About this Recording
8.572385 - DEBUSSY, C.: Early Works for Piano Duet - Printemps / Le triomphe de Bacchus / Symphony in B Minor (Soos, Haag)
English  French 

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Early Works for Piano Duet


Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye on 22 August 1862, Claude Debussy started taking piano lessons in 1870 at the age of seven. He showed such talent that, only two years later, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied piano with Antoine François Marmontel and composition with Ernest Guiraud. Although he was a gifted student, he frequently found himself at daggers drawn with the institution, and was often subject to disciplinary action. In 1880 the young composer was engaged by Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck to teach music to her children, and each summer for several years thereafter he travelled with her family to Russia, Florence, Vienna and the south of France.

Despite his frustration with the rigid dogma of the Conservatoire, and with the French musical establishment in general, and his desire to forge his own path, in 1884 Debussy was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome for his scène lyrique L’enfant prodigue. He spent the next two years living at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he complained about everything from the food to the city’s musical life. The music he wrote for the French Academy in Rome during this period—including the symphonic suite Printemps and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra—simultaneously impressed and baffled them. The composer Jules Massenet called him an ‘enigma’.

It was during the next few years that Debussy began to find a truly distinctive musical voice. He travelled to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889 to hear Wagner’s music, befriended Paul Dukas and Erik Satie, met the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and heard Javanese gamelan music for the first time at the 1889 Universal Exposition. In 1894 his ground-breaking Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune had its première, provoking a certain amount of controversy. One year later, he finished the first version of his great masterpiece, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, based on a play by the symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck. Over the following years he continued to revise the opera, and it was eventually performed in 1902.

In 1909 Gabriel Fauré offered Debussy a position on the advisory board of the Conservatoire, which he accepted. It was also in this year, however, that he first showed signs of illness. He continued to travel, performing across Europe, and contributing articles and reviews to such publications as the Revue musicale, but on 25 March 1918, after a protracted battle, he died of cancer.

The turbulent, two-movement Symphony in B minor, composed between 1880 and 1881, is the earliest work on this disc. It remained unpublished until 1933, and was never orchestrated by Debussy. Passionate and lyrical, replete with thunderous chords and flowing melodies, the first movement, an Allegro ben marcato, is in a decidedly Romantic (rather than Impressionistic) vein, as is the gentler, more restrained Andante cantabile.

1881 also saw the composition of the Ouverture Diane, which, with its mysterious, seeking opening line and delicate figuration, is somewhat more characteristic of Debussy’s later style. Although dedicated to his teacher Ernest Guiraud, the piece was never published, and was only discovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris almost a hundred years after its composition. It was originally intended as an overture to Debussy’s unfinished scène lyrique Diane au bois.

The four-movement suite Triomphe de Bacchus was written a year later, although it remained unpublished until 1928. It drew its inspiration from a poem by Théodore de Banville entitled Le triomphe de Bacchos à son retour des Indes. The opening Divertissement is characterized by a sense of urgency and drama, while the following Andante relaxes the tension somewhat. The two fragments, Marche et Bacchanale and Maestoso, bring the work to a vigorous conclusion.

Dating from June of the same year, the Intermezzo was originally intended for orchestra. It was inspired by a passage from the poem Intermezzo by Heinrich Heine: ‘The mysterious isle of the spirits showed faintly in the moonlight; exquisite sounds reached the ear and dancing shapes floated mistily. The music grew ever sweeter, the whirling dance more alluring…’. The Intermezzo opens in a tentative, mysterious mood, gradually growing more confident and playful, before giving way to a reflective, lyrical middle section. The music becomes increasingly impassioned, until finally returning to the spirit of the beginning.

The Divertissement, probably composed in 1884, opens with vivacious rhythmic patterns outlined with delicate figuration. Several times it draws itself up to a climax, before lapsing back into enigmatic quietness. A sonorous middle section follows, before the tense, rhythmically complex finale draws the piece to a close.

The scène lyrique L’enfant prodigue, for which Debussy won the Prix de Rome, was originally composed for soprano, baritone, tenor and orchestra. Based on a text by Edouard Guinand, which retells the story of the prodigal son, it received its première in Paris on 27 July 1884. The opening Prélude is saturated with exotic ornamentation and sonorous harmonies, while the following movement, which features a series of dances, is characterized by delicate runs, arabesques and a variety of rhythmic subtleties.

The symphonic suite Printemps, for choir, piano and orchestra, was composed in 1887 during Debussy’s stay in Rome. It was apparently inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera. In a letter to Emile Baron, Debussy wrote of the piece: ‘I am struck by the idea of creating a work in a special colour and of arriving at the greatest possible number of sensations.’ Printemps is often said to mark a turning point in Debussy’s output: it was in reference to this piece that the word ‘impressionist’ was first used to describe his music. It does indeed bear many of the hallmarks of Debussy’s later works—rich harmonies, glittering arabesques, and moments of playful mischief.

Debussy himself was a gifted pianist, and he often liked to perform four-hand piano pieces in his concerts. Most of the works on this disc, though not originally intended for the piano, were either adapted by him for it, or were first written for four hands. The imaginative figuration, kaleidoscopic sonorities and moments of dazzling virtuosity that can be found in these pieces are a testament to Debussy’s skill, not simply as a performer, but as a composer for this most versatile and multivalent of instruments.

Caroline Waight

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