Hommage à Haydn
October 17, 2021: Roman Rabinovich, piano
Debussy composed his Hommage à Haydn at the request of Jules Écorcheville for a special issue of the Revue S.I.M. (Société Internationale de Musique) to celebrate the centennial in May 1909 of Haydn’s death. Five other composers also accepted the commission—Paul Dukas who wrote his Prélude élégiaque, Reynaldo Hahn his Thème varié sur le nom de Haydn, Charles-Marie Widor his Fugue sur le nom d’Haydn, and Vincent d’Indy and Maurice Ravel who both wrote pieces called Meneut sur le nom d’Haydn. The pieces were published in the January 15, 1910, issue of the Revue S.I.M. They were not premiered, however, until March 11, 1911, when nineteen-year-old pianist Ennemond Trillat performed them at a Société concert at the Salle Pleyel.
Each composer was given the same assignment: Write a short piano piece using the letters of Haydn’s name as a five-note motive. This was an age-old practice to honor an important person, and in cases where there was no musical equivalent for a letter it could be skipped or be replaced by a substitution note. Here the composers were all given H (B natural in German nomenclature, A, Y (using D as the substitution), D, N (using G as the substitution). The substitution notes, given by the commissioner were obtained by “putting the letter’s alphabetical order over the diatonic series of the sound scale.” As a fascinating historical note, two of the other most important French composers of the day—Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré—declined to participate, presumably because, as Saint-Saëns wrote to Fauré, they would be the laughingstock of Germany for the wrong use of letter-note correspondences.
Debussy’s Hommage à Haydn begins with a “soft and expressive” “Valse lent” (slow waltz) in which he presents a bass melody with a distinctive dotted-rhythmic pattern and then highlights his H-A-Y-D-N motive in the upper melody line of the right hand. The second section of the piece shifts to a lively, light character with the motive sped up in the first notes of the right hand. After an even more animated section Debussy concludes with a brief reminder of the expressive opening and a final fast but quiet flourish.
This afternoon’s celebration of Haydn makes the perfect occasion to include Ravel’s Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn alongside Debussy’s tribute. Ravel writes a contemplative minuet with Impressionistic harmonies, presenting the motive six times, which he labels in the score. The motive begins the piece as the first five notes in the top line of the pianist’s right hand, migrates to the bass, and appears in inner voices in reverse order and inverted in reverse order (D-G-G-C♯-B). The final utterances appear in the top of the piano’s right hand and in a slow descent from the middle register to the bass.
© Jane Vial Jaffe