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8.550253 - DEBUSSY: Suite bergamasque / Images / Preludes / Arabesques

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Suite bergamasque (1890)
La plus que lente (1910) (edited by Peter Solymos)
Images, series 1 (1901-05) and 2 (1907) (edited by Peter Solymos)
Deux arabesques (1890) (edited by Peter Solymos)
Preludes, Book 1 (1909-10) and 2 (1911-13) (excerpts)

The French composer Claude Debussy was to exercise a powerful influence over his successors, not least through his harmonic experiment and in his delicate handling of timbres. At the same time he wrote music that came to have a wide contemporary appeal, however novel its techniques. In his piano music, in particular, he seemed to continue the tradition of Chopin, a composer who, in his own day, was as adventurous as any.

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 two years later, improbable as it may sound, with Verlaine's mother-in-law, who claimed to have been a pupil of Chopin. In 1872 he entered the Conservatoire, where he eventually abandoned the plan, supported by his somewhat shiftless father, of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his attention to composition. In 1880, at the age of 18, he was employed by Tchaikovsky's patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, as a tutor to her children and a house-musician, returning to the Conservatoire to enter the class of Ernest Guiraud. In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome, and the following year took 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 for orchestra and going on, two years later, to a succès de scandale with his Maeterlinck opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the importance of which was soon widely acknowledged.

Debussy's personal life brought same 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. Debussy's final years were darkened by the war and by the cancer that brought about his death in March 1918. As a composer for the piano he had written much that was to become a standard element in recital repertoire, while his songs proved a significant addition to French mélodies. His death interrupted an intended series of works for varying chamber groups, three of the six projected works being completed. For orchestra his early L'après-midi d’un faune, later used as a ballet score by Diaghilev, somewhat to the composer's dissatisfaction and to the horror of the Paris audience who saw what Nijinsky made of it, demonstrated his command of nuance, extended in Nocturnes for orchestra and in the three symphonic sketches, La mer.

The two Arabesques, completed and published in 1891, follow the general style of contemporary salon music, and are none the worse for that. The Suite bergamasque was written in 1890 and revised fifteen years later for publication. In feeling and in its title it seems to reflect that unattainable past world evoked by Verlaine in the Fêtes galantes, the Watteau 'paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques, jouant du luth, et dansant, et quasi / Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques'. The suite opens with a 'Prélude' in characteristic harmonic idiom, followed by a delicate 'Menuet' and the enormously popular 'Clair de lune'. The final piece is a 'Passepied' of clear texture, a foretaste of an element in his later writing for the piano.

The two groups of pieces published in 1905 and in 1908 under the title Images are a very different matter. In the first set 'Reflets dans l'eau' is a gently poetic evocation of ripples in the water for which one might seek precedent in the later work of Liszt. 'Hommage à Rameau' is a relatively free and contemporary tribute to the great French composer of the Enlightenment, and is followed by the capricious 'Mouvement', with its near perpetual motion. The second set of Images offers a series of poetic evocations, bells heard through the rainbow mist (No. 1), the moon setting over the old temple (No. 2), a title suggested by the dedicatee Louis Laloy, and the gold-fish (No. 3), again of Oriental inspiration, from a lacquer design in the composer's possession.

In 1910, the year of La plus que lente, came the first book of Préludes, followed in 1913 by a second set of twelve. The titles of the Préludes appear after each piece, as if of secondary importance, although the scene may be obvious enough from internal evidence. The first included here, 'Des pas sur la neige', opens with an instruction to the player to give the impression of a sad frozen landscape, against which a melancholy and tentative melody is heard, finally "comme un tendre et triste regret." 'La fille aux cheveux de lin', its poetic source Leconte de Lisle's Scottish girl "sur la luzerne en fleurs assise", needs no introduction and is followed here by 'La danse de Puck', its inspiration Shakespeare's Robin Goodfellow.

The sketch of 'General Lavine - eccentric', with its popular dance suggestions, is a comic portrait of a Folies-Bergère performer and 'La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune' owes its origin to a published account of the Indian Durbar of 1912. The Préludes end with 'Feux d'artifice', a magnificent 14 July public display of fireworks that closes with the distant sound of the 'Marseillaise', as the crowds disperse.

Keith Anderson

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