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ClassicsOnline Home » DEBUSSY, C.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Markl) - Nocturnes / Clair de lune / Pelleas et Melisande-symphonie
Debussy’s orchestral works are much loved for their exquisite orchestrations, poetically nuanced harmonies and almost magical evocations of time and place. He achieved his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes , which portrays in three movements clouds reflected in the sea, holiday festivals in the Bois de Boulogne and the fatally seductive song of the Sirens. The Pelléas et Mélisande Symphony was derived by Marius Constant from the orchestral episodes of Debussy’s famous opera, while the Trois Études are heard in a revealing orchestration of the piano originals by the contemporary Swiss composer, Michael Jarrell.
By James Miller
By Mark L Lehman
American Record Guide
By Bob Briggs
Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Orchestral Works Vol. 2
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 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, 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 never overstated or exaggerated.
The five-act opera Pelléas et Mélisande was first staged at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1902, conducted by André Messager. Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck and of its period in its evocation of a mysterious medieval dream-world, it at first found little favour, only gradually coming to win public acceptance as its delicate nuances and timbres and poetic expressiveness were more fully understood and appreciated.
Golaud, out hunting, loses his way in the forest, and finding Mélisande weeping, persuades her to come home with him. In Arkel’s castle, Geneviève reads a letter from her son Golaud, confessing his marriage to Mélisande and seeking forgiveness. In the third scene Pelléas, Golaud’s half-brother, and Mélisande meet outside the castle. In the second act Pelléas shows Mélisande the castle grounds. They sit by the side of a shady fountain, where, as the clock strikes midday, she drops the ring that Golaud had given her. In the castle Golaud is resting. At midday his horse had thrown him. He notices that Mélisande no longer wears the ring he gave her, and angrily tells her that she must find it, with the help of Pelléas. In the following scene Pelléas and Mélisande enter the cave where she has told Golaud she had lost the ring. They find paupers sleeping there, and quietly leave. In the third act Mélisande, at the window of a tower in the castle, is combing her hair for the night. Pelléas comes to the foot of the tower, from where he can fondle her hair. Golaud emerges, to upbraid them for their childishness. He leads Pelléas down to a disused well in the castle vaults, where a slip would be fatal. When they emerge he openly tells Pelléas to avoid the company of Mélisande. At night in front of the castle, Golaud makes his son Yniold stand on his shoulders and tell him what he sees in Mélisande’s chamber. He sees her there with Pelléas. In the fourth act Pelléas has been warned that he must leave. Before he goes, he seeks to meet Mélisande by the Fountain of the Blind. Arkel is moved by the beauty of Mélisande and is shocked when Golaud, in his presence, speaks angrily to her. In the park Pelléas and Mélisande meet and avow their love for each other, observed by Golaud, who kills Pelléas and wounds Mélisande. In the final act Mélisande, in a chamber in the castle, is recovering from her wounds. She gives birth to a baby girl, but dies, leaving the child to live in her place.
The orchestral work derived from the opera by the Rumanian-born composer Marius Constant takes primarily instrumental episodes, using the same scoring and weaving the whole together. His symphony starts with the opening music of the opera, suggesting the distant medieval world in which it is set and the surrounding forest. It moves, at the entrance of Golaud, to the curtain that closes the scene, after his first meeting with Mélisande, continuing after the second scene between Geneviève, mother of Golaud and Pelléas, and King Arkel, their grandfather, including the start of the third scene. This is joined to the music that follows the second act meeting of Pelléas and Mélisande and their resolve to tell Golaud the truth about the loss of the ring. The work continues with the short opening to the second scene, in which Mélisande sits by Golaud’s bed in Arkel’s castle, moving on to the music that follows the opening scene of the third act, in which Mélisande, in her tower, combs her hair, allowing it to fall down to Pelléas, who stands below, both of them observed by Golaud. It continues with the opening bars of the second scene, in which Golaud takes Pelléas down to the castle vaults. This leads directly to the curtain after the second scene of the fourth act and the close of the fourth scene by the fountain, where Pelléas and Mélisande embrace, observed by Golaud, continuing as Golaud approaches, with sword drawn, striking his brother to the ground. The act closes and the last act opens in a room in the castle, with Arkel and Golaud, with a doctor, by the bedside of Mélisande, continuing as servants enter the chamber where she lies dying. Bells sound, as the servants kneel and the horns give Arkel’s words ‘Je n’ai rien entendu’, as Mélisande quietly dies.
It is difficult to hear Clair de lune (Moonlight) with new ears, so familiar did it become, even in Debussy’s lifetime. Poetic and evocative, it suggests the nostalgic world conjured up by Verlaine in his Fêtes galantes and formed part of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque written between 1890 and 1905 and later orchestrated by André Caplet.
Debussy originally planned his Nocturnes as a series of pieces for the famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, a work that he completed in 1896, deriving inspiration from the poet Henri de Regnier, under its first title, Trois scènes au crépuscule (Three Scenes at Twilight), conceived in the years 1892 and 1893. The final orchestral version was completed in 1900. The first of the three sections of the work, Nuages (Clouds), provides a poetically evocative opening, a reflection of the movement of the clouds across the sky. It is followed by Fêtes (Festivals), a re-creation of holiday festivities in the Bois de Boulogne. The third movement, Sirènes (Sirens), returns to the gentler mood of the first, a picture of the sea in majesty, beauty and variety, foreshadowing La mer. The song of the Sirens, who in mythology lured sailors to their doom by their singing, is represented by a wordless female chorus.
The Berceuse héroïque, published in 1915, was written as a tribute to King Albert I of the Belgians and his soldiers, and originally for piano, but later orchestrated by the composer. Starting with a bleak enough passage, its texture is pierced by distant bugle calls, leading to La brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem.
Debussy acknowledged a continuing debt to Chopin, overtly in his two books of studies, the Douze Etudes, completed in 1915 and dedicated to the memory of Fryderyk Chopin. He had been busy with his own edition of Chopin for the publisher Durand and this not entirely congenial task he put aside to return to his own composition, after a fallow year. In a modest letter to his friend André Caplet he described the studies as not always particularly entertaining but at times ingenious. The orchestral arrangement of the three studies on this recording was made by Michael Jarrell in 1991. The second book includes the brusque Pour les notes répétées (For repeated notes), a rapid scherzando. The tenth study, Pour les sonorités opposées (For opposing sonorities), is gently evocative and the last of the studies, Pour les accords (For chords), has fuller chordal textures.
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