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ClassicsOnline Home » DEBUSSY, C.: 4-Hand Piano Music - Petite Suite / Marche ecossaise / 6 Epigraphes antiques / Premiere Suite (Armengaud, Chauzu)
The recent discovery (2008) of the Première Suite d’orchestre for piano, four hands, is a large-scale, sonorous work which reveals Debussy’s interest in constantly evolving form. Derived in part from his incidental music for the Chansons de Bilitis, an evocation of poetic scenes from an ancient pagan world, Six Épigraphes antiques is a colourful work of considerable creative freedom. The Petite Suite includes such well-loved movements as En bateau and Cortège, while the Marche écossaise is heard on this recording in its rare first version.
By Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Music for Piano Four Hands
In 1872 Debussy began a long period of musical education at the Paris Conservatoire. During his years as a student there he spent three summers (1880–82) working for Tchaikovsky’s patron Nadezhda von Meck, two of them in Russia, and made three consecutive attempts at winning the Prix de Rome, success coming in 1884 with a scène lyrique entitled L’Enfant prodigue. Having finally won the Prize, he spent the years 1885 to 1887 living and studying in Rome.
The rediscovery of several compositions for piano four hands, published as recently as 2002, has shed new light on Debussy’s creative activity during this period. As well as the Symphony in B minor, which was found in 1925 and published in Moscow in 1933, this body of works includes the Andante cantabile (1881), Diane Ouverture (1881), Triomphe de Bacchus (1882), Intermezzo (1882) and Divertissement (1884) (Naxos 8.572385).
The Première Suite d’orchestre is an even more recent find, first published in 2008. Two manuscript versions, both undated, are held by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York: a completed score for piano four hands and an unfinished orchestral score (which is missing the third movement, Rêve). This large-scale work seems to have been composed between late 1882 and early 1884.
The orchestral suite was a popular form in late nineteenth-century France, either in the guise of the ballet suite (Delibes, Lalo), or as a stand-alone symphonic piece (Massenet, Guiraud). Debussy’s First Orchestral Suite reveals the combined influences of all these composers, while movement, dance, dreams and Classical drama also emerge as sources of Debussyan inspiration.
Even in his very earliest works the composer was clearly reluctant to indulge in straightforward repetition and was already playing with the idea of constantly evolving form, incorporating subtle modifications into repeated material.
Fête is a kind of rondo, with the structure A1BA2C1C2A3C3A4 Coda. The two thematic elements of the refrain (A) are varied on each return: the first has a sense of mischief, with its initial ascending fourth and triplet rhythm, the second bears the accents of a waltz. The theme of the first episode (B), which is more chromatic in nature, is repeated four times and includes echoes of A. Two themes form the basis of the second episode (C): the first is calm and restrained with plenty of rising and falling lines, the other is more lyrical and impassioned, moving within a far more limited range of notes.
Ballet is cast in three-part form: A1BA2. A brief introduction sketches out the main theme, in which oriental influences and modal colours can be heard. This is accompanied by a four-note rhythmic ostinato which then becomes a chromatic episode. The expressive theme introduced in the middle section is then followed by an abbreviated repeat of A.
After a short, shimmering introduction, Rêve follows an A1B1A2B2 structure. The rising A theme in the lower register recalls that of the prelude to Lalo’s Namouna, a ballet first staged in 1882 at the Paris Opéra and which Debussy considered “a masterpiece of rhythm and colour”. Section B is songlike and full of expressive warmth.
Against an agitated semiquaver background, clarion calls and a sketch of the preliminary theme introduce the Cortège et Bacchanale. This finale is another rondo-like movement: A1B1A2CB2A3 Coda. There are two elements to the refrain (A): the first an assertive episode in E major, the second based on an ascending arpeggio of chords in C sharp minor. B, in G sharp minor, is very rhythmic in the manner of a bacchanale, and reminiscent of Lalo and Saint-Saëns. C, meanwhile, which is primarily written in A major and a slightly slower tempo, is notable for its orientally-tinged melodic line and its ostinato rhythm. Elements of both B and C are incorporated into the final, condensed presentation of the refrain.
