, followed by a grand pause to let us catch our breath and compose ourselves.

Back to the light

And just like that, we’re back into a light, delicate mood, harkening back to Theme A.

The winds take over, letting the strings saw away lightly in the background. There’s some nice interplay between the wind voices here. At 3:38, we get some trumpet and xylophone action on the theme. Things are still light, but more accented than a few moments ago. This round finishes with the Theme A syncopated ending we heard near the beginning of the piece.

At 3:50, we’re treated to the modified Theme A that we heard back at 1:09. This time as the theme winds down, we don’t modulate, and the timpani announces a new section.

And then we’re into completely new territory beginning at 4:12. The scoring is very thin here, and there’s a lot of back-and-forth between instruments. The clarinets have a neat little duet, with horns responding. Then the oboes have a duet, with the trumpets responding. The trumpets and horns continue the conversation, each statement getting a little shorter. The timpani is pounding away this entire time.

But then the timpani decides it’s had enough at 4:32, with the strings plucking their agreement immediately after. The bassoons get a chance to join the conversation, with the strings again plucking away.

The lower strings come in with a series of runs that start propelling the group toward the final push of the piece. The runs move continually upward through the orchestra, adding more voices to the run and letting the low voices move downward for support.

Fireworks!

The pressure builds until the group bursts into a joyous explosion of sound at 4:54. Oh, happy day! The horns, of course, have a very heroic-sounding line underneath all the activity in the upper voices.

There’s a sudden drop in volume, range, and voices at 5:01 with a quick run up through the orchestra to a very effective silence at 5:03… Then the piece makes one more announcement and ends, literally, with a bang.

If you’d like to hear the wind band take on this, check out a performance by The President’s Own:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRWBjWYDtQg

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Lori Archer Sutherland

Librarian & musician. Collects model horses of all sorts. Bass clarinet nerd, doing more composing & arranging.

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