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8.572296 - DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 (Markl) - Images / Sarabande / Danse / Marche ecossaise / La plus que lente
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
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, allegedly 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 and in 1884 the first prize, the following year reluctantly taking up obligatory 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, 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.
It seems that Debussy originally intended the orchestral Images as as a third set under that title, for two pianos. He had published a first set of Images for piano in 1905, followed in 1907 by a second series. Gigues of the orchestral Images, was the last to be written, composed during the years 1909 to 1912 and first performed and published the following year. Ibéria was written in the years 1906 to 1908 and first performed and published in 1910, and Rondes de printemps was composed in 1908 and 1909 and first performed and published in 1910. The work is scored for a large orchestra, used by Debussy with his usual sensitivity and care for delicate nuances of orchestral colour. Gigues, originally and aptly known as Gigues tristes, suggests England, or more properly, North Britain. The jig theme, with its echoes of the Northumbrian The Keel-Row, introduces the dance gradually, as it takes shape with the entry of the oboe d’amore. Melancholy seems for a moment to be dismissed, but the dance eventually dies down to a murmur. Ibéria immediately proclaims Spain in its opening section, Par les rues et par les chemins, with the rhythm of the castanets. To the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla Ibéria seemed to embody Spanish music, something much more than a mere character piece. Les parfums de la nuit, marked Lent et rêveur, gently evokes the scents of the night, perfumes of the gardens of Spain, and Le matin d’un jour de fête, marked Dans un rythme de Marche lointaine, alerte et joyeuse, which follows without a break, brings the world alive again. Spanish dance rhythms are heard and characteristic snatches of melody with the sound of a bell, as the holiday approaches. Rondes de printemps offers a picture of France. Dedicated to his wife, it is headed by words from the Tuscan La maggiolata: Vive le Mai, bienvenu soit le Mai / Avec son gonfalon sauvage (Long live May, welcome to May / With its wild banner). A snatch of the traditional song Do, do l’enfant, do is heard from the oboe, but it is the song Nous n’irons plus aux bois (We shall no more to the woods), which Debussy had used before in La belle au bois dormant and in Jardin sous la pluie, that has a more important part to play in the unfolding texture. The initial reception of Images was mixed, with coolness or hostility from some critics, but praise from musicians such as Ravel and Manuel de Falla. The public, it seemed, had expected a successor to La Mer, but Images was something rather different, three pictures in what seemed to contemporaries a new style.
Some of Debussy’s piano pieces were later orchestrated, either by the composer himself or by associates. The Sarabande, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, was the second of the three pieces that make up the suite Pour le piano, written between 1896 and 1901. It was dedicated to Madame E. Rouart, née Y. Lerolle, related by marriage to the composer Chausson. The piano piece was marked Avec une élégance grave et lente and in its orchestral form it retains the feeling of nostalgia for an unattainable past, the mood evoked by Verlaine. Danse, also orchestrated a number of years later by Ravel, was published originally in 1890 as Tarentelle styrienne, and in 1903 under its simpler revised title. The insistent rhythm suggested in the original title continues, broken only in a contrasting central section. Both pieces are remarkably well served by their masterly and highly characteristic orchestration.
The piano duet Marche des Anciens Comtes de Ross, dédiée à leur Descendant, le Général Meredith Read, Grand-Croix de l’Ordre du Rédempteur of 1891 was later published as Marche écossaise (sur un thème populaire) and subsequently orchestrated by Debussy. A note accompanying the original work explains the ancient ancestry of the Chieftains of Clan Ross and the use of the melody played by the Band of Pipers before and in battle and on festival days. Debussy’s orchestral version, dating from about 1908, develops the final section of the March, but he did not have a chance to hear it until 1913, when the conductor Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht played it through to him at a rehearsal, to his declared approval. La plus que lente, a ‘slower than slow’ waltz, written in 1910, was orchestrated by the composer two years later. With the original tempo indication Molto rubato con morbidezza the waltz suggests a parody of popular styles.
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