Les Heures persanes, Op. 65bis

Caroline Potter

‘Whoever wants to come with me to see at Ispahan the season of roses should travel slowly by my side, in stages, as in the Middle Ages.’ These words by Pierre Loti open his collection of poems, Vers Ispahan (1904), which inspired Charles Koechlin’s suite Les Heures persanes (Persian Hours). Originally composed for piano, the suite has 16 movements and is approximately one hour in duration. Only extracts of the orchestral version of Les Heures persanes were performed in Koechlin’s lifetime, and tonight’s performance of four movements is a UK première. 

Koechlin was a prolific composer, teacher, author, photographer and father of five children. He was well regarded by contemporaries as varied as Fauré and Satie and was trusted with the orchestration of Debussy’s ballet Khamma (1912) and Fauré’s incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande (1898). His own highly individual orchestral music is a wonderful showcase for the large-scale symphony orchestra and is often inspired by literature: his marvellous Jungle Book series, composed over 40 years, makes an excellent introduction to his musical style. 

Koechlin was from a comfortable and cultured middle-class background: his ancestors owned textile factories in Alsace and relatives included Maurice Koechlin, co-designer of the Eiffel Tower. As a student at the Ecole Polytechnique in 1889, before he decided to focus on music, Koechlin contracted tuberculosis and travelled to Algeria to recuperate, the beginning of a lifelong passion for travel. He never visited Persia but told Roger Désormière, who conducted the orchestral première of movements Nos. 6 and 16 in 1934, that he had ‘seen the Arab cemetery at Blida [near Algiers], and the Muslim peacefulness of these cemeteries is something I have tried to recreate here.’ (The same location in Algeria inspired Jolivet’s Cinq incantations for solo flute, composed in 1936.) 

Koechlin orchestrated Les Heures persanes in less than two weeks. He wrote of the suite: ‘I have tried to evoke Arabic music, but not through direct equivalents or by using oriental modes. One also finds here a musical plasticity that represents nothing human or animal, but in which the interweaving of lines should suggest those of Islamic decoration.’ (Movement 12, not heard today, is indeed titled Arabesques). This suggests an affinity with Debussy, who was greatly attracted to the decorative curves of the arabesque. Koechlin’s musical language typically blends tonal (often polytonal) and modal features with chords built up of fourths or fifths, which create a sense of space. His music is often slow in tempo and quiet, and he is not always concerned with practical performance issues; Koechlin occasionally writes for the piano on multiple staves that are not playable by a two-handed pianist. Some works feature unusual instruments such as the ondes Martenot, musical saw or – as in three movements of Les Heures persanes – the lute harp, a short-lived instrument constructed by Pleyel-Lyon whose sonority was more metallic than the harp. Perhaps Koechlin was here inspired by the sound of traditional African instruments such as the kora. 

‘La caravane’ traces a leisurely, meandering journey, a movement that focuses more on the ‘dream’ subtitle than on the notion of a procession. ‘A travers les rues’, according to Koechlin, is ‘a scene swarming with people, which I rediscovered later in the rue de Tala at Fes in Morocco.’ The 11th movement, ‘In shadow, by the marble fountain’, illustrates Koechlin’s flexible, plastic writing for the woodwind family and is closest of all the movements we are hearing to traditional arabesque decoration. The finale retains a sense of mystery: its hide-and-seek perpetual motion has exuberant outbursts but ends in tranquillity. 

Koechlin wrote about Les Heures persanes in terms that could apply to his entire oeuvre: ‘My dream has remained the same from the very beginning, a dream of imaginary far horizons – of the infinite, the mysteries of the night, and triumphant bursts of light.’ We would like to thank Otfrid Nies, Marc Lerique-Koechlin and Robert Orledge for their invaluable assistance. 

Further Reading