Rhapsody for alto saxophone and piano
November 20, 2022: Steven Banks, Saxophonist-Composer Xak Bjerken, Piano, Principal Strings of The Met Orchestra
Debussy accepted an unusual prepaid commission in 1901 from Boston arts patron and amateur saxophonist Elise Hall for a piece for “orchestra and saxophone.” She had begun losing her hearing, and her husband, a prominent doctor in New York and Santa Barbara, had advised her to take up a wind instrument to help the tubes in her ears keep her from going deaf. Her search for a wind instrument and teacher in then-small Santa Barbara turned up only a saxophone player, so that became her instrument. After her husband’s death, Hall moved to Boston where she founded the Orchestral Club, which brought in Frenchman Georges Longy to conduct. They became good friends, traveling to France together during summers, and he suggested to her the names of colleagues to commission in her quest for saxophone repertoire. Debussy was the most prominent of the twenty-two composers she commissioned.
For Debussy’s part, he accepted the commission, promptly spent the money, and “forgot” about writing the piece. He was busy preparing for the premiere of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, but even so, by September 1902 he had still not written a note for the commission—or any other piece for that matter.
Debussy’s writer’s block persisted, and then at the end of May 1903 Longy, who was in Paris with “the Saxophone Lady” paid him a surprise visit. With nothing to show for the commission, Debussy hoped to appease her with a signed copy of the Pelléas et Mélisande vocal score, but he put off meeting her, fibbing during Longy’s second surprise visit that he still had just “fifty measures to find.” Meanwhile in letters to his first wife Lilly he railed against writing for “this ridiculous instrument” and the woman who “must surely be an old bat who dresses like an umbrella.”
Forcing himself to work on the piece—provisionally titled “Rapsodie orientale,” which he later changed to “Rapsodie arabe” and finally to “Rhapsodie mauresque”—he began to sound more positive in his letters. To his friend, conductor André Messager he wrote on June 8: “I am searching for the most original combinations that are most appropriate for bringing out this aquatic instrument. . . . I worked just like in the good old days of Pelléas.” As it turns out, the forced work on the Rapsodie served to break his creative block—that summer, in addition to completing the Rapsodie in short score (four staves that include orchestration indications), he composed Soirée dans Grenade, planned his twelve Images, and made three symphonic sketches for La mer.
All that remained to finish the Rapsodie was to create the full orchestral score from the short score, but for some reason Debussy never did. Despite selling it to publisher Jacques Durand in August 1903—and thus being paid for it twice!—neither Durand nor Hall ever received the manuscript during Debussy’s lifetime. Just before Debussy’s death in March 1918, his second wife, Emma, or possibly he himself, gave the short score to his friend, composer Jean Roger-Ducasse to flesh out the orchestration.
Durand finally published the Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone in January 1919 and the first performance was given on May 14 at a Société nationale concert—not by Hall but by Yves Mayeur and conducted by composer André Caplet, Debussy’s friend and assistant since 1908. It was likely Caplet who at long last sent Debussy’s original short score to Hall after that performance. Elise Hall will always be remembered for the remarkable body of work she commissioned for saxophone and orchestra, but sadly she never got to perform Debussy’s Rapsodie—or hear it. She gave the last known performance of her long career in 1920 in a state of almost total deafness.
Many questions remain. Why did “mauresque” get axed from the title just before printing? Debussy himself had decided on that adjective, and once when championing Spanish music said that “the stark beauty of the old Moorish cantilenas remains unforgettable.”
And why did the Rapsodie receive adverse criticism for so long? It seems many listeners expected a concerto rather than a piece for “orchestra and saxophone.” Since then many arrangers, among them Ernest Ansermet and Eugene Rousseau, have made versions that impart a more virtuosic role to the saxophone by giving it melodic material originally assigned to the orchestra. Another source of negativity was Debussy’s early biographer Léon Vallas—and others who followed his lead blindly—who took some of Debussy’s unkind remarks about Hall and her instrument out of context to explain why he supposedly never completed the work and kept it to himself.
Why didn’t Debussy make it public? Scholar James Noyes has convincingly suggested that the Rapsodie served as source material for La mer, and his new more forthright style would be better presented to the public in a mainstream orchestral work rather than in the curio work to which it was indebted—better to keep the Rapsodie to himself than to invite comparison.
After a short, atmospheric introduction, the saxophone presents a melancholy theme—like a Moorish cantilena?—which provides materials for the two main themes of the work. Episodic in nature, as expected with a rhapsody, Debussy nevertheless relies on features of sonata form as he develops and recapitulates his themes. The piece concludes brilliantly with the new “forthright” character noted by early listeners.
© Jane Vial Jaffe