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CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Danse sacrée et profane

December 18, 2016: Mariko Anraku, harp; David Chan, concertmaster; Catherine Ro, violin; Dov Scheindlin, viola; Rafael Figueroa, cello

Please refer also to the “private little war” in the notes for Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.

The customary double-action harp is fashioned with seven pedals, which can make each of the seven notes of the diatonic scale either flat, natural, or sharp. In 1897 the famous Paris instrument-making firm of Pleyel introduced a new chromatic harp, which contained a string for every half step, thus almost doubling the number of strings. In 1903 Pleyel invited Debussy to compose a test piece, which was to be used for a class that was being initiated in the new instrument at the Brussels Conservatory. The resulting work, Deux danses (Danse sacrée et profane), for harp and string orchestra has long since become a beloved part of the repertoire, while the chromatic harp has become a museum piece. The work is now played on the double-action harp, a possibility Debussy had allowed for on the title page; he also transcribed it for two pianos.

Debussy used the collective title Danses for the work, which contains two movements, both in triple meter and A-B-A form. The slow Danse sacrée was suggested to Debussy by a piano piece by his friend, composer and conductor Francisco de Lacerda, but also owes something to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, of which Debussy was fond enough to transcribe two for orchestra. A vague ritualistic atmosphere, imparted by its slow-moving modal sonorities, often in parallel octaves, accounts for the title “sacred dance.” Similarly, the suggestion of a lilting waltz, rather than any specific pagan scene, gives rise to the title Danse profane.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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