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ClassicsOnline Home » DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 7 (Markl) - Fantaisie / 2 Danses / Rhapsodies
An important marker in Debussy’s compositional development, the Fantaisie reflects something of the influence of César Franck’s Symphonic Variations yet embodies his own new aesthetic. Unpublished in Debussy’s lifetime, it is heard here in its 1968 revision. The delicately evocative Rapsodie for saxophone is an exotic work with an ‘oriental’ atmosphere and Spanish or Moorish associations. Although composed as a Conservatoire test piece, the Première Rapsodie for Clarinet has long since entered the repertoire as an important addition for the instrument. The glittering Danses for harp and strings recall Satie’s Gymnopédies, with the Danse profane in particular calling for a degree of virtuosity. Volume 6 of this much-admired series (8.572583) was praised for its ‘subtle and sensitive readings’. (Gramophone)
By Phillip Scott
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Orchestral Works Vol. 7
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.
Debussy’s Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, dedicated to his friend, the pianist and composer René Chansarel, was written in 1889–90. Debussy failed to provide the expected overture to a formal Prix de Rome concert in Paris and did not include the Fantaisie among the works submitted as envois, according to the rules of the competition. Arrangements were made, however, for the Fantaisie to be performed at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique, with René Chansarel as the soloist. The conductor Vincent d’Indy, whose own Symphonie cévénole may have had some influence over Debussy’s composition, found that there was not enough time to rehearse and perform the Fantaisie, and proposed, therefore, to include only the first movement. Debussy’s reaction was to remove the parts of the work from the orchestra’s music-stands, explaining, in a note to d’Indy that he would rather have a passable performance of the whole work than a fine performance of the first movement only. Debussy continued to make changes in the Fantaisie, but it was only published in 1920, after his death, although in a version that did not reflect these changes, particularly in orchestration. It was the unrevised version that was first heard in simultaneous premières on 20 November 1920 with Alfred Cortot in London and Marguerite Long in France. A revised version, taking account of changes made by the composer, was published in 1968 and is the version heard here. The work reflects something of the influence of César Franck’s Symphonic Variations and some have detected the influence of gamelan music that Debussy had heard in 1889 at the Paris World Exhibition. Like Franck’s work, the Fantaisie is cyclic, with a sonata-form first movement introduced by an orchestral Andante ma non troppo before the entry of the piano, which remains closely integrated with the orchestral texture. The energetic finale follows the slow movement without a break.
Debussy wrote his Danse sacrée et danse profane for chromatic harp and strings in 1904 in response to a commission from Pleyel for works to be used in prize competitions at the Brussels Conservatoire, where the chromatic harp was taught, a technical development of the instrument in which the Pleyel company had an interest. The newly devised instrument for which the Danses were originally written differs from the usual concert instrument by its lack of pedals and inclusion of a separate string for each chromatic note. The two pieces soon became standard works for the conventional harp, on which they are now normally played. Modal writing suggests something of the ancient world in the Danse sacrée and both dances have more than a hint of Satie about them, recalling the latter’s Gymnopédies, with the Danse profane in particular calling for a degree of virtuosity.
It was with considerable reluctance that Debussy undertook a commission to write a work for the saxophone. The American player of the instrument, Mrs Richard J. Hall, was nothing if not persistent. She commissioned the work in 1895, but Debussy worked on it intermittently between 1903 and 1905 and returned to it once more in 1911. The orchestration, sketched by Debussy in the version eventually given to Mrs Hall by Debussy’s widow, was completed by Roger-Ducasse in 1919. Mrs Hall had taken up the saxophone for her health and commissioned various works from French composers to provide herself with a repertoire. In 1904 she played in Paris the Choral varié that Vincent d’Indy had written for her, and Debussy claimed that it was quite ridiculous to see a lady in a pink frock playing such a clumsy instrument. In a letter a year earlier to his friend, the writer Pierre Louÿs, he excuses his delay in writing by his preoccupation with a work he describes as a Fantaisie, for which he had been paid over a year before, the fee long since eaten up. ‘For some days’, he writes, ‘…I am the-man-who-is-working-on-a-fantasy-for-alto-saxophone-in-E-flat—try and say that without taking a breath’. ‘The Saxophone’, he continues, ‘is a reed animal of whose habits I know little: does it favour the romantic sweetness of the clarinet or the slightly coarse irony of the sarrusophone, a double bassoon…?’ Debussy had contemplated the title Rapsodie orientale and the work has also been known as Rapsodie mauresque or Rapsodie arabe, as suggested by its melodic contours and the writing for the saxophone. Whatever Debussy’s reluctance to write to order, the Rapsodie bears the unmistakable mark of the composer at the height of his evocative powers.
The Première Rapsodie pour orchestre avec clarinette principale was published in 1910 in its first version, for clarinet and piano, and in the orchestral version the following year. The work was intended for use in a Conservatoire competition, together with a short test of sightreading. It was dedicated to Prosper Mimart, the professor for whose class it was designed, and it was Mimart who gave the first performance of the original version in January 1911 for the Société Musicale Indépendante. Debussy was pleased with the work, if not with most of the Conservatoire competitors. Marked at the beginning Rêveusement lent, the Rapsodie offers the contrasts of tempo and mood necessary in a competition piece, but it is the feeling of the opening, dreaming, that predominates.
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