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8.572583 - DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 6 (Markl) - Suite bergamasque / Petite suite / En blanc et noir
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Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Orchestral Works Vol. 6


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.

The Suite bergamasque, its title suggesting the images conjured up by Verlaine in his Fêtes galantes and a fin de siècle nostalgia for the world of Watteau, includes piano pieces written between 1890 and the work’s date of publication, 1905. The Suite opens with a Prélude in the immediately identifiable harmonic language of Debussy, orchestrated by Gustave Cloez, who also arranged the Menuet and Passepied. The Menuet travels far from the original dance and explores remoter harmonic regions. Clair de lune, orchestrated by Debussy’s friend André Caplet, has enjoyed such popularity that it is difficult to hear it with new ears. It suggests Verlaine’s paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques / Jouant du luth et dansant in its delicate and evocative textures. The Suite ends with a Passepied, a dance impelled forward throughout by the rhythm of its accompanying figuration.

Debussy’s Petite Suite was written in 1889 for piano duet. Jacques Durand, the pianist, composer and publisher, described his performance of the work with Debussy who, Durand alleged, having urged his partner not to go too fast, proceeded to do just that. It seems the Suite was sympathetically if not warmly received on this first occasion. It has become even more familiar in the orchestral version by the conductor Henri Büsser, particularly the opening En bateau, with its gently undulating rhythms. It is followed by Cortège, a cheerful and formal procession. The third movement Menuet keeps the mood of the dance of the title and the Suite ends with the lively Ballet.

The original version of the symphonic suite Printemps was written in 1887 for wordless female chorus and orchestra, and submitted as an envoi from Rome, according to the stipulations of the Prix de Rome. The score was destroyed in a fire at the binder’s before it could be examined by the Académie and the orchestral version was reconstructed in 1912 by Henri Büsser, under Debussy’s supervision, from a surviving version of 1904 for piano duet. The work was not well received in the official report on the envoi by Henri Delaborde, secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts: the search for musical colour was found to be exaggerated and there was a warning against vague ‘impressionism’, a term first used here in a derogatory reference to Debussy’s music. The report found confusion in the first movement, described as a sort of Adagio Prélude, and incoherence in the second. The verdict was that Debussy could do better. Printemps drew inspiration from Botticelli’s Primavera and is a remarkable enough achievement, more fully displayed in its orchestral version, with its evocative opening and final dance of joy.

En blanc et noir (In white and black), a composition from 1915 and originally for two pianos, reflects something of the circumstances in which it was written, a time of war and national danger. The idiomatic orchestration by the English composer Robin Holloway, was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, completed in 2002 and first performed in 2004. The first of the three movements, Avec emportement (Forcefully), has the superscription:

Qui reste à sa place
Et ne danse pas
De quelque disgrâce
Fait l’aveu tout bas

(He who stays in his place
And does not dance
Admits to some disgrace
In a whisper)

The quotation is from the libretto of Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette, by Barbier and Carré. The implication is clear, a rebuke to those who avoid their national duty in wartime, the music suggesting something of the challenge to patriotism.

The second movement, Lent. Sombre, is dedicated to the memory of a friend killed in 1915, Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, a nephew of Durand. At the head of the score are words taken from François Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France (Ballade against the enemies of France):

Prince, porté soit des serfs Eolus
En la forest où domine Glaucus
Ou privé soit de paix et d’esperance
Car digne n’est de posséder vertus
Qui mal vouldroit au royaulme de France

(Prince, may he be carried off by Aeolus’ slaves
Into the forest where Glaucus reigns
Or be robbed of peace and of hope
For unworthy is he of any virtue
Who would wish ill to the Kingdom of France.)

Here Debussy evokes the enemy, Germany, by his quotation of the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg, and France in oblique references to the Marseillaise and bugle calls.

The third of the movements to which Debussy had originally given the title Caprices en blanc et noir, has a brief quotation from Charles d’Orléans at its head: Yver, vous n’estes qu’un vilain (Winter, you are nothing but a spoilsport), before praise of summer, gentle and pleasing. It is pointedly dedicated to ‘mon ami Strawinsky‘.

Debussy’s only attempt at a symphony, a form of which he later expressed disapproval, was made in 1880. The following year he sent the single movement to Nadezhda von Meck, who, in thanking him, expressed the hope that she would be able to hear the piece played by the composer. The manuscript of the only movement composed, scored for piano duet, survived in Russia and was first published in 1933. It has been orchestrated by the American composer and arranger Tony Finno. It seems that Debussy had intended to write three further movements, Andante, Air de ballet and Final and, in view of his employment by Nadezhda von Meck, one may suspect a passing acquaintance with the music of her protégé Tchaikovsky. The movement states the principal theme at the beginning, with two further themes introduced, the second in a poco più lento, cantabile section, before the modified return of the material of the first section of the movement, leading to the B major march with which the work ends.

Keith Anderson

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