About this Recording
8.223751 - DEBUSSY-CAPLET: Children's Corner Suite

Claude Debussy (1862–1918) (orch. by Caplet)
Children’s Corner Suite


Servant of music in the highest sense of the word, Andre Caplet made the sole error of keeping precious time for the music of others at the expense of his own. This, with his premature death, explains the small number of his compositions, a handful of works, but of an originality and quality that reaches the rank of masterpiece and that brings regret at the unfinished achievement of a career so rich in promise and so soon cut short.

Born at Le Havre on 27th November 1878, Caplet began his studies with a fine musician of English origin who had settled in the town, Henry Woollett (1864–1936). He continued at the Paris Conservatoire under Xavier Leroux, Paul Vidal and Charles Lenepveu. The profound impression made by the young musician can be measured by the fact that he won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome in 1901, ahead of Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Dupont, with his cantata Myrrha, which, like many of his works, remained unpublished. He spent only a short time at the Villa Medici. Doubtless the principal advantage of his stay was the lasting friendship of Florent Schmitt. He came to notice in 1897 for the ease with which he stood in for Xavier Leroux to conduct the orchestra of the Theatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin. His return to Paris confirmed his natural gifts as a conductor and he won important engagements abroad. Notably he directed major operatic works in Boston from 1910 to 1914 and it was he who brought about in 1913 the triumphant first performance of Louis Aubert’s La foret bleue. He was also on the podium at the Chatelet on 12th May 1911 to conduct the first performance of the Martyre de Saint sebastien, the result of the collaboration of d’Annunzio and Debussy. The participation of Caplet in this performance was not limited to conducting: short of time, Debussy had entrusted to him the harmonic realisation and orchestration of whole sections of the work.

It is true that the young musician entertained a boundless admiration for the older mall. In some respects Caplet remains the only real disciple of the composer of Pelleas. He had a miraculous insight into his music and knew in his work how to bypass the cliches of Debussyism and retain only the spirit - and above all that of freedom and independence. Caplet pushed to the extreme the care that Debussy had for economy of means, sharing with him an insistence on absolute perfection. The agnostic pantheism of Debussy, however, was opposed to his character: the burning and sincere faith of Caplet was, on the contrary, the essential source of his inspiration. He also cultivated as a matter of preference the Gregorian modal vein that is only one aspect of Debussy’s genius. The depth and sincerity of religious feeling found its most natural form in the spirit of Gregorian chant. Caplet was thus above all a religious composer, making use of the human voice for the most instinctive expression. In this way his Prieres, his Messe tì trois voix (1919) and his admirable Miroir de Jesus renew in a modem musical language the luminous, fresh and joyful character of Gregorian chant.

Serving in the infantry, Caplet fought bravely in the 1914 war and was seriously wounded. He died in 1925 of pleurisy, the delayed result of sufferings endured during the course of the conflict.

In spite of his preference for the voice, Caplet displayed a remarkable talent for orchestral writing, at its height in the admirable Epiphanie of 1923 for cello and orchestra. This gift is evident in the music here recorded, where he shows a preference for reduced effects and in particular for the strings. His ability to lead several vocal lines in harmonious counterpoint gives his instrumental music a unique flavour, with its singing contrapuntallines. Caplet remains above all a polyphonic composer, something that distinguishes him, moreover, from the essentially harmonic language of Debussy.

Spurred on by the encouragement lavished on him by the Societe de Musique Contemporaine in favour of the enrichment of the wind repertoire, Caplet, who had already written a Quintet for piano and woodwind, composed in 1901 his Suite persane for double wind quintet, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. This triptych, using three authentic Persian melodies, sharki, Nihavend and Iskia samasi, was greeted with enthusiasm in an article by Woollett after its first performance in Le Havre. The composer soon afterwards arranged aversion of Nihavend for an orchestra of modest dimensions, double woodwind with piccolo, four horns, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, harp and strings. The melody announced by the flute and clarinet in exposed fifths has the character of a melody hesitating between Dorian and AeoIian (in E). This piece proceeds in the manner of a passacaglia: repetition of the opening melody accompanied by rhythmic modifications and associated from the third variation with a motif based on the descending scale, which serves as a countersubject. The feeling grows gradually more intense, from the mysterious sweetness of the beginning to the animation of the fifth variation, with sustained contrapuntal activity. A major place is given to the arabesque, in which the embroidery of the clarinet gives the eighth variation the spirit of a varied chorale. The piece ends dreamily with the echo of the opening melody in the flute and clarinet in the Aeolian mode on B. The dreaming beauty of this very poetic piece owes much to the use of modal scales of imprecise tonal identity.

Légende exists at the same time in aversion for chamber ensemble, with oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon and string quintet and in aversion for orchestra with double woodwind and piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, harp and strings. Composed in 1905, it was first performed on 19th January 1905 in Boston. The mysterious atmosphere of the introduction gives way to a breathless motif of ascending triplet crotchets, broken by syncopations, establishing a dark and anguished atmosphere: even if this material shows some relationship with the central part of the Masque de la mort rouge (“Masque of the Red Death”) (Conte fantastique) for harp and strings inspired by the well-known story by Edgar Allan Poe, the two works are very different and the Légende cannot at all be considered a first version of the Conte fantastique of 1923. At least the tragic atmosphere suggests rather a nightmare than fairyland: in that respect this work can be considered a premonition of the masterpiece to come.

A far remove from the boldness of writing of Légende, the Marche triomphale et pompiere, dedicated to members of the Institute, was written for the centenary of the Villa Medici and uses the same orchestral forces. Caplet exploits humorously the resources of ceremonial splendour latent in modal style: the fanfare of the overture is in the Dorian mode on B.

After the Martyre de Saint Sebastien the high esteem in which Debussy held his younger colleague is behind several other collaborations. In this way he entrusted to Caplet the orchestration of several piano pieces, Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque, Children’s Corner and Pagodes from Estampes. The beauty of this last arrangement bears witness to the perfect understanding he had of the music of the composer he so much admired. The pentatonic oriental atmosphere involved, of course, the use of the celesta, triangle, cymbals and gong. This is in fact a re-composition of the Debussy score: pentatonic arpeggios reflect all the colours of the rainbow, emphasised by Caplet’s use of contrary motion between harp and celesta. Towards the end, the trills of violins and violas, the tremolos of the celesta and the glissandi of harps in contrary motion contribute to a halo of sound that is ecstatic in beauty.

Michel Fleury
English translation by Keith Anderson

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