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CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Selections from Suite bergamasque, arranged for two harps

December 18, 2016: Mariko Anraku, harp; Emmanuel Ceysson, harp

Debussy was enchanted by the poetry of Paul Verlaine. Around 1890 he began composing a series of piano pieces that would become his Suite bergamasque, titled after a line of Verlaine’s famous poem Clair de lune. The poem had appeared in an 1869 collection entitled Fêtes galantes, which had been inspired by the paintings of Watteau and his followers. In these paintings, idealized landscapes of parks and gardens in the twilight are often populated by revelers in costumes of the tragic-comic characters of the commedia dell-arte—Harlequin, Pierrot, Colombine, and company—a form of theater that began in sixteenth-century Italy. Verlaine’s collection also provided texts for a number of Debussy’s songs before he returned to the piano pieces for revision and publication as Suite bergamasque in 1905.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word bergamasque (or bergomask) referred to a fantasia or set of instrumental variations based on a folk dance—Shakespeare’s rustic characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, dance a bergomask. Presumably that folk dance had some connection with the Bergamo district in northern Italy. Further, the character of the Harlequin is described as a mischievous servant from Bergamo. By Verlaine’s and Debussy’s time there was no evident connection with the bergomask’s traditional tune or harmonic scheme, but the association with a folk dance and the commedia dell’arte lingered.

Debussy’s Suite bergamasque consists of four movements, Prélude, Menuet, Clair de lune, and Passepied, of which we hear I, III, and IV, arranged for two harps by Matthieu Martin. The Prélude opens with unhurried nobility, achieving Debussy’s aim of sounding improvisatory. This introductory idea leads to a stronger, chordally moving main theme, followed by a delicately textured second theme. The middle section develops both themes, with a kind of recapitulation that deals only with the opening introductory idea and the stronger main theme. The outline of sonata form, however, remains secondary to the lovely sense of improvisation or “Impressionism” that Debussy creates.

Originally titled “Promenade sentimentale” after another Verlaine poem, the third piece became Clair de lune (Moonlight) when Debussy polished the Suite bergamasque for publication in 1905. Since then the piece has taken on a life of its own, having become extraordinarily popular and, sad to say, trivialized. Its luminous qualities and inspired construction, however, should inspire listeners to look beyond its familiarity. That amazing opening—how it just hangs there then gently descends as silvery light from the moon—is pure genius. Its rhythmic freedom gives the feeling of floating as does the delay of the anchoring pitch of the home key. Debussy, like his contemporary Ravel, was justly famous for his water imagery. The rippling central section no doubt responds to the line in Verlaine’s poem describing the moonlight bringing sobs of ecstasy to the fountains. The ending is magical—Debussy fragments the theme as moonlight would be broken up by shadows and allows it to die away in a haunting final cadence.

A passepied was a French court dance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in triple time, much like a minuet but faster, with fairly constant motion in eighth- or sixteenth-notes. For his Passepied, Debussy opted instead for a moderate tempo and 4/4 meter, perhaps reflecting his original title, Pavane, which refers to a stately court dance. He most likely changed the name after deciding that his piece was too active for a Pavane, but also to avoid comparison with Fauré’s influential Pavane, op. 50. It seems he was not worried about comparison with another source of inspiration—the Passepied from Delibes’s pastiche of “ancient” dances for Le roi s’amuse, which had long been available in piano transcription. Whatever the case, Debussy’s piece, unfolding in a kind of modified rondo form, shows a fascinating mix of the constant motion of a passepied and a profusion of contrasting melodies, all bathed in a kind of modal sonority that hints at older times while proclaiming Debussy’s Impressionistic orientation.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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