Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Debussy - The Orchestral Works (I)

I think it's time to do a couple of pieces on the orchestral music of Claude Debussy, given the wonders contained therein. The second post will deal with with the less familiar pieces, while this one will concentrate on the well-known masterpieces. 

In his orchestral pieces Debussy's dream-like, lyrical muse most came alive most vividly. 

Let's start in 1894...

Debussy's adorable tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ('Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun') has called forth such words as "revolutionary" and "subversive" and Pierre Boulez called its première the moment of modern music's birth. To our 21st century ears, accustomed to so much challenging modernist and avant-garde music, this kind of description seems surprising. The Prélude comes across as a piece of pastoral mood painting not unlike the orchestral miniatures of Delius, exquisitely refined in scoring, warmly romantic at times, melodically winning and very, very beautiful. What the commentators mean though is that the work marked the point when 'Colour' was liberated - the moment when the sounds of the piece became ideas in themselves, worth savouring in their own right. 'Mosaic-like' music followed. Though I can see some truth in this, especially when projected onto Debussy's later works, this is surely an exaggeration. Colour is not wholly, mostly or even significantly independent. We hear it as serving mood, melody, harmony and structure. Yes, we relish its individual manifestations, but we also do that with Handel, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky (etc). Neither does the piece sound mosaic-like. It flows naturally, its themes and motifs moving like in a symphonic poem. 

The fourfold flowering of the flute's fragrant opening melody, answered by harp and horns, is as enchanting an introduction as anyone could hope for. The second comes amid a magical haze of string tremolos and the fourth is gently tickled by the harp. The theme seems to breathe. A clarinet briefly clouds the blue, lazy sky amidst shivers, but the oboe's lovely new tune dispels it and a gorgeous ardent climax is built. Ebbing with considerable beauty, the music sings on with another heavenly melody, growing ever lusher as it proceeds. The melody from the opening then returns and flowers again amidst new colours - most magically antique cymbals. Flutes then sing the piece to sleep, softly. 

The piece was inspired by a poem by the great symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy was only concerned to give a general impression of its vision of dreams and desires in the heat of an afternoon. He succeeded. 

The Three Nocturnes of 1899 were described by their composer in this way:
"The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. 'Nuages' renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. 'Fêtes' gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision), which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged in it. But the background remains resistantly the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. 'Sirènes' depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on." 
The spellbinding Nuages, an urban nocturne, begins with a floating alternation of fifths and thirds on woodwinds - the movement's germinating idea. Out of it comes a series of processing chords - clouds - composed of rich and entirely characteristic harmonies. These pass to the strings and then return to the woodwinds. Occasionally high violins suggest a glimpse of the bright universe through the gaps. A human-sounding note is struck by the cor anglais's questioning refrain. A lovely melody - moonlight! - enters with a pentatonic theme, first heard on flute and harp then on string trio. (It recalls the String Quartet, I think). This warm music ends magically before the cool cloud music and the plaintive human-sounding music return, dissolving into fragments and dying away. 

Debussy as the master of exciting motion and bright colours comes to the fore in Fêtes, the superb central nocturne. Carnival spirits are expressed through lively rhythms and a vivacious tune that moves like a ribbon in the wind. These dominate the movement's outer sections. This wonderful music, as vivid as the Shrovetide Fair music in Stravinsky's Petrushka, pauses as a parade approaches. We hear a march rhythm on harps, timpani and pizzicato strings. This thrilling passage climaxes with the entry of the side drums and the fantastic counterpointing of the march theme with the carnival theme. As the movement closes, drying away in fragments, the march is briefly recalled, as if blown in on the wind from the distance - a magical aural illusion. 

Sirènes is a seascape that uses all the impressionist tricks of the trade to conjure up the sea before our ears. It uses a wordless female chorus of eight sopranos and eight altos as extra colour and, excepting the Borodin-like phrase introduced by the cor anglais, derives its melodic profile from the interval of the second - whether rising or falling, or as a stepwise extension. The Russian input into Debussy's style is most strongly felt here.

