About this Recording
8.572568 - DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 5 (Markl) - La boite a joujoux / Estampes Nos. 1 and 2 / L'isle joyeuse / 6 Epigraphes antiques
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Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Orchestral Works Vol. 5


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. In 1884 he took the first prize and the following year reluctantly took 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.

In 1913 Debussy was approached by the artist and writer André Hellé, who had devised a ballet scenario from his children’s tale La boîte à joujoux (The Toy-Box), for music. The subject appealed to Debussy, not least because of his interest in matters of childhood, stimulated by his affection for his young daughter, Emma-Claude, Chouchou in the family, to whom the new work was eventually dedicated and for whom he had already written Children’s Corner. What he envisaged was a children’s ballet, to be presented by children, or even by marionettes. In the event the ballet was postponed, because of the war, and was only staged in 1919, after Debussy’s death, when it was given at the Théâtre Lyrique du Vaudeville. In 1921 it was taken up by the Ballets Suédois, with choreography by Jean Börlin. Debussy wrote the piano score fairly quickly, and in 1914 started work on the orchestration, to be completed finally by André Caplet, a composer and conductor with a deep understanding of Debussy’s music.

The ballet opens with a Prélude, the toy-box asleep. The curtain rises to reveal a toy-shop, lit by the light of a street-lamp outside. In the foreground is a large box of white wood, with a lid, in the background a gramophone and leaning against the wall Pierrot, Arlequin, Polichinelle and three dolls, sleeping. In Tableau 1 one of the dolls wakes up, and turns on the light switch and then the gramophone. The dolls, Pierrot, Arlequin and Polichinelle wake up. The dolls go up and down followed by the other three, pulling out all the toys. The lid of the box opens and the head of a wooden soldier appears, looking at them curiously and accompanied by a little fanfare. A toy Elephant makes its heavy way, to the sound of an Indian melody, an early morning raga. Arlequin dances, followed by the rhythmic march of an English Soldier. Polichinelle takes his turn, followed by the Negro and the Policeman. The Doll now offers a graceful waltz, after which Pierrot, Arlequin, Polichinelle and the other two dolls start a lively round dance. The Sailor dances a solo and the Doll lets fall a flower, as she passes by the toy-box; the Soldier picks it up and kisses it. She cocks a snook at him and runs back to Polichinelle, giving the Soldier a kick. At this the lid of the box opens, revealing an angry officer, a drum and a piece of flag. The dance continues, joined by others, as it goes on. Outside day gradually dawns, the street-lamp is put out and the head of the constable is seen through the window. The toys scatter and take up their original places. Tableau 2 opens on a scene of open country, with two trees standing in the middle of the stage. Polichinelle is sitting by the Doll, talking sweet nothings. She asks him for a wedding ring; he laughs and embraces her. A march is heard and soldiers enter, led by the Captain, causing Polichinelle to take to his heels. The soldiers prepare for battle and Polichinelle comes back with other polichinelles, artillery and cannons. Battle ensues, then night falls, and the Soldier lies between the two trees, holding the flower to his heart. The Doll prays, and Polichinelle sneaks back, to the Doll’s fear, and takes the Soldier’s gun and the flower, laughingly putting the flower back, but taking the gun away with him, pulling a face at the Soldier, now approached by the Doll, who leans tenderly over him. The Soldier gently raises himself; in the distance can be heard the sounds of festivity and of the Polichinelles. Tableau 3 shows a deserted countryside, a sheepfold with its fences broken down and a notice ‘Sheepfold for sale’. The Soldier has one arm in a sling and carries the flower in his other hand, alone with the Doll. The distant sound of a shepherd pipe is heard, followed by the sound of a hurdy-gurdy. A shepherd crosses, with his sheep, and the Doll buys two. A goose-girl appears, and the Doll buys two geese. The Soldier and Doll sit sadly together, with their two sheep and two geese, listening to a shepherd pipe; they embrace and go slowly away towards the sheepfold. In Tableau 4 a back-cloth is let down, displaying a cottage and the banner ‘Twenty Years Later’. Polichinelle is seen first, as a country constable, with a sash bearing the words ‘The Law’. In front of the cottage is the Soldier, with a great white beard, leaning on a strong-box, holding in his hand the faded flower, while by his side is the Doll, much stouter, and, in order of height, their children. She cannot dance but tries to sing. The children dance an enthusiastic polka. The final Epilogue returns to the opening scene, with the toys as before. The head of the little Soldier appears and he gives a last salute, as the curtain falls.

The Six épigraphes antiques, originally for piano duet and arranged by Debussy for a single player, are here orchestrated by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet. They were derived in part from music written in 1900 to accompany recitation of poems by Pierre Louÿs, the Chansons de Bilitis, poems he ascribed to an ancient Greek courtesan. 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 evoke an ancient pagan world, familiar from Theocritus or, more precisely, from Sappho. The first of these, Pour invoquer Pan, dieu du vent d’été (To invoke Pan, god of the summer wind) was to accompany Chant pastoral by Louÿs, starting with a pentatonic melody suggesting the flute of Pan. The second, Pour un tombeau sans nom (For an unnamed tomb), takes Bilitis to a tomb outside the town, the grave of a woman with no name on her tombstone, the whole-tone opening setting the mood of melancholy. The third, Pour que la nuit soit propice (For the night to be propitious), was to accompany Les comparaisons, where pubescent girls compare their mammary development, a scene typical of the poet. Pour la danseuse aux crotales (For the dancer with finger cymbals) had a dancer almost naked under her dress, with tinkling finger-cymbals. Pour l’Egyptienne (For the Egyptian girl) was for the poem Les courtisanes égyptiennes (The Egyptian courtesans), supple and sinuous in mood, and the sixth, Pour remercier la pluie au matin (To give thanks to the morning rain), finds the poet sad and alone, writing verses in the sand, now the last of the courtesans has gone home.

Estampes (Prints), a set of three piano pieces, written in 1903, starts with the evocative Pagodes, here orchestrated by André Caplet and suggesting the sound of the gamelan, much as the very title of the group of pieces seems to invoke the then current vogue for orientalism. La soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada), orchestrated by the composer and conductor Paul-Henri Büsser, captures the spirit of Spain, with the rhythm of a habanera.

Debussy’s piano piece L’isle joyeuse was written in 1904, with the later orchestration, to which the composer had given his prior approval in principle, by the Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari and first heard in 1923. The piece belongs to the world of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes, here drawing more directly, in its title, from Watteau’s painting L’embarquement pour Cythère, the embarkation for Cythera, the island of Venus and love. The painting, made in 1717, four years before Watteau’s death, brought him acceptance as one of the group of artists associated with the pastoral artificiality of the fêtes galantes. Debussy, who claimed in conversation that L’isle joyeuse was pure imagination, nevertheless recaptures something of Watteau’s blend of happiness and poignancy, or of his near contemporary Verlaine’s own evocation of the joys of Cythère.

Le triomphe de Bacchus (The Triumph of Bacchus) is part of a very early work, inspired by the art-for-art’s-sake poet and writer Théodore de Banville, author of Diane au bois (Diana of the Woods), which Debussy had first tackled in 1881, while still a student at the Conservatoire, and presented to his teacher, Ernest Guiraud, who advised him to put such things aside for the moment and to concentrate on the academic requirements of the Prix de Rome. Le triomphe de Bacchus was conceived originally as a four-movement suite and drafted as a piano duet, of which the third and fourth movements survive only as fragments. The first movement is arranged for orchestra by the French pianist, conductor and composer Marius-François Gaillard.

Keith Anderson

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