Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Classics: Roaming the landscape (and seascape!) of the imagination -- the full orchestral splendor of Debussy


Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony in the concluding "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea" from Debussy's La Mer in March 2007.

by Ken

After Friday's quick look at Debussy's world of piano miniatures, in last night's preview we left off with the full orchestral splendor of one of the staples of the orchestral repertory, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. As I noted, it's part of one of the seemingly endless stream of busted plans and projects that lined the creative career of Debussy (1862-1918), in this case what was to have been an orchestral suite inspired by Mallarmé's poem "L'après-midi d'un faune" ("Afternoon of a Faun"). As with so many of those aborted projects, however, the yield was nonetheless some extraordinary music.

(Quick faun-check: Remember, we're not talking about a fawn, such as Bambi, but a faun, the half-man, half-goat Roman woodland spirit known for its insatiable horniness.) Here's the Afternoon of a Faun again:

Alain Marion, flute; Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. EMI, recorded 1973-74

Here's another work of Debussy that was born of a plan that didn't come to fruition the way that was intended, of all things a Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra:

Jean-Marie Londeix, alto saxophone; Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. EMI, recorded 1973-74


Need to hear them again?

DEBUSSY: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)

DEBUSSY: Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra (orch. Roger-Ducasse)

Jeanne Baxtresser, flute (in the Prélude); Kenneth Radnofsky, alto saxophone (in the Rhapsody); New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, cond. Teldec, recorded live, January 1996

Probably you did better than I would have. I would have gotten this one wrong. The Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, as we established last night, is dated 1892-94; the Saxophone Rhapsody, from sometime after 1901.

Now the story of the Saxophone Rhapsody is different from Debussy's many other troubled projects. It was commissioned by an American woman, Mrs. Elise Hall, the wife of a prominent surgeon, who had been advised, rather fancifully, to take up a wind instrument in hope of saving her declining hearing. While Debussy undoubtedly took on the commission in good faith, as the story goes -- and I hope it's not apocryphal -- his enthusiasm waned as the money was spent. (He wasn't exactly rolling in francs. Musical genius pays less well than you might imagine.) He seems to have figured, what was the woman going to do, show up on his doorstep?

Which, so the story goes, is exactly what she did. And eventually, however grudgingly, the composer composed, though on one point he dug in: The commission called for an orchestral work; Debussy refused to provide more than short score, basically a glorified piano accompaniment with indications of orchestration. Eventually the job of orchestrating was turned over to his friend Jean Jules Amable Roger-Ducasse (1873-1954), usually known just as Roger-Ducasse.

Under the circumstances, it's remarkable that the Saxophone Rhapsody turned out as well as it did. It's a lovely piece in its own right, well worth the occasional hearing.

But there's another reason for interest in the Saxophone Rhapsody. It's one of the reasons that Debussy was so disinclined to write it at the time Mrs. Hall was importuning him to deliver on his (paid) commission: the music that was taking shape in his head. When it finally took shape, it would be one of the seminal masterpieces of the orchestral literature: La Mer (The Sea): Three Symphonic Sketches.

Which is one reason we've been listening to these performances by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic -- beyond the fact that they're extremely beautiful performances. The concerts at which these recordings were made were programmed by Maestro Masur to make the connection between the Saxophone Rhapsody and La Mer, as well as the one we made last night between the solo-flute "Syrinx" and the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and it made those connections in the best possible way: by letting both pairs of pieces be heard in the course of the program.


It's one thing to announce La Mer as "one of the seminal masterpieces of the orchestral literature." It's another thing to say something useful about the piece. For once -- and this is going to shock the dickens out of regular readers -- I find myself with next to nothing to say except a hearty, awed "Wouldja listen to that?"

For those with a desperate urge to read something, here is an extended essay, which comes complete with a schematic discussion of recordings of La Mer tidily grouped in three categories! I think there's a risk that the unwary reader could come away knowing less about the piece than going in, but what part of life doesn't entail some risk?
HERE'S A SAMPLE "The first [movement] begins in inchoate mystery, the second suggests lively motion, and the third conjures the interplay of powerful forces. Yet, to the frustration of those inured to the schematic literalism of the popular tone poems of the time, it's impossible to assign a specific program. Thus, the shimmering, vibrant, imposing climax of the first movement could just as easily be a stiff breeze, clouds dispersing, sun penetrating the depths, or the appearance of a great ship." (Or none of the above.) More? "Indeed, the entire work conjures moods and feelings evoked by the sea and defies classification." Moods and feelings; defies classification -- check.
I find that I have, all told, three things to say about La Mer, none of them earth-shaking or even necessarily terribly important. I'll parcel them out as we hear the individual movements in this lovely 1993 rerecording by Pierre Boulez, with the Cleveland Orchestra.

