Debussy: The Orchestral Works

September 28, 2012

After Pelléas, followers of Debussy were hoping the composer to maintain the same consistent style. But they were disappointed. Debussy was a composer who always tried something new and kept his style changing and evolving. This period, after Pelléas and before the WWI, was out that Debussy went further back to the past for tradition (especially the French tradition), while at the same time created innovation within it. The following discussion focuses primarily on two orchestral works and one incidental music to further illustrate the point above.

La Mer (1905) is a large coherent symphonic work of three movements, three symphonic sketches. Debussy used to call it as “My Symphony”. The first movement (L’aubre à midi sur la mer) starts with gamelan-like sound. Instead of building up a theme and tonality, it simply flows along with long smooth line. There is the use of pentatonic scale. The second movement (Jeux du Vagues) describes the playing of waves in the capricious winds. It has a recollection of first movement’s thematic material, which represents wave-like pattern. The third movement (Dialogue du vent et la mer) suggests the wilder sea Which almost has a human personifcation, with very dramatic moments.

The sea is always a favorite topic for Debussy. He told his friends in 1903 that, he always wanted to have a sailor’s life. He also had experience going on cruise when he was a child and later with his friends. This piece La Mer has the recollection of these memories. Furthermore, it was probably inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner (Debussy saw the paintings in London before) that presents the mysterious aspects of the sea, and the prints of Japanese printmaker Hokansai, one of which is the famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” that shows a wave with the height equal to that of the Mount Fuji (which is the background of the print) and with a boat of men inside, presenting a life-threatening aspect of the sea. This print was used by the composer as the cover of the original score of La Mer.

The symphonic piece is in the way traditional and in the other innovative. The symphonic style of the Schola Cantorum promoted was one that carried “message” and “morality”, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which presented morale and humanity. There were also strict forms and structures that the Schola Cantorum strongly suggested, and certainly that the leaders d’Indy and Franck practiced faithfully. La Mer is not like that: it simply evokes the different aspects of view of the sea, like a painting from different angles of view. However it does have some traditional procedure: like the traditional symphonies, each movement of it is unified with some sort of materials, and the three movements are unified as a whole in a cycle, with the recollection of ideas from previous movements. Certainly, the orchestration, combination of instruments and timbre, with the novel kind of harmonic languages are something that only belong to the “Debussy” style in an innovative way.

Image pour orchestre (1908-1912) is a “double” triptych: there are three pieces (Gigue, Iberia and Rondes de Printemps), and within Iberia there are three parts connected without break. Here international folkloric elements are used: Gigue with English folk music, Iberia with Spanish dance, and Printemps, French songs.

Gigue presents a very simple and direct emotion with nolstagia and humor. It probably has the recollection of the composer’s memory about England’s trip at early age. The piece has however subtle harmony and detailed orchestration. The oboe d’amore with woodwinds divided into four groups are featured. The oboe actually presents a solo melody with a sense of playfulness and nolstagia.

Iberia has three parts: the first part presents a “sevilliana” rhythm, with tambourine and castanet featured. The second part goes into the nightlife of Spain, presenting a habanera rhythm, with exciting moments, and certainly the featured percussions before clearly suggest the dance atmosphere here again. The third part then comes to a festive day with march like rhythm, with even more dramatic moments. The whole piece is a set of spanish dance music which probably is influenced by Albeniz, whose “Iberia” was written before and Debussy would be quite familiar with because he wrote an article of criticism about it.

Rondes de Printemps has the use of French folk songs and lullaby (“do, do, l’enfant do”). This piece has more subtle gesture and musical elements. Strings are used as background only to feature the solo horn which plays the melody. Like “Gigue”, this piece is seldomly performed.

In this “Image”, Debussy tried to present traditional elements in the choice of dance forms (gigue is an old Baroque dance form and above d’amore is an Baroque instrument), folk elements and the general form as a whole (triptych as in a symphony). However, he combined these with new timbre (especially the percussion), new dance rhythm (habanera and sevilliana) and a combination of musical elements from different countries.

Le Martyre de Saint Sebestien (1911) is an incidental music for the presentation of poem by Gabriel d’Annunzin (Italian poet and nationalist) with choreography danced by Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein (who commissioned for the music). The story is quasi-religious, with a sense of homo-erotic element (Saint Sebestein was not known if it is a she/he).

The music is in five parts, within which are these orchestral prelude/introduction, with an interlude between fourth and fifth parts. It has choir, contraltos, and sopranos in addition to the use of orchestra. The first performance encountered some problem as it was to be performed in a church but the Archibishop protested that and asked Catholic to stay away from the performance. The reason
was that Ida Rubinstein who performed as the Saint was a Jewish. Also, only d’Annunzio was Catholic while Debussy was not. However Debussy stated that the music presented Christian heroicism and was religious. Eventually, it was performed but not well received as there was argument between the conductor and manager and Rubinstein was not a very good dancer. Although the story was sexually suggestive, the composer used the modes (especially Gregorian modes) and the music was in Renaissance style, similar to Palestrina style, with polyphony and sometimes even tonal sections, in order to deliver a sense of distant past and religious feeling.

From the above discussion, we can see how Debussy evolved his style after Pelléas and before WWI. He wanted to try something new by using materials from the French tradition and distant past while the same time invent something innovative within it. He already established here a truly “Debussy” style and was going to evolve further to his even later style in his last year.

Teresa Wong

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