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An introduction to the solo piano music of
Debussy and Ravel
Artur Pizarro (credit: Sven Arnstein)
Recital 4 notes

by Robert Andres
Debussy dedicated his 1908 cycle Children's Corner to his five-year old daughter, writing in his dedication: "To my beloved little Chouchou, with the tender excuses of her father for that which follows". Only a decade later, Debussy was dead, and his daughter was to follow him next year. The cycle's precursor might have been Mussorgsky's cong cycle The Nursery , which Debussy knew well and indeed gave it a positive review. However, the substantial difference between the two is that Debussy's writing shows the emotional distance of an observer, rather than a participant.
Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum is a piece whose satire - poking fun at finger exercises - is certainly above children's comprehension. It may even be understood as an encouragement of rebellion against academicism.
Debussy insisted on calling his daughter's little velvet elephant Jimbo (not Jumbo), thus entitling the next piece Jimbo's Lullaby . The elephant is being nursed to sleep using the popular lullaby Do, do, l'enfant do , of which a few notes are heard several times.
Serenade of the Doll (meaning: to the doll) was already published separately in 1906. After a pentatonic opening melody, the middle part conveys nostalgic atmosphere - maybe of a happy childhood gone by.
The Snow is Dancing portrays children's fascination with the beauty of the snow-flakes and the visual aspect of the precipitation, which spurs their imagination and fantasy. While the use of whole-tone scale and chromaticism result in an overall complex harmonic picture, the middle section exhibits particularly intricate and delicate rhythmic texture.
The expressive simplicity of The Little Shepherd is conveyed by imitating soliloquy on shepherd's reed pipes which alternates with accompanied dance tunes.
Maybe the best known of the set, Golliwogg's Cake-walk is named after a doll created in 1895 by Florence Upton. The merry rhythm of the minstrel dance imported from the United States is interrupted but once, almost at the end: making fun of Wagner, Debussy quotes several opening bars of the Tristan prelude, marking it in the music "avec une grande emotion". This tongue-in-cheek reference concludes the set the way it began - very agreeable for children to listen to, but essentially aimed at adult understanding.

Given its spelling by the composer himself, The little Nigar (subsequently changed by publishers to The little Negro ) was commissioned in 1909 for Théodore Lack's predecessor of ragtime). Debussy used the principal tune again in his ballet for children La boite à joujoux , where it represents an English soldier.

At the beginning of the 20 th century, valse lente was very popular in Paris . Probably inspired by Léoni, a gipsy violinist at the New Carlton Hotel in Paris , Debussy seems to have decided to poke fun at the dance, and indicated already by the title of his La plus que lente the intention of writing the "mother of all slow waltzes" (Massenet having already written a Valse très lente ). Debussy gave subsequently the manuscript of the piece to Leoni. Not only did the composer record it on a Welte-Mignon piano roll but he also made its second orchestration (not being satisfied with the "brasserie style" one, done by a Durand orchestrator) to which he added cimbalom.

Marking the centenary of Joseph Haydn's death, in January 1910 the Revue Musicale of the Société Internationale de Musique published a collection of tributes, commissioned from Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d'Indy, Hahn and Widor. Although Durand published the second edition already a month later, the first performance took place only in March of the next year in the Salle Pleyel. All six tributes were based on the translation into pitches of the HAYDN motive, B-A-D-D-G, where German H=B natural, and Y and N are obtained counting alphabetically from A. This technique, known as soggetto cavato (a subject "carved out" from the letters of the name), was quite common in the Renaissance. Debussy's Hommage à Haydn opens with a slow waltz, over which the motive is gradually transformed into a fast section, not unlike Haydn's first movements of symphonies. Although Debussy attached no importance to the piece, even declaring that "it will disappear in a puff of smoke" and that homage is its only purpose "on earth or on any planet", it is his and Ravel's Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn that withstood the test of time. Ravel uses the main motive also in retrograde and inversion but altogether in a concealed fashion, thus consciously implementing some other common renaissance composition procedures.

