Méditation (meditasjɔ̃) is a symphonic interlude from the opera Thaïs by the French composer Jules Massenet. The piece is written for solo violin and orchestra. The work premiered at the Opéra Garnier in Paris on March 16, 1894.
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Méditation is an instrumental entr’acte performed between the scenes of the second act of the opera Thaïs. In the first scene of the second act Athanaël, a cenobite monk, confronts Thaïs, a beautiful and hedonist courtesan and devotee of Venus, and attempts to convince her to leave her life of lust and pleasure and to find salvation through God. It is during a period of reflection after the meeting that the orchestra performs Méditation. In the second scene of Act II, following Méditation, Thaïs tells Athanaël that she will follow him into the desert.
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The piece is in D major and lasts about five minutes (although there are a number of interpretations that extend the piece to over six minutes). Massenet may also have written the piece with religious intentions; the time notation is religious Andante, meaning its intention that it should be played religiously (which could mean either strictly in time or literally with an emotion based on religion) and at the pace of walking, or around 60 BPM. The piece opens with a brief introduction of the harps, with the solo violin entering quickly with the motif. After the violin has played the melody twice, the piece enters an animated marked section, gradually becoming more and more passionate (Massenet wrote passionately). The climax is reached in a slightly more passionate marked point and then is followed by a short passage similar to a cadenza from the soloist and returns to the main theme. After the theme is played twice, the soloist joins the orchestra while playing the harmonics in the upper register, while the harps and strings play more quietly below the soloist’s line.
The piece requires solo violin, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, double bass, 2 horns, SATB choir, two harps and strings. The solo violin part is generally played by the first violin of the orchestra in an opera, or by a soloist standing in front of the orchestra in a concert setting. For the SATB choir Massenet indicated that it should be sung by the entire choir from behind the curtain in an opera and four to eight soloists seated between the orchestra in a concert setting.
Interpreters and adaptations
Méditation da Thaïs is considered one of the great encore pieces; World-class violin soloists such as Anne Akiko Meyers, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Itzhak Perlman, David Garrett and Maxim Vengerov have performed the piece as soloists with leading orchestras around the world. Méditation has been transcribed for violin and piano and also for other instruments. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott recorded a version for cello and piano by Jules Delsart; flutist James Galway, euphonist Adam Frey and trumpeter Sergei Nakariakov also performed and recorded separate versions on their respective instruments, each with orchestral accompaniment. Bass sax jazz player Adrian Rollini quoted the melody’s opening bars in a 1925 Milenburg Joys recording with the Varsity Eight, although he played it in the key of D major, one semitone lower than the original composition.
British choreographer Frederick Ashton created a ballet with a pas de deux da Méditation. Premiered on March 21, 1971, the piece was created for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell of the Royal Ballet and performed at the Adelphi Theater as part of a gala performance. The piece is not related to the plot of the opera, but is reminiscent of a vision scene, with Sibley resembling “a bodyless, weightless spirit” and featuring costumes by Dowell. It was so well received at its first performance that Ashton had to announce an immediate encore and Marie Rambert considered it one of Ashton’s three masterpieces (along with Symphonic Variations and La fille mal gardée). There is a recording of the piece which was shown on BBC Television and the pas de deux was featured in the Royal Opera House’s The Royal Ballet Dances Frederick Ashton international film screening in 2013.
1985 – Ivry Gitlis – Shigeo Neriki – EMI Classics
1993 – Anne Akiko Meyers – Philharmonia Orchestra – RCA Red Seal
1993 – Anne-Sophie Mutter – Vienna Philharmonic – Deutsche Grammophon
1996 – James Galway – National Philharmonic Orchestra – RCA
1999 – Linda Brava – John Lenehan – EMI Classics
2001 – Maxim Vengerov, Vag Papian – EMI
2002 – Sarah Chang – Berliner Philharmonic – EMI
2003 – Yo-Yo Ma, Kathryn Stott – EMI
2004 – Joshua Bell – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Decca
2009 – Nicola Benedetti – London Symphony Orchestra – Decca