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8.572297 - DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 (Markl) - Le martyre de St. Sebastien / Khamma / Le roi Lear
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Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Orchestral Works Vol. 4


Claude Debussy was born in 1862 in St Germain-en-Laye, the son of a shop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varying success. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and continued two years later, improbably enough, with Verlaine’s mother-in-law, apparently a pupil of Chopin. In 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he abandoned the plan of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition. In 1880, at the age of eighteen, he was employed by Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return to the Conservatoire he entered the class of Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud and in 1883 won the second Prix de Rome, followed, in 1884, by the first prize, which obliged him, however reluctantly, to take up residence, according to the terms of the award, at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt. By 1887 he was back in Paris, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes and going on, two years later, to a succès de scandale with his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a work that established his position as a composer of importance.

Debussy’s personal life brought some unhappiness in his first marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after a liaison of some seven years with Gabrielle Dupont and a brief engagement in 1894 to the singer Thérèse Roger. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and a singer of some ability, led eventually to their marriage in 1908, after the birth of their daughter three years earlier. In 1904 he had abandoned his wife, moving into an apartment with Emma Bardac, and the subsequent attempt at suicide by the former, who had shared with him many of the difficulties of his early career, alienated a number of his friends. His final years were darkened by the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he left unfinished a planned series of chamber music works, only three of which had been completed.

As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of the earlier twentieth century. His musical language suggested new paths to be further explored, while his poetic and sensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still more possibilities. His opera Pelléas et Mélisande and his songs demonstrated a deep understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms that never overstated or exaggerated.

In 1910 the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, his liaison with the actress Eleonora Duse at an end, moved to Paris, to avoid his creditors. It was here that he became associated with Ida Rubinstein, a dancer and actress who had started her career in her native Russia as an amateur, a private pupil of Dyagilev’s choreographer Fokine and an associate of Léon Bakst. In St Petersburg she had appeared as Antigone and danced Salome, choreographed for her by Fokine and immediately banned by the censor. She had appeared with Dyagilev’s Ballets russes in Paris in Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade, with her slave, in both ballets, danced by Nijinsky, but with her reputed lover D’Annunzio’s play Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, she embarked on a venture of her own, in rivalry with Dyagilev’s company, a work followed by a whole series of ballets and plays in which she took leading rôles. Her performance as St Sébastien, a rôle to which her androgynous appearance was well suited, was first given at the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet on 22 May 1911, with her own choreography, décor by Bakst and music by Debussy, who had been hard pressed to complete the work in time. The conductor was André Caplet, who had assisted Debussy in the scoring of the piece.

Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien had a mixed reception. The intervention of the Archbishop of Paris, who forbade Catholic attendance at the performances of the work, and the subsequent condemnation of D’Annunzio’s plays, novels and writings, which were placed on the Index, represented orthodox reaction to an attempt to combine the story of St Sebastian, a figure of contemporary homoerotic interest, with the legend and worship of Adonis. The work, high-flown in its language, is divided into five acts or ‘mansions’, preceded by a messenger’s speech. The four Fragments symphoniques designed for orchestral concert performance open with the Prélude to the first ‘mansion’, La cour des lys (The Court of Lilies). An inner portico leads onto gardens, where lilies grow. There is an altar, marked by the signs of sacrifice, and facing each other, tied to columns, are the Christian twins Marc and Marcellien, arraigned before the Roman Prefect and threatened with torture and death for their failure to sacrifice to the Emperor. Sebastian, a captain of archers, looks on. The Prélude is scored initially for woodwind, its modal writing and suggestions of organum setting the historical scene. The second fragment, Danse extatique et final du premier acte, brings the intervention of Sebastian, his walking on live coals, miraculously unharmed, and from the lilies come the Seven Seraphim, as all fall face down before them. La passion is taken from the third ‘mansion’, Le concile des faux dieux (The Council of False Gods). Diverse peoples and their gods are gathered before the Emperor, who declares his love for Sebastian, his beauty that of Adonis, urging him to sacrifice to any of the gods, whose images are displayed before them. The saint sees the vision of Christ and his passion, with which he identifies, as others see in him the death of Adonis. The fourth fragment, Le bon pasteur (The Good Shepherd), is taken from the Prélude to the fourth ‘mansion’, Le laurier blessé (The Wounded Laurel), in which Sebastian is tied to a laurel, a tree identified, as is Sebastian, with Apollo, sentenced to be shot by the archers he had once commanded A shepherd appears among the laurels, carrying a sheep on his shoulders. The apparition disappears, and Sebastian suffers the martyrdom he had awaited, to the distress of the archers and of the women mourning the death of their Adonis. The short fifth ‘mansion’ is Le paradis.

