Tag: Debussy德布西

More DipABRSM Viva Voce Questions

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Thank you reader Alicia for her provision of the following questions from her recent DipABRSM exam. I really appreciate her input in this. As she mentioned that she learnt quite a lot from my site for her preparation of the exam and sent me an email with such useful information below, I hope you all find this equally useful and would in return send me what you got in your exams! Let’s share and help each other out here!


1. Debussy – La Plus que Lente
You mentioned in your program notes that Debussy was influenced by Javanese Gamelan & French Symbolist Movements. Can you explain how did these Javanese Gamelan & French Symbolist Movements influence Debussy?
What does “en serrant” mean? (it’s a tempo marking indicated in the music score which means gradually getting quicker)

2. Chopin – Nocturne Op. 62 No. 2
You mentioned in your program notes that this nocturne was not very much appreciated by the public by the time it was published. Can you explain why?
Do you notice any canon pattern in this nocturne?

3. Beethoven – Piano Sonata Op. 13 (Pathetique Sonata)
How do you interpret a piece of music?
Was the piano of Beethoven’s time similar to modern piano?
Can you point out the sections of the 1st movement? (basically is pointing out which are the introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation) What key is the recapitulation 2nd subject?
In the 2nd movement, which part of it is in dissonant harmony? (as mentioned in the program notes)

Other questions:
What were your considerations for choosing your program?
Is there any burning issues that you would like to ask about?


Teresa Wong

To read more:
ABRSM Diplomas: Written Submissions
DipABRSM: Examples of Viva-Voce Questions
Viva Voce: What it is & how to prepare for it (II)
Viva Voce: What It Is & How To Prepare For It (I)

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

Debussy: The Transitive Years

September 22, 2012

During the late 19th century, the influence of Wagner was immense in France. Since his music was banned in France at that time, many French composers took the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to enjoy Wagnerian opera performance there. Debussy was no exception. He went to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889, with the first time deeply touched by Wagner’s music, and the second time finding that Wagner’s music is the end of the older tradition rather than the beginning of new style. The year of the second pilgrimage was also the very same year in which he went to the Universal Exhibition and saw the live performance of Javanese gamelan ensemble, and was deeply influenced by its music since then. He also became aware of the music of the past, especially the French operatic tradition, and was greatly involved in the Symbolist movement.

The “Le Balcon” of Cinq Poems de Baudelaire (1887-9) shows the most Wagnerian-Debussy style: the harmony is luxuriously presented in the piano part which is like an orchestral reduction with thick texture and chromaticism, the voice has a dramatic melody, very operatic and has a wide range, and is full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic declamation. This set of five songs has the poems by Baudelaire, who was one of the main Symbolist poets. The “Mon pleure dans coeur” is composed of traditional lines. Here the words are placed to suggest subtle meaning, e.g. the falling of “rain” (“pluie”) implies the tears (pleure) falling down too; and the poet used the sound of the words to give musical resonance, like “pleure” and “coeur”. The “Le Balcon” is avery erotic poem, with twelve traditional lines. It also has the same symbolic effect, with musical treatment of words and subtle suggestive meaning.

The Javanese gamelan ensemble’s live performance definitely gave a tremendous influence on Debussy’s music. The ensemble is of big size, with typically percussion instruments (mallet-type), two-string rebab (played like lute), flute, gongs, and drums (with dancers only). The music is free of metrical rhythmic sense, with free flowing movement, circularity and fluidity. It has a sense of being static as it focuses on vertical movement instead of linear movement. In Suite Bergamasque (1890)on, one can see the musical sense applied from gamelan music, being moving and circular, and concentrating on vertical moment. In String Quartet (1893), the influence of gamelan music is most prominent in the second movement. It has the main features of gamelan music: the fixed melody (2-bar pattern) is played by cello (bowed) with other instruments playing pizzicato around it in terms of various elaboration, like augmentation and diminution. This resembles the gamelan music that has a fixed melody by string instrument surrounded by other instruments in variation, in an improvisatory way.

