Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes (Last Update 08/05/2006)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

[Bullet6] Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (1915)

[Bullet6] String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1893)

[Bullet6] Sonata No. 2 for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915)


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Sonata No. 2 for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915)

Claude lookin' modThis sonata was one of a series of six instrumental sonatas which Debussy projected. At the time of his death only three were completed - one for cello and piano, one for violin and piano and the sonata to be performed today. It is poignant that Durand, Debussy’s publisher, retained the composer’s title "Six Sonatas for Diverse Instruments" on the printed score and in advertisements for his works even though only three sonatas exist.

These last works of Debussy were composed with great difficulty under the combined duress of the first World War and the cancer that was killing him. Debussy was greatly depressed by the fact that his age and health prevented him from serving in the French army. For quite a while he was unable to compose at all. Sadly, he began to see composition as the only act of patriotism of which he was capable. These works would be an affirmation of French culture. "I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small it may be, that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought." These works were inspired by the grace, clarity and restraint of the 18th century French composers Rameau and Couperin. Indeed, he signed each of these works "Claude Debussy, musicien Francais."

The mood of the second sonata was described by the composer as "terribly melancholy - should one laugh or cry? Perhaps both at the same time." It was dedicated to his daughter, Claude-Emma, and premiered at a concert of the Societe Musicale Independante on April 21, 1917.

Although the sonatas are now considered masterworks and staples of the chamber music repertoire, they were not well-received, particularly in the decade following Debussy’s death. They were viewed as an indication of diminished creative capacity - the very fact that Debussy, the anti-academic, anti-formalist, father of musical "impressionism" was writing in the sonata form was taken to be an indication that his muse had departed. However, along with the other works of his final years, the Etudes for piano and En Blanc et Noir for two pianos, the sonatas reveal new growth and innovation rather than exhaustion and death.

1992-93 Season, Program V, Saturday April 24, 1993

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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1893)

The age of the aeroplane has a right to its own music

Claude Debussy

[The age of the aeroplane did get its own music, but I doubt its what Debussy had in mind. J.W.]

I met Debussy at the Cafe Riche the other night and was struck by the unique ugliness of the man. His face is flat, the top of his head is flat, his eyes are prominent, the expression veiled and somber and, altogether, with his long hair, unkept beard, uncouth clothing and soft hat, he looked more like a Bohemian, a Croat, a Hun, than a Gaul. His high, prominent cheek bones lend a Mongolian aspect to his face. The head is brachycephalic, the hair black...Richard Strauss via the music of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz has set the pace for the cacophanists. Since his Don Quixote there has been nothing new devised -outside of China- to split the ears of diatonic lovers...Remy de Gourmont has written of the "dissociation of ideas". Debussy puts the theory into practice, for in his peculiar idiom there seems to be no normal sequence...The form itself is decomposed. Tonalities are vague, even violently unnatural to unaccustomed ears...If the Western world ever adopted Eastern tonalities, Claude Debussy would be the one composer who would manage its system, with its quarter-tones and split quarters. Again I see his curious asymmetrical face, the pointed fawn ears, the projecting cheek bones- the man is a wraith from the East; his music was heard long ago in the hill temples of Borneo; was made as a symphony to welcome the head-hunters with their ghastly spoils of war.

(James Gibbons Huneker,New York Sun, July 19,1903)

from The Lexicon of Musical Invective by Nicholas Slonimsky

Along with L’Apres-midi d’un faun, composed at the end of the previous year, the Quartet in G minor marked the birth of the so-called "Impressionist" style of music created by the 21 year old Debussy. As with the birth of Venus, this voluptuous music was born fully mature. It should be noted that initially, the term "Impressionist" in music was meant as a term of derision by hostile critics. "Rhythm, melody, tonality, these are three things unknown to Monsieur Debussy and deliberately disdained by him. His music is vague, floating ,without color and without shape, without movement and without life. What a pretty series of false relations! What adorable progressions of triads in parallel motion, and fifths and octaves which result from it! What a collection of dissonances, sevenths and ninths, ascending with energy, even disjunct intervals! No, decidedly, I will never agree with these anarchists of music!" Arthur Pougin, in Le Menestrel , Paris, May 4,1902.

Debussy embraced the term, and produced musical landscapes and seascapes, music redolent of nature and mystery. However, his music was probably influenced even more by the English Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, as well as the poets and painters associated with the French Symbolist movement. Indeed L’Apres-midi d’un faune, was inspired by the erotic poem by Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, a meditation on the nature of Dream and Reality through the daydreaming of a faun (a creature half-man, half goat; not to be confused with a "fawn" of the Bambi variety) about his sexual encounter with two young nymphs, on a lazy afternoon in Arcadia-not Arkansas. Having strayed this far afield already, here’s another somewhat irrelevant quote from an essay on Debussy by the influential critic Paul Rosenfeld, found in his book, published in 1920. and entitled Musical Portraits - Interpretations of Twenty Modern Composers. (Readers of past program notes may recall that it was Rosenfeld who referred to Max Reger as "a swollen,myopic beetle with thick lips.")

