Thursday, 5 January 2012

A Tale of Three Sarabandes

Debussy's Pour le piano inhabits an attractive half-way house between his early works and his later fully 'impressionist' works. It has two fast, toccata-like movements (Prelude framing an elegant, atmospheric slow movement, Sarabande, which was written earlier than the other movements and which inhabits a modal world, doubtless inspired by Satie, which was about to blossom into the opera Pelleas et Melisande. The Sarabande was later orchestrated by Ravel.

Comparing the Debussy original with the colour print by Ravel, which brings the magic out best?

Well, the original has a wonderfully intimate feel to it, the sense of a composer communing with his own thoughts, savouring the sounds he is conjuring from the keys of the piano. In the main section, with all its chaste chords and modal harmonies, there is a sense of the archaic, the ritual, the mystical, of (to allude to a later Debussy piece) Greek priestesses, perhaps, dancing around statues of Apollo. The Ravel orchestration, in contrast, is almost sensationalist, bringing us bright, fleshy colours, banishing any sense of the mystical. This sensational element is symbolised by the cymbal-crash at the climax of the piece. Ravel is clearly savouring the sounds he is conjuring from the orchestra and wants us to savour them too (which I for one am more than prepared to do). The Debussy feels introverted, the Ravel extrovert. I like the way the vaguely oriental touches in the original, following the main climax, are brought out even more by Ravel though. The composer of Mother Goose could hardly fail to score well here (in both senses of the word!) As you might have guessed, I prefer the Debussy to the Ravel/Debussy and think that Ravel missed quite a bit of the spirit of the original. That said, the orchestral version is great fun and it's a happy world where we've got both!

Interestingly, the original Sarabande we know from Pour le piano isn't really the original at all - it's a revision of a movement from an earlier Debussy work, the Images oubliées. Even if you only know the familiar version  quite well you won't fail to notice, if you click on the above link, that, though must of the original 'original' was transcribed unaltered, there are some startling differences between the two versions - and they all boil down to just a handful of changed notes in a few chords - one note making the world of difference each time. All the changes made for the Pour le piano version are changes for the better, I'd say. (Do you agree?) They all simplify the particular harmony in the light of its context.

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