DEBUSSY: La Mer: Three Symphonic Sketches

i. "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" ("From Dawn to Noon on the Sea")

Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, cond. DG, recorded March 1993

The number three worked for Debussy, as indeed it did for many other composers. Just think of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, which we talked about recently, and the extraordinary balance I talked about among its three movements. Of course three is the standard number of movements for a concerto, or a sonata, going back to the old baroque concerto grosso and trio sonata. So there's nothing formally remarkable about Rachmaninoff's game plan: a traditional-style opening fast movement, a traditional-style slow movement, and a traditional-style "brilliant" fast-movement finale. But it gave him a scheme for energizing his creative flow in three dramatically different directions.

"Two" doesn't provide anything like this arena for variety and contrast, and "four" (the standard number of movements for a symphony or string quartet) is too many for this mode of high-res creative contrast. Debussy composed Three Nocturnes for orchestra (which we're going to hear today as a Debussy "bonus") and three Images for Orchestra (of which the outsize central one, "Ibéria" [note again that irresistible attraction to Spain felt by so many European composers], so large and commanding that it's often performed as a stand-alone work, is itself in three movementlike sections), and La Mer is made up of three "symphonic sketches."

ii. "Jeux de vagues" ("Play of the Waves" -- but see below)

Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, cond. DG, recorded March 1993

I'm not happy with the translation of the movement title, "Jeux de vagues," but unfortunately I don't know how to do better. "Play of the Waves" is how it's commonly rendered, and I'd be fine with that if the title were "Jeu des vagues." Sure, jeu could be "play," though we would normally think of it as "game," but then, it isn't jeu (singular) but jeux (plural). Moreover, just as French uses the definite article in all sorts of situations where we don't, omitting it is special, and here we've got, not the expected des vagues, which we might render as either "of the waves" or "of waves," but "de vagues," literally just "of waves." Usually in English we render such a combination as the two nouns butted up against each other, in this case something like "Waves Games," which unfortunately is near-meaningless in English. (Suggestions, anyone?)

 I make a point of this, not because Debussy's titles have specific literal meaning, but precisely because they deal primarily in suggestion, and so it's helpful to have the best possible image of what they're suggesting. Debussy's titling is itself an art form, one that would be carried to extreme, even absurd lengths by his most unfortunate emulator, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), who -- as my piano maven Leo, a native French-speaker, likes to point out -- made the titles his primary, if not only, artistic product. (Messiaen's music itself is of a monumental, punishing crapitatiousness almost without parallel for a composer with such musically respectable enthusiasts. The only challenger who pops to mind is the abominable Hans Pfitzner, 1869-1949, who has far fewer apologists, I mean defenders.)

iii. "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" ("Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea")

Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, cond. DG, recorded March 1993

In the concluding movement, "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea," the theme that eventually sweeps the piece to its conclusion, first sounded (after being hinted at insistently) at 2:49 of the Gergiev-LSO video clip, 1:28 of the Boulez audio clip, is . . . well, something else. Wouldja listen to that! Every major conductor has recorded La Mer. For further listening, I thought we would stick with the conductors who've gotten us this far: Manuel Rosenthal, Jean Martinon, and of course Kurt Masur.


i. "De l'aube à midi sur la mer"
ii. "Jeux de vagues"
iii. "Dialogue du vent et de la mer"

Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l"Opéra de Paris, Manuel Rosenthal, cond. Adès. recorded 1957-59

Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. EMI, recorded 1973-74

New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, cond. Teldec, recorded live, January 1996


DEBUSSY: Three Nocturnes

i. "Nuages" ("Clouds")
ii. "Fêtes" ("Festivals")
iii. "Sirènes" ("Sirens")

Women's Voices of the Midi-Pyrénées Chorus, Toulouse (in "Sirènes"); Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson, cond. EMI, recorded 1987-88


Friday night we focused on Debussy the miniaturist, with three favorite little pieces written originally for piano solo but subsequently arranged for every imaginable performance circumstance. Last night we focused on the flute connection, centered around "Syrinx" and the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, with a tribute to the great American flutist and flute teacher Julius Baker.