Anyway, here goes..."And in his art the gods of classical antiquity live again. Debussy is much more than merely the sensuous Frenchman. He is the man in whom the old Pagan voluptuousness, the old untroubled delight in the body, warred against so long by the black brood of monks and transformed by them during centuries into demonical and hellish forms, is free and pure and sweet once more. They once were nymphs and naiads and goddesses, the "Quartet" and "L’Apres-midi d’un faune" and "Sirenes". They once wandered through the glades of Ionia and Sicily, and gladdened men with the thought of "the breast of the nymph in the brake." For they are full of the wonder and sweetness of the flesh, of flesh tasted deliciously and enjoyed not in closed rooms, behind secret doors and under the shameful pall of night, but out in the warm, sunny open, amid grasses and scents and the buzzing of insects, the waving of branches, the wandering of clouds. The Quartet is alive, quivering with light, and with joyous animality. It moves like a young fawn; [this time it is the Bambi variety!] spins the gayest, most silken, most golden of spider webs; fills one with the delights of taste and smell and sight and touch..."And on it goes for another four pages.

Now, from the critics, both detractors and supporters, to the words of a fellow composer, Paul Dukas; "Debussy’s Quartet bears the definite stamp of his manner. Everything is clear and concisely drawn, although the form is exceedingly free. The melodic essence of the work is concentrated, but of rich flavor. It impregnates the harmonic tissue with a deep, original poetic quality. The harmony itself, although greatly daring, is never rough or hard. Debussy takes particular delight in successions of rich chords that are dissonant without being crude, and more harmonious in their complexity than any consonances could be; over them his melody proceeds as on a sumptuous, skillfully designed carpet of strange coloring that contains no violent or discordant tints".

Far from being vague or formless, this work is a marvel of construction. The entire work is based on the opening motto which appears in different guises in each of the four movements. For instance, this opening theme of the first movement, speeded up, becomes the ostinato or repeated figure of the second movement. A three note figure from this same opening is used to build to a climax in the central section of the third movement. And with the fourth movement, the motto returns in its more familiar aspect. This work seems to give up its Impressionist color less easily than does Debussy’s lush orchestral music or even the Piano music, despite the varied tonal effects used in the piece. Perhaps this aspect of the music looks forward toward his late masterworks, the three instrumental Sonatas.

The Quartet was dedicated to the Ysaye Quartet which gave the premier performance on December 29, 1893 in Paris.

1997-98 Season, Program III, Sunday February 1, 1997

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Claude-Achille Debussy (1862 – 1918)

Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (1915)

The Cello Sonata was the first of a group of six projected sonatas for various instrumental combinations. As it turned out, Debussy was able to compose only three of the works before dying of the colon cancer that made his final years a misery - misery intensified by depression at the carnage being suffered by his countrymen in the World War then raging. The other two completed works were the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp and his final work the Sonata for Violin and Piano (both works have been programmed in Sierra Chamber Society concerts in past seasons). One can only lament the fact that he was unable to complete the proposed series which it is said would have included a Sonata for oboe, horn and harpsichord, and one for clarinet, trumpet, bassoon and piano. After his death, the common belief was that Debussy’s late works were the products of flagging inspiration, and a reliance on atrophied mannerisms. His choice of sonatas was an indication that his own experimentalism had reached a dead end. To be honest, he did produce a few clunkers during his final years; the ballets Khamma and The Toy Box, and one might also include The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. That being said, those same years saw the composition of his late masterworks; the ballet Jeux, En Blanc et Noir for two pianos, the Etudes for piano, and these sonatas. In some of these works he remained the revolutionary, without sacrificing his love of elegance. Had he lived, one doubts that he would have been enchanted by the embracing of popular culture and banality of Les Six – though he did live long enough to be horrified yet fascinated by a private preview of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring performed on two pianos. His ballet Jeux, became an inspiration for the post-World War II avant–garde composers such as Pierre Boulez, who championed the work in his capacity as a conductor.

The Cello Sonata evokes the 18th century, but an 18th century that existed only in the poems of Verlaine and the paintngs of Watteau. It is said that the Cello Sonata was originally to be titled "Pierrot fâché avec la lune" Pierrot angry with the moon. (The Pierrot in question is not the quirky little billionaire from Texas, but a French Pantomime character; a sad, love-sick clown with white face and white floppy clothes. Pierrot makes an appearance in Schumann’s Carnaval, as well as being the subject of Schoenberg’s eerie expressionist song cycle Pierrot Lunaire [Moonstruck Pierrot], actually written a few years before Debussy’s Cello Sonata. And finally for you film buffs, Jean-Louis Barrault plays the mime Duberau who portrays Pierrot in the classic 1946 film Les Enfants du Paradis -The Children of Paradise). This brief work is marked by the clarity and concision one has come to expect from French composers from Rameau and Couperin to Debussy and Ravel. A sonata it is, but modeled on the Baroque sonata, rather than the complex, large-scale works of say, Beethoven and Schubert. The overall mood; sad, yet ironic. The second movement framed by a prologue and finale Serenade is particularly striking in the use of the cello to suggest a guitar or lute being strummed and plucked; Pierrot serenading the moon. I’ve written enough; you’ve read enough. Ma chandelle e mort…

The Cello Sonata as well as the other two sonatas were dedicated to the composer’s daughter Emma Claude-Debussy.

2000-2001 Season, Program I, Sunday October 29, 2000

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All original text on this page copyright 1997 by Joseph Way