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ClassicsOnline Home » DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (Markl) - La mer / Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune / Jeux
Debussy was one of the most important and influential composers of the early twentieth century. This recording features two of Debussy’s most harmonically innovative and imaginatively orchestrated works. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) evokes a pagan world, as the faun of the title takes his ease in the afternoon shade on a summer day. The three symphonic sketches that constitute La mer (The Sea), inspired partly by Katsushika Hokusai’s famous colour woodcut The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, offer subtly nuanced evocations of the sea from dawn to midday, of the waves and of the dialogue of wind and sea.
By David Denton
Naxos’s new cycle of Debussy’s orchestral works is making an auspicious start with the young German-born conductor, Jun Markl, direction the Orchestre National de Lyon.
His performances avoid the affectations encrusted over recent years on the seascape, La Mer, and the languid Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, both scores drawing detailed playing that catches the shimmering colours of Debussy’s impressionist pictures. I know some will miss those oft used dynamic exaggerations, at the end of the first and last pictures of La Mer that bring impact but lack subtlety. The solo flute in the Prelude should have been credited on the sleeve for playing of outstanding beauty, the tempos pressing forward more than we often encounter. The ballet Jeux I particularly adore, and here those shifting harmonies are gorgeously realised. I am less certain of Caplet’s arrangement of Debussy’s piano work, Children’s Corner. The results are never less than delightful, but it does not sound like Debussy’s orchestral writing. Again we have to admire the inner details that are revealed by an orchestra well versed in their national music. The sound does not look to the spectacular, but offers a natural perspective, though there is one quirk when the volume of the final track seems to go up by a notch.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune • La mer • Jeux • Children’s Corner (orch. Caplet)
Debussy was born in 1862 in St Germain-en-Laye, the son of a shopkeeper 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 and in 1884 the first prize, the following year reluctantly taking 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, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, 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.
As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the most important and influential figures of the earlier twentieth century. His musical language suggested new paths to be further explored, while his poetic and sensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still more possibilities. His opera Pelléas et Mélisande and his songs demonstrated a deep understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms that are never overstated or exaggerated.
The famous Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) was completed in 1894. It was later to achieve unwanted notoriety in the overtly erotic mime of the dancer Nizhinsky, when the score was used by Dyagilev for a ballet in 1912, a treatment of the work with which Debussy was not happy. The inspiration for what was essentially revolutionary music came from a poem by Mallarmé, with its subtly sensuous suggestions of a pagan world. In the form of an Eclogue, the poem is in the words of a Faun, half-goat and half-man, in the mould of the pagan god Pan. He is stirred by the sight of passing nymphs, as he lies resting from the heat of the mid-day in a wooded glade. The music opens with the sound of the Faun’s reed-pipe, represented by the flute, in a score that makes imaginative use of woodwind, two harps and strings, with percussion confined to antique cymbals, used with sparing yet telling effect.
Debussy’s three evocative symphonic sketches that form La mer were completed in 1905 after two year’s work. The period of Debussy’s life was a difficult one and after leaving his wife he took refuge with Emma Bardac in an Eastbourne hotel. Shortly after the first performance of La mer in 1905, Emma Bardac gave birth to a daughter, Claude-Emma, to be known in the family as Chou-Chou. In the symphonic sketches there is no sign of domestic stress. Debussy makes delicate use of a large orchestra in structures of some complexity, the three sketches corresponding in some measure to the traditional forms of sonata, rondo and free fantasia. Although analogies with French Impressionism were drawn by contemporaries, others have seen rather a reflection of the composer’s admiration for the English painter Turner, while the influence of Japanese woodcuts was demonstrated in the choice of Hokusai’s Wave, from the Views of Fujiyama, for the front of the printed score. The first sketch takes us from dawn to noon on the sea, in a rich and varied musical texture, a mosaic of orchestral sound. This is followed by the sport of the waves, a scherzo-like movement, and the final conversation of wind and sea, leading to a climax of hedonistic ecstasy.
Jeux was commissioned by Dyagilev for his Ballets Russes. The theme of the ballet was conceived by Nizhinsky as a sculptural representation of modern Man. His wilder ideas were rejected, as was the costume first designed for Nizhinsky by Léon Bakst, and the ballet became what Debussy described as a ‘badinage à trois’, based on the game suggested by the title. Nizhinsky’s innovative choreography was strongly influenced by Jaques-Dalcroze and involved a close correspondence between every note of the score and the movements of the dancers, but revivals of the ballet have been based on the work of other choreographers. Rehearsals for the work began in the spring of 1913, when Karsavina and Schollar became available, but time was short in view of the work needed on the first staging of Le sacre du printemps, which was to take place a fortnight later. Jeux was first presented at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 15 May 1913 and was given five performances, before being dropped from the repertoire. The score opens with a slow introduction, followed by a Scherzando, the return of the prelude, and the Scherzando with a second motif. A tennis ball bounces onto the stage, and a young man rushes in, brandishing a tennis racket. As he disappears, two girls make their tentative entrance, perhaps looking for a place where they may exchange confidences. They dance, but are disturbed by the movement of foliage, behind which the young man has been watching them. The girls try to run away, but the boy dances with one of them, arousing the jealousy of the other, who tries to attract the boy’s attention. He dances a waltz with her, soon overcoming her initial feelings. The first girl wants to make her escape, but is persuaded by her friend to stay, and all three dance together, their increasingly ecstatic dance interrupted by another tennis ball, after which they are frightened. The music of the prelude returns in conclusion, with the chromatic murmur of divided strings.
Children’s Corner is a set of piano pieces, published in 1908 and written for Debussy’s daughter Emma-Claude, who was to outlive her father by barely a year. The English titles of the pieces are a reflection of Debussy’s anglophilia, echoed also in his habit of taking strong tea for breakfast and in a liking for whisky, and of the influence on Chou-Chou of her English governess, Miss Gibbs. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum suggests Clementi, although the conventional musical pattern of the opening soon moves far away from any such exercise. Jimbo’s Lullaby depicts the clumsiness of an elephant in its opening and lop-sided accentuation. Serenade for the Doll had first appeared in 1906 as the more accurate Sérénade à la poupée. The Snow is Dancing was intended to be misty, sad and monotonous, and The Little Shepherd opens with the delicate expressiveness of the shepherd-boy’s flute, to be contrasted with a dance motif. Golliwog’s Cake-Walk is a light-hearted version of a dance that had been popularised in the music-halls of the 1890s, associated with black Americans, originating perhaps as a parody of white affectations. The suite was later orchestrated by André Caplet.
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