'Three Symphonic Sketches' is Debussy's subtitle for La mer of 1905 - his orchestral masterpiece - and you can hear why. Though wonderful seascapes, evoking waves and ships and vast expanses, there's a weight to the work as a whole, plus certain structural principles in operation throughout, that call for the epithet 'symphonic'.

De l'aube à midi sur la mer ('From dawn to noon at sea') has a beautiful atmospheric slow introduction, with a pentatonic sunrise which also serves to introduce two themes that will be brought back in the work's finale - an intertwining of seconds on woodwinds and a trumpet theme (introduced over low string tremolos). Cyclical procedures, no less! (Mendelssohn, Schumann and the Russian symphonists would have approved!) The main Moderato bursts in, like sudden moonlight, with rippling strings, a new pentatonic woodwind figure, and glinting harps, over which magical surface sails a majestic horn theme. We are on a prosperous voyage! A gorgeous passage follows, symphonic exposition-like in its momentum, its stopping off for a more feminine 'second subject' (recognisable by its use of solo violin) and in its thematic working-out - though it remains a highly personal type of working-out. The crest of the movement comes when the horn theme returns amidst vigorous new figuration - an absolutely thrilling passage. A new theme on cello and horns marked by dotted rhythms enters as we embark on a sort of development section - a magical section in which the wonders of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture are re-born for new times. Earlier material is recalled and a lovely lament, complete with whole tone passages, leads to a truly majestic climax - a chorale for horns and bassoons, also set to return in the 'finale', suggesting the awesome nature of the sea.

Were La mer a symphony then the central Jeux de vagues ('Play of the waves') would be its scherzo. The movement's character may, denuded of metaphor, be described as the play (at speed) or a set of brief but distinct themes as well as a play of orchestral colours. Both aspects go together. Thus the significant arabesque-like clarinet theme comes coloured by glockenspiel then, when transferred to oboe, appears brushed by harp and tremolo strings. Harp glissandi are another colour but also a tiny motif in their own right. The movement is an astonishing and delightful sound-fantasy but, like the first movement, retains vestiges of scherzo form, with an exciting climax and a coda to put Rimsky-Korsakov to shame!

The final movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer ('Dialogue of the wind and the sea'), shows the sea's power, its turbulent energy and its majesty - and shows Debussy's music to be capable of these themes as well. Though much of its material first grew in the opening movement, it has its own great theme (representing the wind), introduced by woodwinds against a fast, rising chromatic scale fragment (ostinato) on low strings. The chorale theme from the close of the first movement is a key player here. After the initial storm has blown itself out, it enters softly on horns, answered by gorgeous arpeggiated violins, then returns in glory to crown La mer's closing pages. 

Glorious, isn't it?

1905-1912 saw our composer working on his three Images for orchestra. You rarely hear them performed as a set and, to be honest, they are best appreciated on their own terms.

The opening bars of Gigues, an evocation of English landscapes, with their string harmonics, harp glissandi, flute phrases and soft-held horn chords suggest a vision of England not unlike those of our own rhapsodists (Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, etc), but hear the chink of the celesta and, even more, the whole-tone harmony and you'll know that only Debussy could conjure such beauty. These bars give us fragments of the folk-dance The Keel Row

Fragments are all we will ever hear. This thematic idea soon meets the second main theme - a melancholy folktune-like melody introduced by oboe d'amore. Beauty and melancholy are characteristic moods of so many English scenes, but what about darkness and grotesquery? Debussy brings these elements in too. I love the modal flavouring of the oboe theme and some ravishing harmonies are heard connecting some of the darkest pages. The build-up to the final climax, over a drummed ostinato bass, is driven by a xylophone, and its string-rich climax eventually dissolves in disconsolately-tumbling woodwinds. The closing passages is melancholy and fragmentary.

Though La mer is Debussy's orchestral masterpiece Ibéria - the central Image - runs it a close second and is, in fact, its equal in my affections. 'Sheer genius' is the only way to describe this piece. The sheer inventiveness of its use of orchestral colour is beyond compare.

