Francine Kay, noted for interpretations “compelling in their individuality” (Ottawa Citizen) is widely recognized as a pianist with a unique artistic voice. She has appeared as soloist with orchestras [...]
They spoke about it
I wish to sing my inner landscape with the naive candour of childhood.
? Claude Debussy
“The beginning and the end of what we write should always be cut. No introduction, no finale”, wrote Mallarmé to his friend Cazalis in April 1864. This elliptic feature of Mallarmé’s could well serve to describe the open work par excellence that is the prelude, “everlasting foreword to a discourse that shall never come” (Jankélévitch). As Mallarmé, Debussy had a taste for emptiness, absence and voids.
There are in this first book of Préludes, written in 1909 and 1910, unfathomable depths, luminous vibrations, and places of hesitant motion. The titles of the Préludes are both revealing and misleading: the Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) are rather like a motionless bas relief on which human grace and languor has been eternally preserved; Des pas sur la neige (Footprints on the snow) is more about absence then of past presence; Voiles may mean both sails and veils; Le vent dans la plaine (Wind in the plain) and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest (What the West wind has seen) are pieces in which swirls are as fluid-like as they are aerial. Even within the more dynamic preludes, such as Minstrels and La danse de Puck (Puck’s dance), there are short, contrasting moments of somewhat anxious tranquility.
As for Les collines d’Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri), of Italian inspiration, and La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade), a Spanish dance, both seem to owe as much to the rhythms as to the luminosity of the landscape of their respective “birthplaces.” At the source of these works there is more than a desire to convey an impression—although Mallarmé’s phrase, “Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces”, perhaps reveals much of their intent. Debussy’s music grew out of the composer’s encounters with poetry, but, just as the poetry of its time, it had to “think itself” and find the language that would bring it into light.
Harmonic stillness, for example, is not haphazard, but comes from such means as parallel chords (Danseuses de Delphes, La cathédrale engloutie), by a stubborn refusal to modulate—modulation being nothing other than movement in music—and to resolve what used to be considered as dissonant chords, and by adopting a modal, rather than tonal, syntax (La fille aux cheveux de lin) or the pentatonic and whole-tone scales (Voiles). All this leads to the invention of a new instrument, of a new and different piano sound. This instrument was present at the outset of the composer’s career.
It was as pianist that Debussy, from 1880 to 1882, travelled with the family of Nadejda von Meck—the same Nadejda von Meck who had long been Tchaikovsky’s patron. With the von Meck’s, Debussy went first to Interlaken, Paris, Rome, Naples, Fiesole, then, in 1881, to Russia; in 1882, it was Moscow and Podolsk, then Vienna, Paris, Vienna once again, and finally the return to France. Debussy had numerous duties: he gives piano lessons to Sonia, theory lessons to Alexander, accompanies Julia, and performs in trio with violinist Ladislas Patchoulki and cellist Peter Daniltchenko (a piano trio was composed during this time; long forgotten, it was not published until 1982).
In a letter to Tchaikovsky written in August 1882, Nadejda von Meck offers this portrait of young Claude-Achille: “Yesterday, to my greatest joy, arrived my dear Achille Debussy. Now I shall have much music; and he brings life to the entire household. A Paris gamin from head to toes, he is spiritual, and does wonderful imitations: he mimics Gounod and Ambroise Thomas in the most amusing manner.”
It is hard to say whether or not these travels had a strong impact on the young composer’s style—Debussy’s sensibility, in these early years, seem to have been nurtured more by French poetry than by Russian music: Théodore de Banville, Paul Bourget, Leconte de Lisle, Mallarmé, Baudelaire (that we rediscover, besides, in the prelude Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir) and, most of all, Verlaine. It is possible, although far from certain, that he may have heard for the first time in Russia the works of the so-called Five: Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodine, Cui, Balakirev and Mussorgsky (it should be noted that the French passion for Russian music dates from later, in the 1890s, after the Franco-Russian Alliance). There are some Slavic touches in works such as the Ballade (which was published by Choudens in 1890 under the title Ballade slave) and the Rêverie, but both, as well as the Danse (Tarentelle styrienne), also possess a tone reminiscent of works by Chabrier or Fauré, and tinges of harmonic wanderings that come from Debussy’s fondness for improvising at the piano.
Masques (Maks) and L’Isle joyeuse (The joyful island) are among the few works of Debussy’s mature period not to have been published within a collection. Both works were written in July of 1904, and premiered by Ricardo Viñes at the Société nationale (Pleyel Hall) on February 18, 1905. On the ambiguous title of Masques, Debussy said, according to Marguerite Long: “This is not Italian commoedia dell’arte, but the tragic expression of existence.” Without necessarily subscribing to Harry Halbreich’s thesis that “if L’Isle joyeuse is a reflection of the solar triumph of Claude and Emma’s love, Masques represents the oppressive tunnel that leads to it, the throes of the separation with Lily Texier”, we must admit that in Masques appears a bitterness, a fever and a violence very seldom found in his other works.
As for L’Isle joyeuse, it may well be, from strictly a pianistic point of view, Debussy’s masterwork. He was himself well aware of his achievement. On August 11, 1904, he writes to his editor Durand: “Lord ! this is so hard to play… This piece seems to me to collect together all the possible ways to touch a piano, for it joins force and grace… if I may say so.” “All the possible ways to touch a piano”: L’Isle joyeuse is thus the discovery of the new possibilities, a possible transposition of what was being realised near the same time on the orchestra with La mer. The outcome will be the wonderful Préludes.
© Alex Benjamin, 1997