About this Recording
8.223378 - DEBUSSY: Arrangements for 2 Pianos

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Arrangements for two pianos


Debussy was born in 1862, 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, who claimed to have been a pupil of Chopin. In 1872 he entered the 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 1884 won the Prix de Rome, the following year reluctantly taking up obligatory residence, according to the terms of the prize, 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, and his association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and an amateur singer, whom he eventually married in 1908. In the summer of 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 the difficulties of his early career, alienated a number of the composer’s 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. His principal piano transcriptions are relatively early works, written, for the most part, at a time when his more controversial gifts were still unrecognised.

As a student Debussy was first introduced to a wider world of music and experience when, on the recommendation of his teacher at the Conservatoire, Marmontel, he was employed in 1880 by Nadezhda von Meck. Mme von Meck was the widow of Karl von Meck, a man who had made a fortune from the development of railways in Russia. She had born him eleven children in the course of their marriage and in 1876 was widowed, inheriting her husband’s very large estates. It was soon after this that she adopted Tchaikovsky, offering him a pension that allowed him to devote himself exclusively to composition, with the stipulation, reluctantly followed by her, that they should never meet.

In 1880 the von Mecks were, as so often, travelling abroad. With their mother were two of her sons, Nikolay and Alexander, and three daughters, Yuliya, Sophie and Lyudmila, and the usual large retinue of servants. Debussy joined the family in Interlaken, his duties involving the accompaniment of the violin and of songs by the children and the playing of duets with Mme von Meck. The musical establishment included a violinist, Vladislav Pachulski, who later married Yuliya von Meck, and in October they were joined by a cellist, Pyotr Danilchenko, who, with Debussy, formed a piano trio. Debussy proved an acceptable addition to the party. His sight-reading at the piano was admirable, his principal ability and an important one, according to his employer in a letter to Tchaikovsky. She added that he also composed very nicely, an opinion that Tchaikovsky endorsed without any great show of enthusiasm. From Switzerland they travelled to Arcachon, to Paris, Nice and Naples and then to Florence. Debussy was forced towards the end of October to return to the Conservatoire in Paris.

The transcriptions of three dances from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan lake were made in 1880 at the request of Mme von Meck, to be played by her and Debussy. She had them published by Jurgenson in Moscow, with Tchaikovsky’ approval, but to avoid any possible trouble with his teachers in Paris, without the name of the transcriber. The Russian, Spanish and Neapolitan Dances are taken from the Act III divertissement of the ballet. Debussy returned the following summer to the same employment, the months spent at Mme von Meck’s 53-room mansion in Moscow then at her estate at Brailov, followed by visits to Rome and his return to Paris in November. In 1882 Debussy returned once more to Russia, this time to his employer’s new estate at Pleshcheyevo, then to Moscow and Vienna. His declared proposal that he should marry Sophie von Meck led to the end of his employment. He had proved a useful employee but could not be considered an adequate son-in-law.

The three transcriptions for two pianos of compositions by Camille Saint-Saëns were made in 1889 and 1890. In the intervening period Debussy had completed his studies at the Conservatoire and won the Prix de Rome, returning to Paris in 1887, making a name for hirnself at first only within a small circle, but taking the opportunity in 1888 and 1889 to visit Bayreuth and to establish a liaison with Gabrielle Dupont, who shared his poverty until he left her in 1899 to marry Lily Texier, a friend of his mistress.

Saint-Saëns wrote his Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in 1863 and dedicated the work to the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sarasate. It remains a popular item in solo violin repertoire. The opera Etienne Marcel is now much less well known. It was the fourth of the thirteen operas of Saint-Saëns and was first staged in Lyons in 1879 but thereafter never reached the Paris Opéra as the composer and librettist had hoped in their choice of a subject apparently topical after the end of the Commune. The plot deals with the heroic Etienne Marcel, a leading figure in the popular rebellion of the year 1358 during the regency of the Dauphin Charles, the final victor. The subject allowed a large element of spectacle and the usual ballet. The ballet suite, in which there is a strong element of pastiche to suit the period, opens with an Introduction, followed by a dance for students and other scamps. The war-like Musette that follows preserves the continued drone of the French bagpipe, the dance leading to a more decorous Pavane. The suite continues with an anachronistic Waltz and a rhythmic Bohemian dance, before the energetic Finale.

Saint-Saëns, during his long career, made a number of transcriptions and arrangements in various forms, among them a Caprice on the ballet from Gluck’s opera Alceste, a work staged in Paris first in 1776, nine years after the original Italian version in Vienna. For the second version Gluck made various changes and, with the assistance of Gossec, added an extended final divertissement, the obligatory element of ballet for a French audience. The Caprice opens with a G major Allegro, with a central G minor section and a fugal section, before the return of the music of the introduction.

The Six Studies in Canon by Schumann were written in 1845, when the composer was living in Dresden. They were designed for the pedal-piano and were dedicated to his first piano teacher in Zwickau, the organist Johann Gottfried Kuntsch. In the year of composition Schumann had become increasingly involved in the study of counterpoint and had a pedal- board attached to his piano, composing three works for the modified instrument, all of them also suitable for the organ. The six studies in canon that form Opus 56 open in a solemn mood that Schumann had earlier used in Dichterliebe and to which he was to return in his evocation of the great Cathedral of Cologne in his Rhenish Symphony. The use of canon is less immediately noticeable in the expressive studies that follow, a reflective serenity returning in the last of them.

Debussy made his transcription for two pianos in 1891.

Debussy had first encountered the music of Wagner through Mme von Meck and then, in 1888 and 1889, directly in the course of visits to Bayreuth for that purpose. For a time he was strongly affected by what he had heard, although he later was able to take a more objective view of a composer whose overwhelming influence on French composers of the period he deplored. His transcription of the Overture to The Flying Dutchman was made in 1890 and is an impressive achievernent, transferring to the keyboards a complex dramatic texture. The opera itself, based on the legend of the Dutch sea-captain condemned to sail the seas until he can find true love, drew first on the story as related by Heine. It was first performed in Dresden in 1843. A number of the motifs associated with various characters and ideas in the opera are heard in the Overture, which opens with those associated with the Dutchman himself, set against the chromatic turbulence of the sea.

Keith Anderson

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