Scents of Beauty
Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Afternoon of a Faun)

The publication in 1876 of symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s subtly sensual poem, L’après-midi d’un faune, created a furor in the cultural circles of Paris with its hints of bisexuality and lesbianism. The figure of the youthful, erotic faun appealed to Debussy, who in 1892 planned a three-part composition, Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’après-midi d’un faune, to serve as background music to readings of the poem. In the course of the composition, however, he was, sidetracked by his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. As a result, only the Prélude was ever written.

The poem depicts a sensuous faun, a rural deity represented as a man with the ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat, silently contemplating cavorting nymphs and other forest creatures on a warm sunny afternoon. The suggestive music captures the erotic atmosphere of the poem with consummate skill and is one of the first and most evocative examples of musical Impressionism. The Prélude was first performed in Paris in December 1894 and was an instant triumph, the only work of Debussy ever to receive an encore at its premiere. Mallarmé himself praised the music, saying that it extended the emotion of his poem and provided it with a warmer background. Debussy regarded the music as “a very free illustration and in no way as a synthesis of the poem.”

The Prélude requires a full orchestra, but with a touch as light and evanescent as the poem; often the pauses in the music are as dramatic as the music itself, which relies mostly on the woodwinds and the harp to create the dreamy atmosphere and imagery. In 1912, however, Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, urged the dancer Vaclav Nijinsky to choreograph and dance the role of the faun in a ballet based on Mallarmé’s poem and Debussy’s music. Nijinsky’s interpretation of the role turned out to be much more literal than Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry. His openly erotic interpretation of the faun provoked a major scandal, primarily because of the final scene in which the faun, frustrated and saddened by the inability to seduce his nymph playmates, consoles himself by sensuously fondling a scarf that one of the nymphs has dropped in her escape.

The signature theme of the Prélude, which opens the piece as a flute solo, is so well known that it barely requires repeating. Example 1 It reappears in many variations, re-harmonized and re-orchestrated, with even little snippets – prticularly the first six notes – incorproated into other melodies. It seems to symbolize the faune, although there is nothing in the score or the ballet to prove the association. The end of the complete theme, where the horn enters, also undergoes various transformations. In this example, which begins a new section of the Prélude, only traces of the original harmony from the horn cadence are evident, but its source is clear; the succeeding chromatic passage is an embellished motive from the main theme. Example 2

The overall form of the Prélude is ABA. The middle section includes two brief subsidiary themes, the first introduced by the oboe, Example 3 the second by the upper woodwinds. Example 4 This latter melody dominates the section before Debussy brings back the "faune" theme, but the return of the A section is not strictly a repeat; rather, it comes a series of harmonic transformations and variations on the theme. Example 5
Manuel de Falla 1876-1946
Manuel de Falla
Manuel de Falla
Noches en los Jardines de España (Nights in the Gardens of Spain)

While composers of all periods of Western music have at times made use of popular or folk tunes in their music, the Spaniards seemed obsessed with the practice. The Italian import keyboard composer, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1750), set the fashion for incorporating “street music” into his sonatas for the brilliant harpsichordist, Queen Maria Barbara. The practice continues to this day.

Born in Cadiz, Manuel de Falla received his first music lessons from his mother. He studied piano and composition in Madrid, where he became interested in Spanish music, especially Andalusian flamenco. But he realized early on that he was not good enough to make a career as pianist, and the symphonic institutions in Spain were too limited to make a living as a classical composer. In 1907 he left Spain in order to achieve international exposure for his music, settling in Paris where he came under the influence of Paul Dukas, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. His music, however, even during the height of the French influence, remained solidly Spanish in style. With the outbreak of World War I, he returned to his native country.

A deeply religious – almost fanatic – Catholic, de Falla expressed his faith in a magnum opus, Atlántida, an epic based on what he regarded as the holy mission of his boyhood hero Christopher Columbus. The cantata, in which the Spanish nation, rising from the ruins of Atlantis, goes forth under the banner of Christ to the New World, remained incomplete at de Falla’s death. He actually submitted parts of it to Church authorities for approval.

De Falla began Nights in the Gardens of Spain in 1909 in Paris as a set of three nocturnes for piano. But friends, and especially the pianist Ricardo Viñes, advised him to transform it into a work for piano and orchestra. Instead, the composer put the work aside and did not return to it until 1915, after his return to Spain. He described the work as “Symphonic impressions,” insisting that it was not a piano concerto, and that the piano was an integral part of the orchestral fabric. Originally de Falla planned a fourth movement, based on a tango rhythm, but that movement ended up as the “Pantomime” movement of El amor brujo.