These two pieces discussed above also show the influence by the music of the past. The Suite Bergamasque has four pieces: the second and fourth are dance pieces (minuet and passapied) and both are French Baroque dance. The third piece “Clair de Lune” replaces here the sarabande, and all these are led by the “Prelude” as the opening piece, resembling the 17th century French clavecinist pieces. The String Quartet has a cyclic form of Franckian style other than gamelan music gesture. It was named “Op.10”, the only opus number Debuss had ever given to any piece and it was written for the Societé Nationale. It has the traditional title (“String Quartet”) and form in terms of movements, yet it is definitely innovative.

The Symbolist Movement was popular among the French elite group and especially the literary figure. This was originally a literary movement, being especially prominent in poetry and novels. The leader of the movement, Mallarmé, invited Debussy to join his Tuesday evening meeting since he got back from Rome for his Prix de Rome. And Debussy since then regarded himself as one of the circle members.

The Prelude á l’Apres midi d’un faune (1894) is based on the poem by Mallarmé. Originally he planned to write three parts: Prelude, Interlude, and Finale. Then he changed to write only one whole piece, following the rise and fall of the poem. The poem is about an ancient Greek myth, with the mythological figure faun, sleeping and awakening in the mid-afternoon, and dreaming about the nymph, being in a state between awakening and dreaming. This is a very symbolic poem, as it is all about the state between dreaming and reality, the inner state of feeling and mind, the subtlety and implication of meaning in several layers, and ambiguity and uncertainty. As a word has different meaning, a chord in music gives ambiguity to the harmony. Indeed, the tonality here is weakened and whole tone scale is used. The chords follow the progression of the melody instead of vice versa. Melody here has a primarily AA’BA form. The music does not have any climax or ending, as Debussy tried hard to avoid. It has a sense of circularity and fluidity, without forward movement. In fact, it focuses on vertical movement and has a lot of static moments. This also suggests the deep influence by gamelan musical style.

“Nocturnes” (1898-9) is a set of three pieces- three tableaux with similar materials and motive. It is the first piece without a coherent program or external inspiration of any kind since the “Prelude”. It is naturally a symbolist, and also naturalist piece. The first piece, “Nuages” has a very sparse texture. The opening suggests the wide distance by sparsely-structured orchestration. There are two-part counterpoint and double octaves, also to give a sense of distance and ambiguity. The English horn is prominent here to suggest the image of the “bateau monocles”. “Fêtes” has an interesting momentum with exciting moments yet not dramatic. It resembles the festival music probably heard by the composer in his childhood. It is overtly very descriptive in terms of symbolism by the orchestration and use of motivic materials. “Sirenes” has a two-note motive with a tone apart. It has a wordless chorus and movement of freedom in metrical and rhythmic sense. In fact, it is very symbolist as the motive is used to suggest the sirens and the waves. The chorus gives an ambiguous atmosphere in the background.

Perhaps the most symbolic of all works around this time is “the Pelleás et Melisande” (1902). It was actually written in 1895 as the first version, yet Debussy rejected it as it sounded too “Wagnerian”. The “new” version has a libretto of a play by Maeteslinck, another important symbolist figures. The story is medieval, and the characters are actually very “mobile”, without own will and follow the fate as it goes along. Only active character is Goland, Pelleas’ brother, but his action was left to no avail. The opera is in five acts, with each scene having its own distinctive group of motives. The use of leitmotive can be found, but it is different from Wagnerian one. Here it is used to give information, but not associated with the characters all the time as they are on stage. Motives are rearranged and juxtaposed together, as influenced by Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”. The orchestra gives an atmospheric background to the whole opera, with the libretto (/words) being the most important elements here. This is in fact a tradition of French opera. The other thing is French is set here as a spoken language, as a means for natural declamation, like what Rosseau suggested and Rameau did. It indeed has an influence of Wagner, like the opening harmony of Tristan, the plot and so on, and also the atmosphere and language of Parisfal. Yet here Debussy managed to cooperate all these in his own style with all other influences mentioned.

