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An introduction to the solo piano music of
Debussy and Ravel
Artur Pizarro (credit: Sven Arnstein)
Recital 1 notes

by Robert Andres
Intermède was only discovered in 2001 in a hand-written copy made by Maurice Dumesnil, a student of Debussy and a Debussy scholar. It is closely related to the Scherzo-Intermezzo from Debussy's 1880 Piano Trio and thus also to the period when Debussy was working as tutor and pianist in the household of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's benefactress, in Russia and during her travels. One of several early pieces by Debussy that Dumesnil edited in the 1930s (with the authorisation of Debussy's widow Emma), it indicates Debussy's knowledge of Tchaikovsky's music and probably postdates the Trio.

Danse bohémienne, possibly the first surviving piano piece by Debussy, was written in 1880. Debussy would remember it later in the song L'échelonnement des haies from 1891.The piece exhibits some traits of Tchaikovsky's salon style and von Meck actually sent the manuscript to Tchaikovsky in the way of introduction and recommendation of the young Frenchman. Tchaikovsky complimented the work but commented on its slightness and brevity. Maybe the most noteworthy and foretelling detail in this work is the fact that there is no cadence for 36 bars in its central section. Although Ravel orchestrated it in 1922, the piano original was published only in 1932, when von Meck's grandson sold it to the German publisher Schott.

Deux Arabesques  were written in 1888 and published in 1891. Showing considerable influence of Chopin, they are based on a stylized idea of repeated and interlaced graceful flowing curves and figures, just as a drawing would be.
In the second Arabesque the indicated durations are achievable only through use of the sustaining pedal, while the corresponding indication armonioso is perhaps the first sign of a new texture. The parallel writing found at its end was to become typical and present in many of his works. Both pieces also echo the style of some of the favourite composers of the day, such as Benjamin Goddard, Massenet and Saint-Saëns.

Balladewas originally published as Ballade Slave in 1890, the "slave" having been dropped for its 1903 publication. The date of composition is uncertain and E. Robert Schmitz suggests 1881, while Lesure suggests 1890. Its structural development is based on repetition - a technique that Debussy would later reject as romantic. The piece contains the kern of the theme of a work written almost three decades later, La plus que lente .

François Lesure suggests that Rêverie , published in 1891 by Choudens, had been written a year earlier. The piece was dismissed by Debussy who in 1904 wrote to the publisher, Eugène Fromont, complaining about his decision to republish it. It is reminiscent of Borodin's Petit suite textures and contradicts those critics saying that Debussy was not capable of writing a true melody.

Suite bergamasqueseems to have been composed in 1890 but published only in 1905 by Fromont. Alternatively, Schmitz indicates 1889 as the composition year and 1903 as the year of a revised publication by Lockspeiser. The word bergamasque refers to the Italian region of Bergamo and personalities of the commedia dell'arte , especially Harlequin - the prototype satirizing the idiosyncrasies of the peasants. Frescobaldi had already used bergamasche as dances in his 17 th -century suites and the dramatic genre itself was popular in 18 th -century Paris . Debussy must have also encountered the reference to "masques et bergamasques" in Verlaine's poem Clair de lune , belonging to Fêtes galantes that he set for voice and piano in 1882/83.
In the Prelude , the spirit of the Arabesques combines with toccata-like texture and a couple of sequences that resemble Grieg. Although almost the whole suite shows reverence to the historical model (dance forms and toccata belonging to the era of the clavecinistes ), the Menuet is much more a reflection of the spirit of the dance and its moods than a mere application of the recognizable metric and formal patterns. The title of Clair de lune is almost certainly related to Verlaine's eponymous poem, describing a vision of long-dead dancers in the moonlight. The music transmits in particular the ethereal, transparent and impalpable qualities of the experience, while at the same time maintaining clarity and definition. In Passepied , originally a lively dance in a ternary time signature, the relationship to harpsichord texture comes most to the fore and the uniform background of non-legato movement in the left hand is contrasted with elaborate expression in the right hand. The evocative quality and eeriness are thus complemented with eloquent charm to form one of Debussy's best known works.

The piece published in 1890 as Tarantelle styrienneand reissued in 1903 as Danse , was also transcribed for orchestra by Ravel in 1925. Alfred Cortot suggested that it creates sensations rather than sentiments, thus looking forward to Debussy's more mature pieces. Its character is typical of the tarantella , a dance of Italian origin that, according to the lore, is danced in a frenzied manner in order to fight off the drowsiness brought on by a bite of the tarantula spider. Debussy alternates its typical 6/8 meter with a 3/4 one.

The style of Valse romantiqueplaces it firmly in the 19 th -century romantic tradition. It was published in 1890 by Choudens, and Lesure indicates that this and several other early works published around that year were indeed composed at the time although their manner suggests a developmental stage that is not yet typical of Debussy's invention and lyrical capacity. The Valse is dedicated to Rose Depecker, a twenty-one year old piano student at the Conservatoire who won there first prizes in accompaniment and in piano.

Like the Valse , Mazurkabelongs to Debussy's formative years and reflects the admiration for Chopin he was developing at the time he was studying with Madame Fleurville. It was published in 1891, but probably composed a decade earlier (Schmitz suggests 1880).

Another romantic piece of lyrical character, the Nocturne , originally entitled Interlude (Nocturne), blends together passages that could be mistaken for Fauré, Liszt or even Wagner. Published in 1892 in Le Figaro musical and by Dupont, it bears the indication dans le caractère d'une chanson populaire , and evokes the style used by Borodin and Mussorgsky. Apart from the related use of modes, there are no harmonic surprises but rather some indications of development of Debussy's harmonic language, such as deceptive cadences and avoidance of expected tonalities.

Written in 1894 but published as a suite under the title Images (oubliées)only in 1977, the three pieces were dedicated to the teenager daughter of Debussy's painter friend Henry Lerolle, Yvonne, who was also the composer Ernest Chausson's niece. She was obviously something of an attraction for contemporary artists, having been painted by Maurice Denis and Auguste Renoir and photographed by Edgar Degas. The present title of the suite was obviously meant to avoid confusion with the two well-known sets of Images . Debussy described the pieces as "not for brilliantly lit salons. . . but rather conversations between the piano and oneself". He then recommended with a tongue in cheek: "It is not forbidden furthermore to apply one's small sensibility to them on nice rainy days". The opening movement Lent (mélancolique et doux) is untitled and characterised by expressiveness, grace and suppleness. The second movement, Sarabande , is the first version of the piece that will appear in the suite Pour le piano . The richer harmonic textures of the first version are but a proof of the continuous search for refinement typical of Debussy. This piece appeared first in the 1896 Grand Journal du Lundi supplement. Its inscription reads: "In the rhythm of a 'sarabande,' that is, with a slow and solemn elegance, a bit like an antique portrait, Remembrance of the Louvre, etc. . . .". The final piece of the set shares its toccata texture and the use of the French nursery song Nous n'irons plus au bois with the final piece of the Estampes , Jardins sous la pluie . The unusually personalised indications continue with the very title: "Some aspects of the song Nous n'irons plus au bois , because the weather is dreadful" and with the following comment over the central arpeggiated section: "Here the harps imitate to perfection peacocks spreading their tails - or the peacocks imitate harps (as you like it!) and the sky cheers up again in summer clothing". The bell-like harmonic oppositions of the final pages resemble the music of Mussorgsky. It might have been this very set that the young and attractive dedicatee practised with her teacher who was to become one of the best known pianists of the 20 th century, Alfred Cortot.

Debussy/Ravel cycle
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