Characteristic of all Falla’s music is the distinctive sound of folk music of his native land, particularly Andalusia, its southern region. Nights incorporates this quasi North African, or “Moorish” sound into a purely atmospheric work, at times almost hypnotic in its simple melodies and understated orchestration. The first movement En el Generalife, describes the famous Palace garden of the Generalife (from the Arabic Jannat al-'Arif – Architect's Garden) on the Alhambra hill in Granada. It opens with what sounds like an accompaniment, but is actually the main theme, built around a tense rhythm and a simple toggling semitone motive. The theme has a Moorish flavor, although first heard as if played on Flamenco guitar, the strings imitating the strumming sound. Example 1 Falla marks it Allegretto tranquillo e misterioso. Throughout the movement, the piano’s voice is distinctive in texture, like the calligraphic arabesques that cover the walls of the palace. Example 2 The movement becomes more energetic, while never losing its Flamenco voice. Example 3

In the second movement, Danza lejana (Distant dance), opens in a quiet whirl of sound, resembling Debussy. Example 4 As in the first nocturne, the piano assumes the voice of the Flamenco guitar. Example 5 The melodies are still not fully formed themes, rather forming small motivic cells. Example 6 The dance gradually increases in volume and tempo before receding again into the distance. The piano leads without interruption into the third movement, En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba (The gardens of the Sierra Cordoba mountains). Example 7 In the middle, the piano takes the role of the singer of cante jondo – a vocal Flamenco style in which a florid melody in the high treble sings over a throbbing bass. Example 8 Although the movement begins energetically, it slows to a brooding conclusion.
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Maurice Ravel
Maurice Ravel
Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Called up for military service at the outbreak of World War I, Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) was immediately sent to the Russian front. He was soon wounded, lost his right arm, and became a prisoner of war in Siberia.

Wittgenstein was one of eight children of a wealthy steel manufacturer (his youngest brother was the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), and after his repatriation in 1916, he decided to continue his solo career despite the loss of his right arm. Since the available literature for piano left hand was limited, he commissioned some of the best-known composers of the period to write works adapted to his disability. Among them were Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Sergey Prokofiev, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss and Ravel. Some of the commissions he found too modern and refused to play – although he did pay the composers; he hid the score for Hindemith’s work in his study where it lay until after his widow’s death in 2002.

Ravel began work on the concerto in the spring of 1929 and finished it in December 1930. Wittgenstein premiered it in Vienna in 1932. The concerto, in one movement, is a virtuosic piece, somewhat Lisztian in character, but softened by Ravel's innate feeling for elegance, restraint and proportion. As in the Piano Concerto in G major, Ravel's love of jazz is discernable throughout and reflects the popularity of jazz in the Paris of the 1920s.

In the Concerto, Ravel exploits the full range of the piano. The single movement also reflects the tripartite tradition of the genre with clear-cut tempo changes (Lento-Allegro-Lento). It opens with an orchestral introduction in which Ravel uses a technique that he had employed to great effect in La Valse and Bolero: beginning pianissimo with only a few instruments, he builds tension by increasing volume and gradually adding the instruments to culminate in a massive orchestral climax.

Although the themes are brief, the buildup is extensive. The Concerto opens in the grumbling depths of the cellos, basses accompanying the contrabassoon, which – almost indiscernibly – introduces the first of the themes. Example 1 Next to be added are the horns with another theme, a repetition of a descending minor third. Example 2 The piano entry is a cadenza, a virtuosic demonstration of the pianist’s prowess with what is usually the non-dominant hand, as well as a clear statement of the first theme. Example 3 Among the most amazing aspects of the concerto as a whole is Ravel’s writing for the piano so that an uninformed listener would hear it as if played by both hands, as here in the third theme. Example 4 The effect is similar to that employed by Bach in the solo violin partitas, where broken chords fill out the harmony and the listener retains the sound of the fade of one note as if it were present to accompany the next.