From all of the above, we can see Debussy was establishing his own style through the acception, rejection and readaptation of Wagner with the gamelan music, the music of French tradition and the symbolist movement. He was going to breakthrough to an even more mature Debussy style from Pelleás onwards.

Teresa Wong

Debussy: The Formative Years

September 20, 2012

The decade of 1870s was very significant in French history: on the political aspect, there were Franco-Prussian war and French Commune (both happened in 1871); on the musical aspect, there were the establishment of the Societé Nationale de Musique Française (1871), with which one of the main leaders was Camille Saint-Saëns, and Debussy’s entrance to the most prestigious conservatoire in France, the Paris Conservatoire, at the age of nine (1873).

To understand the background behind aesthetic and stylistic influence on Debussy’s music, one must first identify the situation and tendency in French musical world. After Franco-Prussian war, French was defeated and had to pay a lot of back to Germany. French artists and musicians began to search for the “French” origin and style. “Ars Gallica” was promoted in the music world: French musicians wanted to write “French” music to defeat “German” music with its own ground (that is to use Germanic forms and advance them with the French style). The members of the Societe Nationale, including Saint-Saëns, Franck, Vincent d’Indy and Lalo were all influenced by German music (especially Wagner), but all of them tried to surpass this influence in their own ways.

Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor (1886) used a four-movement symphonic form, with organ and piano. Seemingly traditional, it was very innovative. The organ was just used to link between movements and the music alternated between dramatic motion and religious elements. Franck’s “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” (1884) was also another innovation. An advocate of religious morality and seriousness, Franck showed this idea in this piece, with influence of Liszt. it is also a piece of thematic transformation, deeply emotional chorale (in religious sense), and complicated fugal writing.

From this we can now turn to Debussy, who, under this era of searching for “French” music with German influence, entered the Paris Conservatoire and studied for over a decade. The teachers there cast great influence, either positive or negative, during the conservatoire years.

Marmontel, Debussy’s piano teacher, did not like much of this rebellious student. At first it seemed that, from the report of the Conservatoire, Marmontel saw Debussy’s talent. But gradually he wrote that the student was always lack of precision and rhythm. It was then Debussy lost interest and hope in pursuing career as pianist and changed to be major in composition.

Lavignac, his solfége teacher, showed Debussy non-Western “exotic” modes and opened his ear to non-Western music. He was quite helpful in Debussy’s development. Guiraud, another significant teacher, taught composition in the conservatoire. He wrote the first instrumentation method book in France that considered Wagner’s music, which was then banned in every part of France. He showed Wagner’s music to Debussy and Debussy would discuss with him about his “novel” theory. It was also him who helped and suggested Debussy so that the latter could win the Prix de Rome in 1884.

Massenet, who was a very famous opera composer in the 1880s, taught composition class in the Conservatoire. Though Debussy did not formally study with him, he learnt a lot from this opera composer’s music. The L’Enfant Prodigue showed great influence from Massenet for the flexible rhythm and line, and the arioso vocal melody.

Gounod, another important French composer of the time, also cast influence on Debussy’s development of his formative style. Debussy learnt tremendously from his music, which was greatly inspired by Bach and Palestina. It was him who suggested Debussy to go to the church in Rome to listen to the Mass. Debussy was moved by the two masses there, one being Palestina’s and the other Lasso’s.

During the years studied with Marmontel, this teacher would find a “summer job” for Debussy. This was how Debussy knew Madame von Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky. Debussy toured with von Meck a few times, and they went (with a group of musicians) to Vienna, Florence and other places in Europe, and more significantly, to Russia, where Debussy was first in touch with Russian music and greatly admired Mussorgsky’s music.

