Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
La fille aux cheveux de lin from Préludes I
Le vent dans la plaine from Préludes I
Chansons de Bilitis, version for flute and piano
La plus que lente
Syrinx for flute solo
Passepied from Suite bergamasque
Etude pour les arpèges composées
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Sonata for flute and piano FP 164
Cantilena: Assez lent
In 2012, we will be celebrating Debussy's 150th anniversary. The evening is a homage to his creative genius and to the cultural climate of his time. Alan Swerdlow will be reading text related to the composer, including letters from Debussy and his contemporaries, poetry, comments by contemporaries, e.g., essays, newspaper reviews, anecdotes surrounding his life and work, filled up with some music textbook history on significant developments of Debussy's biographical and artistic circumstances.
One intelligent commentator suggested that modern music began with the opening of Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune (1894). For so controversial and turbulent a change this seems a modest beginning in terms of mood, but it underlines how important Debussy was in establishing new rules and aesthetics for modern music. Once a follower of Wagner he increasingly felt it was his musical duty both to develop a musical language that went beyond the German master and an aesthetic that emphasised French qualities of ‘divertissement’, good manners and understatement. Music was not to instruct but to entertain, to amuse, to enrich life, not to change it. Yet despite itself Debussy’s oeuvre did change both life and music as each of the pieces in the programme demonstrates.
Syrinx was composed in 1913 and was intended to be part of an incidental music for the play Psyché by Gabriel Mouray which remained unfinished. Its sinuous melodic line and evocative atmosphere suggest the rather erotic Greek world from which its original title, Flûte de Pan, came.
L’isle joyeuse dates from 1904 and was intended to evoke a picture by Antoine Watteau, L’Embarquement pour Cythère (1717). Somewhere in the make-up of this glorious piano piece is the original Greek idea of Cytherea, which was an island devoted to erotic pleasure where Venus, the goddess of love, was supposed to have been born. The picture shows a number of couples in a pastoral environment tripping their way to an escape from everyday life. The music opens with an improvisatory succession of flourishes based on descending chromatic scales articulating a tritone (cf L’Après-midi). Shortly afterwards the music establishes a chromatically inflected A major, so inflected that the work’s tonality is never completely secure. Different modes, scales and the tritone perpetually challenge the supremacy of the main key. The figuration swirls and builds up to a ff climax. These dandies ambling towards their love-island are either swamped by expectation or hurtling towards destruction.
Suite bergamasque was originally conceived around 1890, but drastically revised in 1905 when it was published. The air of classical nostalgia that appears in the some of the movements, notably the ‘passepied’, was part of Debussy’s distancing himself from the Wagnerian world. However, later in his life he came to dislike this early piano style and re-named two of the movements. The ‘Passepied’, a dance from Brittany, originated as a ‘pavane’. In some ways the music evokes something of the world both of Watteau and the sensuousness of the poet from whom the titles came, Paul Verlaine. The ‘Passepied’ is in F sharp minor, and its pervasive staccato seems to suggest the formality of older times. It is both elegant and suggestive.
By the time Debussy composed his first book of Preludes his musical style had advanced a great deal. The first book was written between the end of 1909 and the beginning of 1910. It is hard not to feel some connection between the titles and the music, but Debussy was at pains to make sure the titles were after-thoughts, as each appears only as a footnote at the end of each piece. Even so, each of these delicately wrought pieces suggests a world beyond itself, through the most nuanced use of vague tonality, pentatonism and other modes. The piano-writing is novel, particularly the use of the pedal, and the textures owe little to any predecessor. La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) has a kind of medieval innocence in its evocation of an idealised female youth. Once again Debussy begins with a solo line that seem to be almost an improvised phrase out of which the rest of the music emerges. Le vent dans la plaine (The wind in the plain) is a toccata with the rapid figuration suggesting the atmospheric turbulence blowing whichever way it pleases. Rapid sextuplets prevail almost all in the same register of the keyboard. The key of the piece seems to be Gb major but this is only really stated, and just for a moment, at the loudest climax of the piece. Otherwise flux is the most audible characteristic.
In his last works Debussy seems to have withdrawn from any hint of pictorialism. Almost all of his last pieces were just called ‘sonatas’. Before these, in 1915, he composed a set of twelve Études. Each has a technical focus, but like Chopin’s etudes each is more than that. Technically, the eleventh etude, Pour les arpèges composées, is an exercise in arpeggiation like Chopin’s op.25 no.1. But in effect it rather suggests a player experimenting with each phrase without committing himself to its true destination. The result resembles obliquely an improvisation.
La plus que lente was composed shortly after the first book of Preludes in 1910. It is a waltz and was given its premiere in the New Carlton Hotel in Paris. The meaning of the title is slightly elusive. Literally it means ‘the more than slow’ and implies that it is a waltz that is slower than the waltzes Debussy was evoking. On the other hand, Debussy rather wickedly suggests that this is a waltz that can outdo all other similar waltzes. As in other pieces the almost perpetually fluctuating tempo and the use of little repeated phrases, from which the music gradually emerges, is clearly derived from the stream-of-consciousness style of improvisation.
Chansons de Bilitis was a collection published in 1894 by Pierre Louÿs of highly sensuous poetry which the author tried to pass off as a translation of newly found poems by a friend of the Greek poet Sappho. In 1897 Debussy, who was a friend of Louÿs, set three of the songs for female voice and piano. In 1901 he composed his Six Epigrahes antiques for piano duet to accompany a recitation of Louÿs’ poems. Other arrangements have appeared over the years.
Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) musical career underwent several stages. At first, just after the First World War, he was drawn away from Debussy’s suggestiveness towards more aggressive rhythms and harmonies. In this he was influenced by the aesthetics of Jean Cocteau and the new vogue for jazz and the sounds from the music-hall. But in the 1930s Poulenc had a religious conversion that drew him back to his roots. Later in life he recalled his primary influences. "...it was without doubt Debussy who awakened me to music, but it was Stravinsky who later served as my guide. On the harmonic plane I owe much to Ravel, enormously also to Satie, but more aesthetically than musically. And Chabrier is my grandfather". He confessed later that Mozart and Chopin were also key influences. Yet, Poulenc evolved his own style in which bitter-sweetness prevails. His early use of sharp dissonances became mingled with an almost overwhelming lyrical beauty. In the 1950s he decided to compose a series of duo sonatas dedicated to the memory of friends or acquaintances. Poulenc did not know Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge to whom the sonata is dedicated and whose foundation commissioned the work. But he did know the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal who gave the premiere in June 1957. The work is in three movements which are abstract musical designs, though their provocative titles, “Allegretto malincolio”, “Cantilena: Assez lent” and “Presto giocoso” all suggest some extra-musical evocations.