Roaming the landscape (and seascape!) of the imagination -- the full orchestral splendor of Debussy (4/18/2010)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Saxophone Rhapsody (cond. Martinon, Masur), La Mer (cond. Boulez, Rosenthal, Martinon, Masur), Three Nocturnes (cond. Plasson)
Preview 1: Debussy -- the man who heard the music in moonlight (4/16/2010)
In various arrangements as well as the piano originals: "Clair de lune," "La Fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"), and "Golligwogg's Cake-walk"
Preview 2: Debussy from "Syrinx" to Afternoon of a Faun -- or is it vice versa? (4/17/2010)
Syrinx played by Paula Robison and Jean-Pierre Rampal (videos) and Julius Baker. Afternoon of a Faun conductred by Manuel Rosenthal
Preview: Mezzo Susan Graham shares her favorite Debussy: "Clair de lune"! (2/10/2012)
Played by Aldo Ciccolini, Peter Frankl, and Walter Gieseking, plus Virgil Fox (organ), Angel Romero (guitar), and Jascha Heifetz (violin)
More "impressions of Debussy" (2/12/2012)
A bevy of pianists play the first of the Two Arabesques, "Reflets dans l'eau" from Series 1 of the Images for Piano, and the prélude "La Cathédrale engloutie"; plus the last of the three Images for Orchestra, Rondes de printemps, is conducted by Manuel Rosenthal, Jean Martinon, and Charles Munch
Preview: More Debussy -- a quick entrée into one of the truly unique pieces in the musical literature
(2/17/2012) Act I, Scene 1 of Pelléas et Mélisande conducted by Ernest Ansermet (twice), Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, and Herbert von Karajan
Still more "Impressions of Debussy" (2/19/2012)
Three performances of the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; Jeux conducted by Pierre Boulez, Manuel Rosenthal, and Jean Martinon; and an assortment of performances of the opening of the Tower Scene of Act III of Pelléas et Mélisande

SUNDAY CLASSICS POSTS The current list is here.

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At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

"Wouldja listen to that!"

Thanks Keni.

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Katherine Jenerette said...

It is not fair to mix ‘All American Hardball politics’ and the classical work of Debussy on the same Blog.

Once you get past Debussy’s most popular piece, Clair de Lune, I start to lose focus. But, my husband studied classical music from age 7 – French horn – Trumpet and then ended up in Hollywood with a rock band in the mid sixties in gigs up and down the Sunset Strip; including a 1967 gig opposite the Iron Butterfly in the Galaxy Club up the block from the Whiskey a Go-Go before he saw the light as a half starving musician and joined the Army.

Van was the lead singer with the band Silent Noise in Hollywood California who recorded with Ken Handler's Canterbury Records; group members included Dunyea West, David ‘Turtle’ Holloway, Russ Haney, Peter Serrano, and Lou 'Looch' Hyland.

I just wanted you to know that the classics are a welcome break from the all too intentional blood-bath of American politics. – best to you and Howie!


At 6:38 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

This is why we're crazy about you, Katherine, in spite of the . . . well, you know!

This is such a sweet and lovely comment, I can only thank you for stopping by.


At 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had always thought the Art of Noise had made up the character of Claude Debussy for their album.

I'll have to investigate him now!

At 4:10 AM, Anonymous Dr. Steven Porter said...

One of the great contributions of Debussy and Ravel was there sense of orchestration, particularly the way in which individual instruments were hilighted and the way in which unusual combinations of instruments led to stunning effects. The muted trumpets and harp in Fete is one of many examples. Thank you again for bringing classical music to the fore.

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Earthling said...

I find listening to Debussy (one of my very favourite composers) actually requires a lot of concentration-- simply because it is so easy to get lost in the lushness of sound-- but once you get past that, there is so much richness in not only harmony, but melody and, yes, even rhythm.

La Mer, in particular, I've had a hard time finding my way in. Boulez' '93 recording on DG I find to be the strongest in bringing out all the textures. Absolutely exhilarating!

I think people forget just how radical Debussy really was. He often used triad-based chords, but the difference is that these chords (like the dominant seventh) no longer had a specific function-- the sounds were appreciated AS sounds, not for there purposes in music theory. The result is beautiful beyond words.

"Some people wish above all to conform to the rules, I wish only to render what I can hear. There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law." ~ Claude Debussy


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