The other significant patron, Mr. Vasnier, was a wealthy architect. He helped to educate Debussy especially in literature, and also subsidized Debussy financially. He was like a family to Debussy. Madame Vasnier had a love affair with Debussy for some years, and inspired the young composer to write a lot of songs for her, who was an amateur singer.

As Debussy hated the academic system and strict rules or forms, he was attracted to Chabrier’s and Satie’s music. Both composers had quality of humor and “freedom” away from academic forms as they did not have academic training. It was Chabrier’s music that helped to soothe Debussy who played his music when he felt sad staying in the Villa Medici.

Debussy was also fascinated by the Symbolist movement in literature, led by Stephané Mallarme. Debussy always hanged out with him and his group, including Baudelaire and Varlaine. These poets advocated that the sound and color of words was the more important element than the meaning of words to subtly provoke and suggest imagery and feeling. They were strong admirers of Wagner, whom they regarded as a symbolist poet too.

Wagner was very influential to Debussy. In fact, he was the very figure that had an immeasurably great influence on all the significant French composers of the time, like Franck. d’Indy and so on. Yet the difference between the influence on this group of composers and that on Debussy is that they admired Wagner’s powerful instrumentation, the leitmotive and the dramatic declamatory style, whereas Debussy liked how Wagner used the long and flexible melody without a sense of ending, and the motives associated with ideas.

The three Rome Cantatas (as the three envois for the Prix de Rome) showed a great influence by Wagner. After Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884, he started to reject the academic system and “official” writing to develop his own style. The first envoi, Zülima, showed the use of reminiscent motive inspired by Wagner. It was not too “radical”. The second cantata, Le Printemps (1887), used Leitmotive and had quite a dramatic movement. It was scored as for two pianos and voice, and the original orchestration was destroyed by Debussy himself. The existing orchestration version was done by his friend Henri Busser. It is a symphonic suite for orchestra and a wordless chorus. Its “violent” text and strange “character” were criticized by the conservatoire and it was performed much later by the Societé Nationale.

The third cantata, “La Damoiselle élue”, was very much influenced by Wagners’ Parsifal. It was written in 1888, the very same year that Debussy went to Bayreuth for Wagner’s music for the first time, and the next year for the second time. This cantata was based on the poem (translation) by Dante Gabriel-Rossetti, who was inspired to write to other side of the same theme by Poe’s “Raven” which was about the sadness of the male lover on earth for his deceased beloved. This version of Rossetti was about the sadness of the deceased maid in heaven. The writer was one of the Pre-Raphaelite movement which promoted the art before Renaissance, for the sake of purity, näiveté and humanity. This idea suited Debussy very much as it promoted anti-academic systems and rules, and this was why he liked Parisfal, the Holy Grail and purity.

The poem by Rossetti is a free verse prose, without regular meter, rhythm and verse length. This led Debussy to write music with very freely. The music has a reminiscent of Wagner’s influence, yet it already showed the emergence of “Debussy” style, as shown in the beginning that the parallelism (of 5ths) was prominent. The orchestration was also Debussy-ian, full of colorful effect. The melodic lines were long, flexible and smooth, without metrical or rhythmic sense. This was written for orchestra, soprano solo, female chorus, and contralto narrator.

Through the background of French history, the conservatoire years to “La Damoiselle élue”, we can notice how Debussy gradually emerged from the restricted and academic situation to the beginning of his developing “Debussyian” style. He was about to break through from Wagner’s influence to develop a truly Debussy style.

Further Reading:
James R. Briscoe. Claude Debussy: a guide to research.
James R. Briscoe. Debussy in Performance.
Jane Fulcher. Debussy and His World.

Teresa Wong

Clive Ngai: Debussy’s “Général lavine-eccentric”

May 22, 2012

Clive Ngai plays Claude Debussy’s “Général lavine-eccentric”, from Préludes, Book 2.

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Teresa Wong

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