The middle section of the Concerto represents a complete change of mood and, frankly, less of a technical challenge for the soloist. Structured like a true movement with multiple themes, it begins as a lively jazzy 6/8 march introduced by the piano. Example 5 A contrasting theme belongs to the upper winds. Example 6 The climax of this section combines the march with the descending third horn theme from the opening section. Example 7

After another orchestral climax, Ravel begins his third section with the horn theme and a varied recapitulation of themes from the preceding sections, although excluding the opening theme, which he had already developed at length. If the jazz elements throughout the body of the Concerto seem fleeting and elusive, Ravel morphs into Gershwin as his parting shot. Example 8

To Ravel's chagrin, Wittgenstein took many liberties with the score, maintaining that "performers should not be slaves." Ravel's petulant retort: "Performers are slaves".
Claude Debussy
La mer

“Perhaps you do not know that I was destined for the fine life of a sailor and that it was only by chance that I was led away from it. But I still have a great passion for it,” Claude Debussy wrote to a friend as he began work on La mer in 1903. Shortly before the premiere in 1905 he commented to his publisher: “The sea has been very good to me. She has shown me all her moods.” Ironically, Debussy composed most of La mer far from the sea in the hills of Burgundy, believing that countless recollections were worth more than “…a reality whose charm generally weighs too heavily.”

The sea itself was not the only inspiration. Together with many late-nineteenth century painters, Debussy greatly admired Japanese art, especially the prints and drawings of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). One print in particular, The Hollow Wave off Kanagawa, appealed to Debussy. It portrays three boats with their terrified crews almost swallowed by a giant wave, the curve of the wave breaking into spray and foam. Debussy chose the detail of the wave as a cover for the score of La mer.

During the period Debussy was working on La mer, his life was in turmoil. He was in the process of leaving his wife Lilly to move in with his lover of many years, Emma Bardac, a wealthy married woman. Lilly threatened suicide, creating a scandal that alienated many of Debussy's friends of long standing, including the composer Gabriel Fauré (The fact that Bardac was once his mistress as well may have played some part in the rift.) Finally divorced in 1908, Debussy married Emma, but the episode put him in financial straights for the rest of his life.

The three movements of La mer are entitled Symphonic Sketches, although they approach the symphonic structures of César Franck's Symphony in D minor as well as the symphonies of Vincent d'Indy. There are numerous memorable melodic motives that appear in more than one movement, but like the sea itself, there is an unpredictable quality in how Debussy uses them.

The first sketch, "From Dawn till Noon on the Sea," opens with a gentle murmur on the strings and harp, eventually adding the the oboe and then the English horn with two of the principal themes of the movement - the last a motto of the entire work. Example 1 Parallel to the interplay of sunlight and waves, fragments of melody are tossed around with constant shifts of rhythm and orchestral color, reflecting the irregularity of the water's surface. Example 2 & Example 3 The second half of the sketch portrays the sleeping sea gradually awakening and flexing its immense power in a motive with a Japanese cast, perhaps in reference to the inspirational Hokusai drawing. Example 4 Towards the end a chorale evokes the splendor of the midday sun as the brass presents work's melodic motto that will reappear at the end. Example 5

The second sketch, "Play of the Waves," opens with the upper wooodwinds playfully tossing musical fragments around Example 6 until, hesitantly, the wind and the action of the waves picks up. The water becomes choppy before subsiding again into the calm playfulness then gradually fading away. This section involves many solos, illustrating the infinite variety of the waves. Its principal musical theme is a trill motive in the violins and woodwinds and a lyrical melody introduced on the English horn. Example 7 & Example 8 

"Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea," by far the most turbulent of the three sketches, was composed during the worst period of the composer's personal troubles. The approaching storm growls ominously growing in strength with the beginning of a motive that will be the principal theme for this sketch, Example 9 a surging motive in the flute and oboes. Example 10 The storm then subsides as if the sea is in the eye of the storm. Slowly the violence picks up again, but Debussy's storm while powerful, is never a force five gale. The movement repeats and transforms melodies from the first movement as well, including the motto and the chorale that now conclude the piece, now in an energetic metamorphosis. Example 11

La mer initiated a change in Debussy's style from the shimmering, melodically and structurally amorphous "symbolist" style epitomized in his opera Péléas and Melisande to the more conventional one that seemed to its critics less immediately evocative of nature. And, indeed, La mer, while retaining the rhythms of the sea, definitely has more defined melodies than many of the compsoer's earlier compositions. There erupted around the composer a rash of polemical articles, and even a book published in 1910 entitled Le cas Debussy (The Debussy Case). Today, the arguments are of only minor interest, but the fact that the critics and the public could get so exercised over a matter of musical style continued a centuries-long tradition in French aesthetics.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014