ENDNOTES September 2018: Commemorating Debussy

Marc Chagall, The Violinist

ENDNOTES, September 2018
Commemorating Debussy

 by Stuart Millson

Claude Debussy – often referred to as the founder of Impressionism in music – is being commemorated extensively, in the concert hall and on record, in this, the centenary of his death. Born at St. Germain-en-Laye on the 22ndAugust 1862, Debussy was described by The New Oxford Companion to Music as: “… one of the most influential figures of his generation”. He brought to life a new, spell-like style or “timbre” of music – works for orchestra, piano, the opera house, and for odd combinations of chamber instruments (a Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, for example) which combined a sensuous mysticism, with a sense of fleeting, delicate colour. And in works such as the slow movement of his String Quartet (1893) and Cello Sonata from 1915, a sense of melancholia and regret pervade his astringent sound-world.

His most famous work is, perhaps, the “three symphonic sketches”, La Mer, written between 1903 and 1905, with its famous Jeux de vagues middle-movement, in which maritime light, wave movements and sudden changes of tide and tempo create an atmosphere both exciting and almost supernatural. Yet for all of the work’s haze of colour and intoxicating feeling, Debussy himself did not see himself as the Impressionist of the orchestra. When describing his large-scale Images (brilliantly recorded, incidentally on the Naxos label some 25 years ago by the Belgian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Rahbari), Debussy stated that he was attempting “…something different, in a sense, realities.

In Images (19051912), the listener becomes aware of a traveller, or onlooker, describing a scene but converting the “realities” into a dreamscape: the everyday folk-tune, the heat of an Iberian trackway at noon, the distant chimes of the morning bell heralding the start of the festival – all churning into kaleidoscopic reveries.

Trois Nocturnes (1897-99) also inhabits this sound-world. The first movement, Nuages, is as close to a depiction of time standing still as it is possible to find: clouds move slowly across the heavens, but an overpowering sense of a nightscape that may never end, takes hold of the listener. There is a profound sense of peace in this movement and yet a nagging afterthought of something unresolved, even sinister, in the shadows and landscape. The bright lantern-lights of the second movement, Fetes, break the spell. A whirl of activity, a flow of energy (with an effortless, fluid flow to the orchestral writing, as if borrowed from sketches from La Mer) takes hold – but with a sudden (temporary) stop. From the darkness comes  the slow tread of a procession; a lone trumpet (distant, muted) begins to summon a march, and new revelry breaks out as the orchestra builds to a crescendo: the march beginning to distort and explode into light, as rushing strings threaten to overpower it all. The last movement creates a classical, mythical atmosphere, as if on a Mediterranean or Aegean shore. The title is Sirenes and the movement is a ravishing sequence for orchestra and wordless female voices – which achieves an intensity in a classic recording by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebow Orchestra, Amsterdam, on the Philips label from the early-1980s.

Yet despite the majesty and dazzling colour of his great orchestral works, it is in chamber music that you arguably find the true Debussy. On the ‘Musidisc – Richesse Classique’ label,  a budget-priced record of the Quatuour à Cordes (the four-movement String Quartet), and the two great sonatas referred to earlier in this article – for Flute, Viola and Harp, and for Cello and Piano, is one of the best interpretations of all three works. With a more jagged, quicker touch than normal in the languid, but sometimes deceptive Flute, Viola and Harp piece; and a bare-boned, ritualistic, feverish pizzicato in the String Quartet second movement, with the composer’s marking: “Assez vif and bien rythme” fully realised, the performers are Georges Tessier, first violin; Maurice Hugon, second violin; Jacques Balot, viola; and Robert Cordier, cello.

Tracking down a copy of this record would be next to impossible, but if you are seeking a brilliantly-recorded, modern CD version of the three sonatas, the Athena Ensemble on the Chandos label bring an ethereal quality to these essential pieces by one of the world’s greatest late-19th/early 20th-century composers.

A final word about the legacy of this French master-musician and innovator, from the (anonymous) writer of the sleeve-notes for the Musidisc record, issued nearly 40 years ago:

As to the three sonatas… they seem to seal an inner mystery, they constitute the musical will and testament of Debussy.

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review

Debussy, Images and other orchestral works, BRT Philharmonic Orchestra, Brussels, Alexander Rahbari, Naxos, 8.550505

Chamber music, Athena Ensemble, Chandos, 8385

String Quartet, two sonatas. Musidisc label (France) – RC 694

Trois Nocturnes etc. Bernard Haitink, conductor, Philips label, 478 4796

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