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An introduction to the solo piano music of
Debussy and Ravel
Artur Pizarro (credit: Sven Arnstein)
Recital 5 notes

by Robert Andres
The second book of Debussy's Préludes  was published in 1913. It shows continuation in the development of harmonic freedom and thus ever more tenuous tonal relations.
Brouillards  depicts fog's transforming shapes that challenge imagination by using bitonality. While the left hand is predominantly in C major the right plays on black keys and the result is a sequence of non-functional harmonies.
In Feuilles mortes  Debussy uses parallel chords with harmonies up to the ninth. The spirit of resignation to the course of nature prevails in the landscape of "the fall of the golden leaves that invest the splendid obsequies of the trees."
La Puerta del Vino  was Debussy's musical reaction to a picture postcard sent to him by de Falla. It is one of the gates to the 13 th -century Alhambra , a palace in Granada , then under the occupation of the Moors. The rhythm of the habanera is the base for exploration of emotional contrasts, as indicated by the composer: "avec de brusques oppositions d'extrême violence et de passionnée douceur".
The prelude Les fees sond d'exquisses danseuses  is related to the world of Puck and it actually ends evoking the horn call of Weber's Oberon overture. The music illustrates the ethereal world of weightless, transparent, capricious and vivacious fairies.
Bruyères  is essentially a simple rustic and nostalgic piece on eminently tonal procedures. Its pastoral and folk-like quality is underlined by occasional use of pentatonic scale.
General Lavine - eccentric  is a music-hall juggler sketch. It is based on the person of Edward Lavine, one of the most celebrated figures in international vaudeville of the time, billed as "Ed Lavine, the Man Who Has Soldiered All His Life". He presented his act at the Marigny Theatre in Paris twice, in 1910 and 1912 and later went on to work producing Army "service bars" in his desert town of Twenty-nine Palms, in California, where he passed away in 1946. Debussy was approached to compose music for a revue based on the puppet modelled upon the character, but the project was never finalised. It appears that Lavine was the only human being of whom Debussy composed a musical portrait.
La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune  combines the mood of the moonlit paysage with the suggestion of the Oriental spirit. According to Schmitz, the idea originated either from Pierre Loti's L'Inde sous les Anglais , describing the terraces where counsel is held at moonlight, or René Puaux , who in Le beau voyage  describes the Durbar ceremonies for the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India and speaks of "the hall of victory, the hall of pleasure, the garden of the sultanesses, the terrace for moonlight audiences". It is therefore puzzling that there are no Hindu or Eastern hints in the music itself.
The water-nypmh Ondine  was already portrayed four years prior to this prelude by Ravel in Gaspard de la nuit . Lore has it that these water-nymphs from Nordic folklore lured, with their song, innocent passers-by to their death.
As to Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. PPMPC , the French pianist Alfred Cortot wrote: "Every bar of this piece finds its mark, from the comic use of God save the King  to the snatches of whistling in the last page, passing through all variations of absent-minded seriousness, diffidence and complacency, that make up the humorous figure which is Samuel, Pickwick, Esq." The British customarily find fault with Debussy's characterisation of Dickens's hero, in that, according to Dawes, it fails to take into account his kindness and warmth and instead concentrates on caricature. As is commonly known, Pickwick, the chairman of the Pickwick Club, dedicated his life to "the purpose of investigating the source of the Hampstead ponds".
The name Canope is derived from Canopus , an ancient Egyptian city on the Nile , and refers to eponymous funerary urns in which organs of the deceased were buried with the mummy. The music does not describe the object itself but instead evokes the mood that the viewing of it produces. To this effect, Debussy uses inflected Dorian mode with the obvious tonal centre on D.
The prelude Les tierces alternées  is unique in the set in that it does not refer to an extra-musical content (and therefore does not constitute programmatic music), indicating instead its basic modus operandi and indeed foreshadowing the concept of the studies. Its outer parts are written in a toccata texture with alternating hands while the middle part is a gracious dance.
Feux d'artifice  can be particularly associated with Lisztian textures and technical resources, including glissandi, cadenzas, octaves and powerful chords. The piece requires a new technique in which black key positions and patterns are equal to white ones and its harmonic sequences and dynamic contrasts demand complete technical control. In the effervescent sound image of a true visual spectacle there is even a short quotation from the Marseillaise , with which the prelude and the cycle end.

Ravel's Prélude  consists of only twenty-seven lyrical measures, composed in 1913 as a sight-reading test for the Concours de Piano of the Paris Conservatoire, and subsequently dedicated to Jeanne Leleu ("a souvenir from an artist who has been sincerely touched by your musical qualities") who did so well reading it.

