Today, we celebrate the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy. Debussy’s importance in the larger historical scheme of music should not be underestimated, and is generally considered to be crucial to the movement of music from the Romanticism of the 19th century to the modernism of the 2oth. He was a brilliant pianist, and that brilliance easily informed his compositions, and can be easily heard today in his solo piano and his chanson compositions. But he also had a distinctively brilliant capacity for symphonic colors, using with great ease the tonal palette that the orchestra gave him. To me, Debussy’s importance in the scale of musical history is no less than that of Wagner’s, and the fact that Debussy’s impact extended far beyond the operatic world, and into the world of the practical musician (through his piano works, something that operatic superstars like Wagner or Puccini never did) increases his influence substantially.
Debussy was inspired by a livelong fascination for the sea when he began the writing process for La Mer in 1903. “I have always retained a passionate love for her. You will say that the ocean does not exactly wash the Burgundian hillsides… and my seascapes might be studio landscapes; but I have an endless store of memories and, to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.” While the piece was not initially well-received, it eventually earned a place among Debussy’s most well-admired works, as it gives a full demonstration of his genius for orchestration, and his willingness to use what was then unusual and exotic chordal patterns. Tonight, we heard a lovely recording, a long-time favorite of mine from the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
After La Mer, we also heard, from the same recording, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Debussy was greatly inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé‘s L’après-midi d’un faune, written in 1865, but it would appear that Mallarmé did not like the idea of his poetry being set to music, at least at first. But we are told that Mallarmé appears to either have warmed to the idea, or was so struck by the music that Debussy wrote for the piece that his mind was changed. Debussy biographer Maurice Dumesnil quotes a letter from Mallarmé that states: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”
Jeux was the last work written by Debussy for orchestra. It was originally intended to be used for a ballet (it was initially described as a “poème dansé”) by the Ballet Russes and Serge Diaghilev (with Vaslav Nikinsky dancing lead, as depicted at right), and after some dispute about the ballet’s scenario, wrote it in August-September 1912. It was premiered on May 15, 1913, but it was not well received, and also had the bad fortune of being premiered a half-month before the legendarily controversial premiere of Igor Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring. Even if Jeux might be a bit (shall we say…) gentler than Rite of Spring, it was no less daring musically, and was just as demanding of the musicians playing it, with no fewer than 60 tempo changes. The scenario given by Diaghilev to Debussy described the scene thusly:
“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”
We earlier stated that Debussy was a brilliant pianist, who could have easily made a living doing concert performances – this brilliance came out in his piano music. His piano music comes to us in two forms – that which he wrote for solo piano, and his chansons, which he wrote for voice with piano. These chansons are of great interest, in that these works easily display the regard that he held for the French poets of his day (Paul Verlaine was a particular favorite), and they display the great care in which he set these works to music (note the affection shown by Mallarmé to Debussy’s setting of his work). Indeed, if we listen to some of his early songs, we get a glimpse into the development of his compositional technique. Tonight, we heard a set of songs that Debussy wrote between 1882 and 1884 for Marie-Blanche Vasnier, collectively known as the Vasnier Songbook. At the time he wrote the songs, Debussy was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, and was apparently quite infatuated with Mme. Vasnier, married though she was. He wrote at least 27 songs for her, of which we heard 12. Five of them are settings of Fête galantes by Verlaine, which seek to set to music the similarly named genre of eighteenth century painting (the term translates as “romantic festivities”, and largely consist of scenes of people amusing themselves in shady parks and country landscapes; such subjects also found their way into numerous Impressionist paintings). After the Verlaine, we heard a setting of a poem by Theophile Gautier, then six poems by Paul Bourget. All this comes from a 1995 recording by Dawn Upshaw, with James Levine (well known for his leadership of the Metropolitan Opera) accompanying on the piano.
We then heard a set of pieces for solo piano. We started with Debussy’s setting of Clair de Lune, from his Suite bergamasque. Debussy actually wrote several pieces with that same title, including one of the chansons from the Vasnier Songbook that we heard earlier (Clair de Lune is actually the title of a poem by Paul Verlaine that Debussy set to song), but they are all unrelated musically, although they may have shared some inspirational genesis. However, this rendition of Clair de Lune actually had the original title of “Promenade Sentimentale”, again taking after a poem by Verlaine. As Debussy began the piece around 1890 and completed it in 1905, it is unknown how much of the suite was written earlier and how much was written later. It is suggested that, as the original title refers to one of Verlaine’s earliest poems, that Debussy may have changed the title to reflect both Verlaine’s changing styles and his own.
After Clair de Lune, we closed the show with a set of six piano pieces that Debussy wrote for his daughter, Claude-Emma. Debussy wrote Children’s Corner between 1906 and 1908, with titles for the individual movements in English, and a mixture of English and American inspirations. It is considered among his more important piano works, and was set into an orchestral version by his friend André Caplet.
Tonight’s recording, as with the recording of Clair de Lune, was by Phillipe Entremont. Clair de Lune was dated 1959, while Children’s Corner dates from 1963.
- Classical: Debussy’s 150th Birthday Gets Little Notice (nytimes.com)
- Debussy’s Poetic Obsession Comes Alive in Natalie Dessay’s New Clair de Lune (wqxr.org)
- Claude Debussy and the Piano (wqxr.org)
- The Debussy Edition – review (guardian.co.uk)