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8.553275 - DEBUSSY: Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune / La Mer
Claude Debussy (1862 -1918)
Prélude à l'apres-midi d'un faune
The French composer Claude Debussy exercised a powerful influence over his successors, not least through his harmonic experiment and his delicate handling of timbres. This second quality is particularly apparent in his use of relatively large orchestral forces to create effects often of the greatest delicacy, in a manner comparable to his poetic treatment of the piano.
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 1864 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.
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 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 chamber music series, of which only three works had been completed.
The famous Prélude à l'apres-midi d' un faune was completed in 1894. It was later to achieve unwarranted notoriety in the overtly erotic mime of the dancer Nizhinsky, when the score was used by Dyagilev for a ballet in 1912. Debussy was unhappy with this treatment of his work. The inspiration for w hat was essentially revolutionary music came from a poem by Mallarme, with its subtly sensuous suggestions of a pagan world. In the form of an Eclogue, the poem is in the words of a Faun, half-goat, half-man, in the mould of the pagan god Pan. He is stirred by the sight of passing nymphs, as he lies resting from the heat of mid-day in a wooded glade. The music opens with the sound of the Faun's reed-pipe, represented by the flute, in a score that makes imaginative use of woodwind, two harps and strings, with percussion confined to delicate antique cymbals, used with sparing yet telling effect.
Debussy originally planned his Nocturnes as a series of pieces for the famous Belgian violinist Eugene Ysäye, a work that he completed in 1896, deriving inspiration from the poet Henri de Regnier, under its first title Trois scenes au crepuscule (Three Scenes at Twilight), conceived in the years 1892 and 1893. The final orchestral version of the work was completed in 1900.
The first of the three sections of the work, Nuages (Clouds), provides a poetically evocative opening, a reflection of the movement of the clouds across the sky. It is followed by Fetes (Festivals), a re-creation of holiday festivities in the Bois de Boulogne. The third Nocturne, Sirenes (Sirens), returns to the gentler mood of the first. A traditional riddle had puzzled over w hat song the Sirens sang to lure ancient Greek sailors to their doom. Debussy provides his own answer, a picture of the sea in majesty, beauty and variety, foreshadowing La mer. The song of the Sirens is represented by a wordless female chorus.
The three evocative symphonic sketches that form La mer were completed in 1905 after two years' work. The period of his life was a difficult one, as he resolved, in 1904, to abandon his wife and elope with Emma Bardac, a woman of a much more cultured background. His marriage in 1899 had already led his former mistress to attempt suicide and in 1905 his deserted wife, for whom his former friends had much sympathy, followed the same course, with equal lack of success. The social consequences for Debussy were serious, and he took refuge with Emma Bardac in an Eastbourne hotel. Shortly after the first performance of La mer in 1905, Emma Bardac gave birth to a daughter, Claude-Emma, to be known in the family as Chou-Chou.
There is no sign in La mer of the domestic stress under which Debussy was labouring during the period of its composition. He makes delicate use of a large orchestra in structures of some complexity, the three sketches corresponding in some measure to the traditional forms of sonata, rondo and free fantasia. Although analogies with French Impressionism were drawn by contemporaries, others have seen rather a reflection of the composer's admiration for the English painter Turner, while the influence of Japanese woodcuts was demonstrated in the choice of Hokusai's Wave, from the Views of Fujiyama, at the front of the printed score. The first sketch takes us from dawn to noon on the sea, in a rich and varied musical r texture, a mosaic of orchestral sound. This is followed by the sport of the waves, a scherzo-like movement, and the final conversation of wind and sea, leading to a climax of hedonistic ecstasy.
The orchestral Images occupied Debussy intermittently over a period of seven years, from 1905 to 1912, the chosen title an echo of an earlier work for piano. The completed orchestral composition opens with Gigues, originally Gigues tristes, apparently inspired by Verlaine's poem Streets, that had later been set to the tune of the Northumbrian Keel Row. Written during the poet's stay in London and suggested by a street-corner in Soho, the poem is elegiac in tone, its refrain, Dansons la gigue!, poignant in its repetition as the writer recalls happier times of love - Je me souviens, je me souviens / des heures et des entretiens, / et c'est le meilleur de mes biens.
The score of the third part of Images, Rónde de printemps, has at its head a translation of averse by Politian, Vive le Mai, bienvenu soit le Mai / Avec son gonfalon sauvage (Long live May, welcome be May / With her wild banner}. The wild banner of May is not immediately apparent in the music, which opens in the frost of remembered winter, a high string tremolo serving as background for fragments of melody from the woodwind, a gradual spring awakening, leading to a dance, léger et fantasque, which gives way to an impressionist picture of a spring morning, into which is woven the French folk-song, Nous n'irons plus au bois, a sentiment not entirely appropriate to the occasion.
BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels
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