Par les rues et par les chemins ('In the streets and by-ways')begins with a bang but ends in nocturnal lightness. It's a sparkling movement, very Spanish-sounding, with castanets, Latin rhythms and modal tunes (all Debussy's own inventions, not folk songs). Themes and rhythms entwine in joyously-dancing polyphony. You find pleasure and interest in every bar. The four-note opening of the first clarinet theme is the movement's main thematic engine, but also listen out for the sultry theme for viola and oboe - and the just-as-lovely melody that follows it in the mysterious section prior to the central march. This march has its own  theme, immediately gathered up into the continually evolving polyphony, but also feels like a development section. Its central flowering and brassy follow-up are especially great moments. 

Les parfums de la nuit ('The fragrance of the night') is an exquisitely-scored nocturne of sultry character. The string pedal at the opening is pure atmosphere à la Borodin but the tiny touches of magic that accompany the shy oboe theme that moves across it is beyond Borodin's wildest dreams. A lovely Spanish-style theme for strings is greeted by a new, quiet tune for oboe. The movement may be term 'understated' overall but the romantic surge of strings midway is deliciously Hollywoody at times - and tunefulness sweeps us on. The coda is muted and poetic and leads us (with bells) straight into...

...the finale, Le matin d'un jour de fête ('The morning of the festival day'), a joy-making movement full of festive sounds and vivid rhythms - and, at times, a prophecy of Copland. Tunes come and go amidst the brightest colours. One fabulous section gets the strings to strum like a huge guitar, with bells providing magical stresses (before yielding to castanets). Solos, most notably from the clarinet and violin, are incidents in an incident-packed movement - and the ending is uproarious!

The most complex and elusive of the orchestral Images is the third, Rondes de Printemps. It is also the most radical. It wasn't just the title, when I first heard it, that made me think of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This thought have pedigree and this movement may very well have been a direct influence on Stravinsky's revolutionary masterpiece.

Like Gigues, the ever-fascinating Rondes de Printemps uses a folk song - Nous n'irons plus au bois - but fragments it and re-shapes it without giving us it neat - until the climax that is. It begins in an atmospheric haze, with fragmentary woodwind phrases building by degrees to delightful, dancing (5-pulse) main theme which with the folk song and a passionate falling figure provides the chief material for the work (though, of course, there's much more besides). As you would expect the scoring is splendid and only adds to the music's richness. After the climax, when the folk song is sung in long notes, it does so surrounded by harp, celesta and dancing strings, bringing joy. Tremolos and trills from the strings pervade the score, giving it a fluttering quality. The woodwinds are the work's singing birds.

Jeux is Debussy's most radical score and, though it has none of the revolutionary ferocity of Stravinsky and Schoenberg's contemporary masterpieces, its Cinderella status with the general public (and its special appeal to the likes of Pierre Boulez) provides testimony for its 'difference' from the more familiar and somewhat more traditional works. It dates from 1912. 

Listeners will note that they are not finding many recognisable milestones as they listen to the piece - no immutable melodic phrases, no persistent rhythms. Everything seems to be always changing. Any echoes are only part-echoes. Motifs comes and go, registering in and then immediately checking out. Now Debussy is indeed a maker of musical mosaics. He still sounds like himself (as it were), but a tightened-up self, a pared-down self, a stringer-together of glittering diamonds. His Romantic side is not indulged in Jeux. 

All this said, Debussy's free stream-of-consciousness structure and style doesn't stop Jeux from flowing seamlessly and the listener, whose duty is to surrender to the music, will find pleasure in its extraordinary inventiveness and vitality. 

The work's most memorable landmark is its framing series of chords (which remind many people of Dukas). These woodwind sequences are whole-tone in nature - and a magical idea. Much of Jeux may be called 'scherzo-like' and, as music to dance to, is clearly ruled by gesture and step. Beauty is present throughout, such as in the lovely string writing and enchanting woodwind writing which greets the entry of the girls, with harp and percussion adding their colours too. 

Jeux will continue to keep winning itself new friends but - a prediction! - it will never become popular. It's just not that sort of piece.

As for the smaller, lesser-known pieces...well, they will have to way for another day. 

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