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About this Piece

In fine print at the end of the score to Jean Cras’s Quintet is written, “à bord de la Provence–Toulon”–that is, completed aboard the ship called La Provence, near the southern French city of Toulon. Such a note is common for Cras, who managed to sustain his compositional output throughout his lifelong career as a naval officer.

Jean Cras was born and raised in a musical household in Brest, a military port city on the coast of Brittany. His father was a naval medic, and so Cras, despite his precocious compositional talent, made the natural decision to join the French navy at age 17. He continued composing in his leisure time, and with subsequent promotions, he managed to bring a piano into his cabin whenever he was deployed. For Cras, maintaining his musical and military careers was less a struggle than a spiritual imperative. He wrote: “I can establish a precise comparison between the links by which I am attached to art and those by which I am attached to the sea. As composer, I am the slave; as a marine, I am the master. Composing, for me, is obeying a higher order, which dictates its desires to me, and which I serve with the intoxication of the humble disciple, whose only goal is to execute as well as possible his master’s orders.”

The navy lifestyle allowed Cras to travel widely across northern and western Africa and to North America. He incorporated both musical and atmospheric impressions of his travels into his Quintet, for which he provided a loose program: the first movement evokes the ocean air at the start of a voyage; the second and third movements represent impressions of time spent in an unspecified North African city; and the finale is the triumphal voyage home. ―Program Note by Peter Asimov for the Bowdoin International Music Festival