The Prélude to the second ‘mansion’, La chambre magique, finds Sebastian in conflict with pagan magicians, who have seen a new sign in the Heavens and have visions of the future. The two Fanfares are taken from Le concile des faux dieux.

Khamma, légende dansée, a less satisfactory collaboration, was commissioned by the Canadian-born dancer Maude Allan, who, with W.L. Courtney, had devised a scenario for the work. Debussy came to regret his association with the enterprise, but was able eventually to fulfil the commission with the help of Charles Koechlin, who was brought in by Debussy’s publishers to complete the orchestration. Maude Allan, a proponent of her own form of Greek dancing, complained that the score did not meet the requirements of the scenario. Debussy, for his part, refused to change a note for this ‘detestable’ woman, in whose activities he had absolutely no interest.

Khamma is set in Egypt, in the Temple of the Great God Amun-Ra. It opens with a Prélude suggesting a distant tumult, gradually approaching. The first scene reveals the black stone statue of the god. It is late afternoon and through the windows rays of the setting sun can be seen. The town is under siege. The High Priest enters and stands for a moment by the statue, while worshippers make their offerings. The High Priest raises his arms towards the Great God, in supplication, then prays for the safety of the town. Up to this point the orchestration is by Debussy, with the rest continued by Charles Koechlin. After the prayer the High Priest anxiously awaits a sign from the God, but there is nothing; he signs to the people to withdraw. He is about to leave through a side door, when an idea comes to him, a ray of hope lights up his face, as he seems to guess the secret of victory. He goes quickly out. In the second scene the great doors of the Temple open and a slight veiled form is gently pushed forward by the High Priest. It is Khamma, who tries to escape, in growing fear. The gentle light of the moon illuminates the temple and Khamma advances, prostrating herself before the statue. She rises and starts her dance, destined to save her country. A second dance follows and an expressive slower third. Suddenly she sees a strange slight movement in the head and shoulders of the statue, and slowly the arms are raised, with palms upturned. Khamma dances unrestrainedly, drunk with joy, love and devotion. There is a terrible flash of lightning and thunder, and Khamma dies. The third scene is a cold grey morning, as the sun rises. From the distance can be heard, gradually approaching, shouts and cries of victory. The temple doors are opened and the High Priest enters, followed by bearers carrying palms and flowers. He blesses the body of Khamma and the music ends in a lament.

In 1904 Debussy had started to sketch incidental music for Shakespeare’s King Lear. Only two numbers were completed and later orchestrated by Roger-Ducasse. The first of these is a Fanfare, scored for three trumpets, four horns, drums and two harps. The second piece, Le sommeil de Lear, is scored for two flutes, four horns, harp, drum and strings, an evocative berceuse.

L’enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) was written in 1884 as Debussy’s entry for the Prix de Rome and revised between the years 1906 and 1908, the date of the completion of the full score. The cantata was based on a set text by Edouard Guinand. The Cortège et air de danse are taken directly from the score and, within the conventions of French music of the time, as Debussy’s teacher Ernest Guiraud had advised, suggest a pastoral scene, observed by the Prodigal Son from a distance.

Keith Anderson

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