About this Recording
8.573463 - DEBUSSY, C.: 4-Hand Piano Music, Vol. 2 - Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune / La Mer / Images (Armengaud, Chauzu)
English  French 

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Music for Piano Four Hands • 2


Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s eclogue, or pastoral poem, L’Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of the Faun; pub. 1876) was quick to capture the imagination of Debussy, who even gave a copy of its second edition to fellow composer Paul Dukas in May 1887. Mallarmé, who in 1885 had written a prose article entitled Richard Wagner, Rêverie d’un poëte français, worshipped Wagner’s conception of the “total art work” and the kind of spell that was cast on stage when “the magic of music” was fused with a dramatic text. Having been “very struck by the new beauty” of Debussy’s Wagnerian-influenced Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire (1887–89), the poet had been keen to meet the composer and discuss the idea that he might write something connected with L’Après-midi d’un faune.

The occasion presented itself in 1891 when Mallarmé asked Debussy to compose a piece of incidental music for a theatrical version of the poem. This was originally intended to form a musical triptych—Prélude, Interlude et Paraphrase finale pour l’Après-midi d’un Faune. In the end, however, only the first of the three came to fruition, Debussy completing it in September 1894. Mallarmé, present at the first performance, wrote to the composer, “The only way in which your illustration of the Afternoon of a faun is discordant with my text is that it goes further, truly, in its evocations of nostalgia and of light, with such finesse, uneasiness and richness.”

It is disquieting to note that Debussy took a poem of 110 lines and created a 110-bar piece of music. Pure coincidence, unwitting imitation or deliberate choice? It’s hard to say, given that according to the composer the five-bar coda illustrates the final line of the poem: “Couple, adieu, je vais voir l’ombre que tu devins.” (Farewell to you both, I am going to see the shadow you have become.) The Prélude made its mark instantly thanks to its innovative melodic, harmonic and rhythmic idiom, and to its formal freedom, although it borrows from conventional ternary form and, as regards its two development sections, from sonata form. Initially presented monodically, the main theme is set out four times. After the first development section, which opens with a brief elaboration alternating the initial chromatic motif and whole-tone scales, the second theme is impassioned, almost Wagnerian in tone. The central section introduces the third theme, which is marked expressif et très soutenu and wreathed in arabesques, triplets and arpeggios.

This arrangement was made by Ravel in early 1910, in response to a commission from the publisher Fromont.

In a letter written to André Messager in 1903, just as he was beginning work on La Mer, Debussy confessed, “You may not know that I had intended to lead the fine life of a sailor, but the life’s chance happenings led me down a different path.” Having begun the composition in Burgundy, he continued to work on the score for the next two years at different coastal locations—firstly Jersey, and then in Dieppe, from July to September 1904. He completed the orchestral score in March 1905, and by the 6th of that month had already told his publisher Durand that after two days’ rest, he would “work on the four-hands arrangement (of La Mer) with one hand, and on Images with the other”.

Debussy’s earlier maritime scores—Sirènes and L’Isle joyeuse—are lyrical works of seduction and enchantment. La Mer, by contrast, is inspired by the natural phenomena of water, light and wind. Certain aspects of the work might suggest it be seen as a symphony—a status hinted at by its subtitle, “esquisses symphoniques” (symphonic sketches)—it has, for example, a “cyclical” theme, a central scherzo in 3/4 time and a finale that echoes the repetitive structures of rondo form. And yet its temporal organisation and form clearly do not conform to any conventional structural procedures. André Boucourechliev called La Mer “an endless succession of moments”, Jean Barraqué spoke in terms of a “mysterious and secret world which invents itself and by the same token destroys itself”, while Pierre Boulez saw the work as “a particularly brilliant display of formal developments that were both essential and unforeseeable”.

De l’aube à midi sur la mer (From dawn to midday on the sea) presents a continuous progression from darkness to light, without any traditional development, repetitions or symmetry. The introduction creates an atmosphere of depth and space, from which emerge “call” figures in iambic rhythm (short–long) and an expressive cyclical theme. The main section comprises two episodes—the first shimmers with undulating arabesques complemented by an expressive theme which is followed by a new, melancholy figure treated contrapuntally in the upper register; the second is dominated by dotted rhythms and sees the reappearance of the cyclical theme. The music then becomes more serene, ending with a solemn, chorale-like theme.

Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves) acts as the scherzo here, with a central episode whose main function is that of a development section. There are two parts to the introduction, the first decorative, colourful and athematic, full of tremolos, arpeggios and chromatic motifs, the second launched by a capricious rising whole-tone motif. The main theme is introduced above trills while, shortly afterwards, the second subject, expressive and dance-like, establishes itself with a light rhythmic touch in the upper register.

Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the sea), which is cast in seven sections including introduction and coda, creates a dramatic portrait of the natural world in a rondo-like form. Four elements appear in the introduction, the first is tumultuous and in the lower register, the second plaintive and chromatic; these are followed by more iambic calls and a dual return of the cyclical theme which, after some blustery swells, builds to a brutal climax. The refrain theme, reminiscent of Franck, is then set out, accompanied by the stormy element from the introduction.

A letter of 31st January 1908 from the physician, writer, poet, archaeologist, ethnographer and Sinologue Victor Segalen to his wife tells us that “according to Mme Debussy, the four-hands score of La Mer is unplayable”. Without making light of the genuine difficulties presented by the music, we do now know this not to be the case.

When he came to compose his Images for orchestra, Debussy wrote to his publisher Jacques Durand that he was trying to do something different from what he had done in his earlier works, those dubbed “Impressionist”, and to deal instead with “realities”. Each of the three pieces that make up Images was inspired by influences from a different Western European country: Scotland (Gigues), Spain (Ibéria) and France (Rondes de printemps).

In June 1906 Debussy met fellow composer André Caplet, who soon became a trusted friend, whose “prodigious musical instinct” Debussy greatly valued. Caplet made two arrangements of Images, for two pianos and piano four-hands respectively.

Written between 1905 and December 1908, Ibéria was the first of the Images to be completed. Debussy’s only visit to Spain consisted of a single afternoon spent in San Sebastián, just across the border. There are no quotations or borrowings from pre-existing music here, the work drawing instead on a kind of imagined folk tradition in which all the melodies stem from the composer’s own mind, although they are based on modal or ornamental cellular elements typical of Spanish folk music. Its poetic unity is based on the succession of atmospheres conjured to illustrate a journey from day to night and on to early morning. Debussy’s technique becomes even more fascinating, however, as we begin to hear his motifs and thematic materials resurfacing in each of Ibéria’s three movements (none of which is cast in any purely conventional form), generated from very limited elements by the inventiveness of the composer.

Par les rues et par les chemins (In the streets and byways), in ternary form, sets out an elegant principal theme introduced by a lively sevillana rhythm, three cyclical elements and then, in the central section, an obsessional theme punctuated by a fanfare and a weightier motif in the lower register.

At the end, the daylight fades in a magnificent coda that sets the scene for the following movement, Les Parfums de la nuit (The perfumes of the night), a piece of writing full of enchantment, sensory perception and reverie, in an “enumerative” (ABC) three-part form. An obsessive habanera rhythm, more hinted at than overtly stated, is here interwoven with cyclical motifs drawn from the first movement. When the habanera ceases, a new episode begins, with a “sweet and melancholic” theme which is met by passionate impulses. In place of the expected recapitulation, the third part, a subtle moment of remembrance (echoes of the night) and anticipation (the “minstrel” from the final movement) leads without a break into Matin d’un jour de fête (Morning of a feast day). An approaching march is punctuated by chiming bells, two cyclical motifs and a series of quasi guitarra chords. Later we also hear the impassioned motif from the second movement again, this time “expressive and slightly mocking”. The middle section in 3/4 begins with a marked contrast in tempo, character and instrumentation. The march is then replaced by a more declamatory, minstrel-style piece of music.

In August 1907, Debussy went back to Rondes de printemps (Round dances of spring) and wrote to Durand, “The thing about this music is that it is intangible and therefore cannot be manipulated in the way that a robust symphony can.” He also confided, “I am more and more convinced that music is not, in its essence, something that can flow in a rigorous, traditional form. It is made up of rhythmic tempos and colours…”

Completed in 1909, Rondes opens with two “call” motifs, portraying the awakenings of springtime. The first is chromatic and anticipates Jeux, the second is in elegant thirds quickly followed by a sketch of a traditional song from the Île-de-France “Nous n’irons plus au bois…” (No more we’ll go to the woods), used more for the substance of its material than as an individualised theme. After light harmonies in quavers, it appears again, more clearly defined this time, before the main theme in A major bursts in. Following a slower episode, the song is treated contrapuntally and later, after a reprise of the main theme, is presented several times in augmented note values beneath an ostinato ronde rhythm.

Gigues was composed between 1909 and 1912 in collaboration with André Caplet, who wrote the following about the work: “Jigs… Sad jigs… Tragic jigs… Portrait of a soul—of a grief-stricken soul” which hides “its sobs behind the mask and jerky movements of a grotesque puppet”. A brief introduction gives way to a wistful, folk-inspired, modal tune structured in two contrasting parts; this returns only in snatches. The main theme, with its lively rhythm, later gives way to a rendering of “Dansons la gigue” (Let’s dance a jig), a French tune borrowed from a collection by Charles Bordes, with the addition of a more impassioned element which becomes increasingly dominant in the central section, to the point of banishing the rhythmic ostinato.

© 2016 Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe

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