"The title Valses nobles et sentimentales adequately indicates my intention of composing a series of waltzes in imitation of Schubert. The virtuosity which forms the basis of Gaspard de la nuit is succeeded by writing which is distinctly more transparent, giving more firmness to the harmonies and showing up the contours of the music in more relief. The Valses nobles et sentimentales were first performed amid protestations and boos at a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendente, in which the names of the composers were not revealed. The audience voted on the probable authorship of each piece. The authorship of my piece was recognized - by a slight majority. The seventh waltz seems to me the most characteristic." Thus wrote Ravel in his never published autobiographical sketch from 1931, drafted by Roland-Manuel and meant for a recording project with Aeolian from which Ravel withdrew. According to the voting results, published in Le courier musical 6 days after the premiere, Ravel was also frequently misidentified as Satie or Kodály, and got some jeers.
The epigraph to the piece, "le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d'une occupation inutile," comes from Henri de Régnier's novel Les Rencontres de Monsieur de Bréot (1904). The premiere was given by Louis Aubert in May 1911 in a concert of the Société Musicale Indépendente. The following year Ravel orchestrated it in fifteen days for a ballet retitled Adélaïde, ou Le langage des fleurs . The piece was quickly pronounced among Ravel's least accessible, not the least because its highly stylised and harmonically anything but simple approach did not conform to general expectations for a popular dance. However, Roland-Manuel declared that the piece had seminal importance for Ravel, for whom it served as a kind of reservoir from which he would draw frequently in his later works. Ravel's 1913 recording for Welte piano roll, if such recordings can be trusted, is characterised by pervasive spreading of the chords and desynchronised entries of the left and the right hand in slow tempi, with the left hand entering first but arpeggios taking place individually in each hand.
The suite's eight waltzes unfold in a continuous manner and are formally balanced by the introductory character of the first waltz and the epilogue function of the last one, in which the composer brings together all the previous waltzes but the fifth.

With his Préludes Debussy continues the development of a form that has flourished since the Baroque, first serving as an introductory movement and then acquiring life of its own, particularly in a sense of conveying a single concentrated thought, emotion or impression. The fact that the titles appear only at the end of each prelude confirms that music is in the foreground and the titles are there not to give programme but to indicate the suggestion of an impression and make a contribution to the overall listening pleasure.
The complexity of the suggested imagery necessitated advances in the tonal language: these preludes bridge the transition from complex tonal through non-functional triadic to post-tonal.
The first set of twelve Préludes appeared in 1910. Danseuses de Delphes uses parallel chords in counterpoint with pentatonic melody to portray figures from Greek vases depicting dancers from Delphi , a city at the foot of Mount Parnassus , which had a temple of Apollo (god of oracles, poetry and arts).
Voiles (translated as either "Veils" or "Sails") presents an extreme case in Debussy's language: it is based on a whole-tone scale plus the pentatonic scale in B. Alfred Cortot saw in this music "the flight of a white wing over the crooning sea towards the horizon bright with the setting sun".
La vent dans la plaine is written in toccata style but is always of a light (indication "as light as possible" at the beginning) and non-intense nature. Its middle section is based on a whole-tone scale.
The title of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and perfumes swirl in the evening air) is a quote from Harmonie du soir , Baudelaire's poem in Les fleurs du mal , set by Debussy for voice in 1888.
Les collines d'Anacapri combines a Neapolitan song with tarantella fragments. Anacapri is a town on the island of Capri (Capri=goats), in the Bay of Naples, 500 meters above sea level, known already as a Greek colony in 400BCE.
Debussy indicated that the prelude Des pas sur la neige "should sound like a melancholy, snowbound landscape". Its repeated rhythmical pattern suggests the image of footsteps fighting with deep snow, while its fragmented melody and stark harmonies give an impression of a study in black and white.
In Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest , virtuosic technique of Lisztian proportions is applied to Debussy's harmonic language, based here on the pentatonic and whole-tone scales. It is an illustration of nature's powers unleashed and a portrait of the wind of destruction on the French west coast.
La fille aux cheveux de lin is a title from Leconte de Lisle's Chansons écossaises , set by D. in 1880. Its recurring lines elucidate well the poem's ambiance: "L'amour, au clair soleil d'été/Avec l'alouette a chanté".
La sérénade interrompue commences with an imitation of guitar strumming as the background. The superimposed melody makes only one truly emotional break (at librement there is an instance of the Andalusian canto hondo . The interruptions suggest some kind of intervention (water thrown, window shut, fear?) and the piece ends in a defeated retreat.
The indications in La cathédrale engloutie , such as "in a gentle, harmonious haze", "gentle and fluid" and "emerging from the haze gradually", demonstrate well the sfumato technique implemented by the composer to evoke mysticism and supernatural, in what is really a study in exploration of chordal sound. The legend that served as inspiration is one of Cathedral of Ys, sunk off Brittany 1500 years ago as a punishment for impiousness, which occasionally rises at sunrise as an example. The use of the story proves Debussy's continuing fascination with the sea. His recording of the piece is characterised by the use of long pedal that preserves the bass pedal notes.
The hero of La danse de Puck is the mischief-maker of Danish and Swedish legends. He was immortalised by Shakespeare as the page to Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream . This is an ethereal and fleeting dance of a fairy creature with interjections of a horn motive.
Minstrels conclude Debussy's exploration of music-hall song begun in Golliwogg's cake-walk and The little nigar . Banjo chords, drum beating, a sentimental song - all of these find their place in this sketch of an exotic (for Europeans) performance, brought to Europe after 1910 by travelling troupes.

Debussy/Ravel cycle
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