The Petite Suite was composed in 1888–89, between the original version of La Damoiselle élue (1887–88) and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (1889–90). Published by Durand in February 1889, it was given its première by the composer and Jacques Durand at a private concert on 1st 1889. According to Henri Büsser, Debussy played it again shortly afterwards, this time with Dukas, in Guiraud’s composition class at the Conservatoire. In 1907, Büsser produced an orchestration of the Petite Suite which the composer himself rated very highly.
Each of the four movements follows a three-part A1BA2 pattern, and is headed with a title suggesting motion or a dance-based inspiration.
En bateau is Debussy’s first instrumental work linked to a watery setting, but is more of a genre piece than the kind of flowing, reflective composition that marked his later, Impressionist period. With its lilting 6/8 rhythm, the opening presents itself as a soft and supple barcarolle, whose melody ends in a series of sweet-sounding thirds. The rocking motion is interrupted in the central section by a change in dynamics and the appearance of dotted rhythms of more determined character. A somewhat restrained whole-tone scale acts as a transition and extends into the start of the recapitulation before returning shortly before the end, in a major-scale tetrachord.
A festive spirit prevails in Cortège. Subtle changes in expression add nuance to the first theme, characterised by its initial rhythmic cell, a joyous and incisive figure. The second theme, meanwhile, is gently syncopated and playful in nature, softening in the central section. The recapitulation begins by superimposing on to the first theme a varied element of the second, and concludes with a great burst of sound.
The Menuet opens with a brief introduction. The main theme, its modal colours giving it an archaic feel, is cast in Classical style. The central section (gracieux), by contrast, takes on subtly Hispanic hues. The recapitulation is varied by the introduction of counter-melodies and brief allusions to that Hispanic colour, especially as the movement draws to an end.
The vigorous closing Ballet begins in 2/4 time with a main theme notable for its use of fourths and creates a varied landscape with modal scales moving stepwise above a dominant pedal. The central section is a lyrical waltz in 3/8, already hinted at in the final bars of the previous section. We then hear a literal repeat of the first-theme exposition, but this is unexpectedly followed by a return of the 3/8 time signature and a one-beat-to-the-bar waltz which combines the movement’s two themes.
The e écossaise sur un thème populaire (Scottish on a Folk Theme, 1890) was commissioned by an American army officer of Scottish origin (he was descended from the ancient Clan Ross), General John Meredith Read, who had been appointed American consul-general to France in 1869. It is written in simple ternary form, with a short introduction. The central section is based on the first part of the theme, in augmentation, while the recapitulation turns the original march (in 2/4) into a dazzling and energetic gigue (in 6/8). Debussy orchestrated the in 1908.
In July 1914, soon after returning home from a trip to London that proved to be his last journey abroad, he began work on his Six Épigraphes antiques, reusing some of the (unpublished) incidental music he had written in 1900–1901 to accompany a reading of Pierre Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis, scored for two flutes, two harps and celesta.
Three of the six pieces were finished by 29 July, with the full set being published by Durand on 27 February 1915. Each of them bears a title with classical resonances, derived either from the original incidental music or from the composer’s own poetic imagination.
Certain universal cultural experiences such as dance (IV, V) and funeral rites (II) are evoked in this work, whose archaic style is emphasised by various elements of Debussy’s idiom: the use of monody (I, II), modality, parallel harmonies (I, III, V). Into this evocation of Antiquity, however, come such eminently Impressionist themes as the wind (I), night-time (III), rainfall (VI) and the passing hours and seasons (I, VI), whose rôle is to spark the imagination of contemporary listeners to rediscover sensations experienced by their ancestors and now lost in the mists of time.
These six elliptical pieces demonstrate great creative freedom, despite the presence more or less throughout of an underlying ternary pattern, as this seems to follow the natural flow of the music rather than determining it. The work’s modernity is revealed by the endlessly changing way in which Debussy deploys his musical elements (harmonies, motifs, ostinati, melismas, polyphony, etc), condensing them but never simply repeating them. And yet, its meticulously planned key scheme, contrasting tempos and the return of the First Epigraph’s theme at the end of the Sixth all go to show just how carefully he conceived the overarching structure of the work as a whole.
© 2012 Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe
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