About this Recording
8.553291 - DEBUSSY: Piano Works, Vol. 2

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Piano Music, Vol. 2

Le petit negre (The Little Negro) (1909)
Children's Corner (1906-08)
La boîte à joujoux (1913)
Six epigraphes antiques (1914)

Claude 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, and in the following two summers, he was employed by Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return to the Conservatoire from the first of these visits abroad, 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 for orchestra and going on, two years later, to a succes de scandale with his opera Pelléas et Melisande, 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 an intermittent liaison of some ten years with Gabrielle Dupont. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker and an amateur singer, led to their eventual marriage 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 his wife, 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, describing himself patriotically as musicien français, 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 Pelleas et Melisande and his songs demonstrated a deep understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms that never overstated or exaggerated.

Le petit negre (The Little Negro), written in 1909, is in the mood of the earlier Golliwogg's Cake-Walk, included in Children's Corner. It appeared in Throdore Lack's Methode de piano.

Children's Corner is a set of pieces published in 1908 and written by Debussy for his daughter Emma-Claude, known in the family as Chou-Chou and born in 1905. She was to outlive her father by barely a year. The English titles of the pieces are a reflection of Debussy's anglophilia, echoed also in his habit of taking strong tea for breakfast and in a liking for whisky, and evidence of the influence on Chou-Chou of her English governess, Miss Gibbs. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum suggests Clementi, although the conventional musical pattern of the opening soon moves far away from any such exercise. In a letter to Jacques Durand, Debussy suggested, in terms that are reminiscent of Erik Satie, that the piece is a kind of progressive, hygienic, gymnastic exercise to be played every morning fasting. It is, of course, much more than this. Jimbo's Lullaby suggests the gaucherie of an elephant in its opening and the proposed lop-sided accentuation. Serenade of the Doll, in fact for the Doll, had 1first appeared in 1906 as serenade a la poupée, to be played, the composer suggested, with delicacy and grace. The Snow is Dancing was to be misty, sad and monotonous, while The Little Shepherd opens with the delicate expressiveness of the shepherd-boy's flute, to be contrasted with a dance motif. The well known Golliwogg's Cake-Walk is a light-hearted version of a dance that had been popularised in the music-halls of the 1890s. Whatever its origins, the cakewalk was closely associated with black Americans, possibly originating in parody of white affectations. Children's Corner was first performed in Paris at the Cercle Musical by the American pianist Harold Bauer, to whom Debussy pointed out a parody of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in the central section of the Golliwogg's Cake-Walk, to be played with great feeling. The suite was later orchestrated by Andre Caplet.

La boite a joujoux was the creation of the painter André Helle, who had written a story, which he had illustrated, on the subject of a toy-box and from which he now derived a ballet. He explained the toy-box as a town in miniature, or the town itself as a sort of toy-box. Some dolls are dancing and a soldier falls in love with one of them, but she loves a lazy and quarrelsome Punchinello. Soldiers and punchinellos fight and the soldier is wounded. The doll, deserted by her Punchinello, nurses the soldier and grows to love him. They marry, while the Punchinello becomes a village constable and life in the toy-box goes on.

Debussy intended his score as accompaniment to a ballet for children or perhaps for marionettes, although its first performances, after his death, were by adult dancers. He completed the piano score in 1913 and began work on the orchestral version, which was completed after his death by André Caplet. The music, although designed to amuse children, contains more subtle allusions, not only to simple songs such as 'Il pleut bergere' and to the sound of a musical box but also to the soldiers' chorus of Gounod's Faust, to Carmen and to Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March'. The four scenes of the ballet, after Le sommeil de la boite (The Toy-Box Asleep), are Le magasin des jouets (The Toy-Shop), Le champ de bataille (The Field of Battle), La bergerie a vendre (The Sheepfold for Sale) and Après fortune faite. The principal characters are the doll, Polichinelle, Arlequin, an English soldier, the rose, but there is a large supplementary cast, allowing a fragment of a Hindu chant for an elephant and a borrowing from Le petit negre for the English soldier.

Debussy's Six epigraphes antiques, originally for piano duet, but also extant in a version for one player, was derived in part from music written in 1900 and designed to accompany recitation of the poems of Pierre Louÿs, the Chansons de Bilitis. It was planned that ten of these poems should be recited, with musical accompaniment; and appropriately sensuous actions, at a private performance, a series of tableaux vivants, with the dancers wearing the flimsiest of dresses or none at all, a suggestion that brought objections from contemporary moralists, although these were ignored and the performance went ahead.

The prose-poems themselves, some of which Debussy had already set, evoke an ancient pagan world familiar from Theocritus, or more precisely from Sappho. The original music, largely modal, was considerably expanded for the later work. The first of the Epigraphes, Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d'été (To invoke Pan, God of the summer wind), was for the Chant pastoral by Pierre Louÿs and starts with the flute of the god, in a pentatonic melody. The second, Pour un tombeau sans nom (For an unnamed tomb), leads Bilitis to a tomb outside the town, the grave of a woman who has no name on her tomb-stone. The whole-tone opening sets the melancholy mood of the piece. The third, Pour que la nuit soit propice (Seeking propitious night), in fact derived from music for Les comparaisons, where pubescent girls compare their mammary development, a poem that is typical enough of the poet. In the fourth piece, Pour la danseuse aux crotales, the dancer almost naked under her dress, with tinkling finger-cymbals. The epigraph Pour l'Egyptienne (For the Egyptian girl), supple and sinuous in mood, was for the poem 'Les courtisanes egyptiennes' (The Egyptian Courtesans), and the sixth piece Pour remercier la pluie au matin (For the morning rain), now night has passed and the last courtesans have gone home with their lovers, leaving the poet sad and alone, to writes verses in the sand. The original performance of the tableaux vivants was favourably reviewed, and the music, attributed to M. de Bussy, described asgracieuse and ingenieusement archaique. The later work is, of course, far more than this, almost a concise summary of Debussy's compositional technique.

Keith Anderson

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