When the Italian composer Alfredo Casella encouraged Ravel to write two pastiches based on the styles of Borodine and Chabrier, he had already issued an album entitled In the style of... emulating styles of Wagner, Debussy, Faure and other composers. The first one is a fast waltz related to the Intermezzo in Borodin's Petite Suite . The second one, bearing all the appearance of a jotted down improvisation, is a double pastiche and purports to demonstrate how Chabrier would have paraphrased Gounod's music, more precisely Siebel's flower song, Faites-lui mes aveux , from Gounod's Faust (act III). The inclusion of Gounod is indicative of Ravel's view that Gounod represented a link between the celebrated composers of the 18 th century and the present ("Without Gounod, perhaps there wouldn't be any modern French music"). Both pieces were premiered by Alfredo Casella in 1913, in Salle Pleyel at the concert of the Societé Musicale Independente.

Six  Épigraphes antiques  are mostly known in their four hands version. However, the origin of the set is in the incidental music scored for two flutes, two harps and celesta, and accompanying the spectacle Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs, which took place in February 1901. After a radical reworking of the music and discarding the idea of orchestration (accomplished eventually by Ernest Ansermet in 1932), Debussy published in 1915 the version for piano four hands and soon made a transcription for piano solo. Using Greek modes, pentatonic scale and Oriental flourishes, Debussy portrays the exotic world of ancient Greece in the 6 th century BCE (the purported date of the poems that Louÿs claimed to have found and translated and were in reality his own).

Etude retrouvée, as it is now known, was originally entitled Pour les arpèges composes , although it is a completely different version of the study that appears under the same title as nº 11 in the final set of studies. It is beyond doubt that it dates from the same period (1915) as the other studies, having been marked by the composer as nº 4 (Debussy planned the set in a different order to the one that appeared in print). The six pages appear progressively sketchier, and the editor (Roy Howat) has had to complete some measures and fill in the missing musical orthography. Not having merited any mention in the author's correspondence, the study presents a rare case of an aborted compositional process that he actually did not destroy. The reason for which Debussy abandoned the work is not known, although, judging by the difference between the condition of the first and the second half, it appears that he may have run into creative problems at that juncture.

In November 1914, the English author Hall Caine initiated a project for a tribute to Albert, King of Belgium, sponsored by the Daily Telegraph . King Albert's Book was to be an act of recognition and gratitude to the King and his people for having opposed the German invasion. The three French composers who were solicited to write contributions, Debussy, André Messager and Camille Saint-Saëns, are thus found in the book to which have contributed numerous artistic, scientific and political personalities, and which appeared in English, French and Flemish. Debussy's orchestration of the piece was performed in June 1915. Woven into the work is a brief quotation of La brabançonne , a national melody, that, according to Debussy, made his work harder because it "inspires no heroism in the breasts of those who have not been brought up 'with it'".

Élégie was published in 1916 in a luxurious collection entitled Pages inédites sur la femme et la guerre , dedicated to Queen Alexandra. The whole profit from the sale was donated to French war orphans by the publisher, Devambez. Subsequently the piece was completely forgotten until it was republished in 1978 by Jobert. In November 1915, only one month before writing this piece that many see as "a synthesis of the moral and physical suffering", Debussy underwent an operation for cancer that he would succumb to three years later.

Debussy's wife Emma Bardac was actively engaged in the charity of "Clothes for the wounded" and asked her husband to contribute to a benefit concert for clothing for wounded soldiers. He participated in the concert that took place in December 1916 and also wrote a short piece for it, which therefore bears the name Piece pour l'Œuvre du Vêtement du Blessé . The piece, a slow waltz, was first published in March 1933 in Étude , the magazine of the Theodore Presser Company, under the title Page d'album.

Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon  ("Evenings lit by glowing coals") at present seems to be Debussy's last piano piece, and was probably composed in February or March 1917, a year before his death. The work makes a double allusion to Baudelaire: the title borrows a line from his poem Le balcon and the music opens with an allusion to Debussy's prelude Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir , the title of which was also borrowed from a poem by Baudelaire. Two more references to Debussy's own works ( Canope and Les tierces alternées ) make this piece feel like both a kind of a nostalgic reminiscence and a deft improvisation. It seems that it was written in gratitude or as a partial payment to a Monsieur Tronquin, for providing the supply of fuel to the Debussy household during the wartime winter of 1916-1917. As Debussy complained in a letter to Fauré "the cold, the hunt for coal, this whole life of domestic and other miseries despair me more and more every day". He apparently balked at the second request by the supplier for another new piece in return for more coal. This piece was discovered only in November 2001 as the property of Eric van Lauwe in Paris .

Debussy/Ravel cycle
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