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Le Tombeau de Debussy
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Berceuse héroïque (pour rendre hommage à S.M.
le roi d’Albert Ier de Belgique et à ses soldats) (1914)
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO
Études, 1er Livre (1915) [12:56]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
La plainte, au loin, du faune... [4:20]
Études, 1er Livre (1915) [9:43]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sostenuto, rubato [2:07]
Pour l’œuvre du “Vêtement du Blessé”
Élégie (1915) [2:32]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
L’accueil des Muses [3:57]
Études, 2ème Livre (1915) [11:13]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Homenaje pour Guitare [2:58]
Études, 2ème Livre (1915) [15:38]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent - à
la mémoire de C.A. Debussy [1:49]
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1971)
Jan Michiels (piano - Erard, 1892 - restored by atelier Chris Maene)
rec. Royal Conservatory Concert Hall, Brussels, 30 May - 3 June,
FUGA LIBERA FUG590 [77:42]
Despite being well aware that one’s reaction to any music,
as with all art forms, is subjective, I find it really difficult
to understand how any music-lover can have a negative opinion
of the music of Debussy. For me he gets as near as anyone has
ever got to painting in music. His melodies are ravishing and
heady mixes of gorgeous sounds - just listen to La Cathédrale
Engloutie to hear what I mean. Few composers have equalled
his musical description of the sea. Despite the fact that he
was French and spent the briefest possible amount of time in
Spain - a short visit to San Sebastian - there were few composers
who so convincingly evoked the very essence of Spain as he did.
Having declared my prejudice in his favour I am pleased to review
this disc that pays homage to one of the very greatest of late
nineteenth century composers. The concept here was to present
some of his late works interspersed with some of those written
in homage to him by a group of his colleagues. I hope another
disc will follow that includes the rest.
The outbreak of the first world war was a shock for millions
throughout Europe and particularly for Debussy who loved his
country more than most. He was also suffering greatly from the
rectal cancer that had been diagnosed nine years before and
that would eventually kill him at the age of 56. The German
artillery bombarding Paris prevented a proper ceremony from
taking place. It was, therefore, not until two years after the
cessation of hostilities that a fitting tribute could be organised.
This came in the form of a musical homage that was commissioned
by the newly formed French arts paper La Revue Musicale.
This devoted its second issue to Debussy with a supplement that
included the compositions of several composers for whom the
death of Debussy was a great blow. The present disc includes
several of them.
The opening track is something Debussy wrote in 1914 in tribute
to King Albert I of Belgium, the first country to succumb to
the German onslaught due to the fact that the King had refused
Germany’s demand that he allow German troops to pass through
Belgium in order to attack France. It is as Debussy described
it “... melancholic, reserved ... without any claim other
than to pay homage to so much willing suffering”. It is
rendered even more sombre through the use of the restored Erard
concert grand piano from 1892 whose sound is duller than that
we would anticipate from a modern instrument. A short two and
a half minute piece by Malipiero follows simply entitled Lento
in which Debussy’s influence is very evident and it uses
a theme from Debussy’s String Quartet.
Following the Berceuse Héroïque Debussy wrote
nothing for several months such was the depression that set
in after the outbreak of war. He felt that “... what I
do seems wretchedly petty”. Then in the summer of 1915
in Dieppe he spent three months at the villa ‘Mon Coin’
with a view of the sea which meant so much to him. There he
managed to produce En blanc et noir for two pianos, the
Sonata for cello and piano, the Sonata for flute, viola and
harp and the Twelve Studies (Études),which
are heard on this disc in four groups of three. They are quintessential
Debussy, full of incredible invention and dedicated to Chopin.
He was in two minds as to whether he would dedicate them to
Chopin or Couperin, each of whom he held in the highest regard
as “...these two masters, both so admirably prescient”.
That’s how I see these works, for as I listen I find it
hard to believe that they were written just short of one hundred
years ago as they sound so fresh and ‘modern’.
The next piece that formed part of the homage and presented
to La Revue Musicale is by Dukas. Once again no higher
praise could be paid to his friend than to demonstrate that
he too was influenced by him. In this case Dukas evoked the
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un
faune as well as the study For Sixths in the moving
Plainte, au loin, du faune ...
The second part of the Études comes next and,
as the pianist on this disc, Jan Michiels explains, Debussy
may have generally avoided any romantic allusion in giving titles
to each study but there are some references within the pieces
that can be discerned such as the cake-walk, Spanish dance rhythms
and the gamelan (in pour les Octaves). These are treated
in such a way as to bring to mind the words of Verlaine, “Take
eloquence and twist its neck”.
In his tribute Bartók chose a variation on a Hungarian
folk tune, something for which he was renowned. There follow
two highly contrasting works by Debussy from 1915, Pour l’œuvre
du ‘Vêtement du Blessé, an occasional
piece written at the request of his wife Emma Bardac for something
for a charity committee. Then there’s the dark Élégie
which is full of despair.
Albert Roussel’s L’acceuil des Muses which
is also sombre and reflective comes next. Then we come to Debussy’s
second book of six studies beginning with the devilishly fast
opening of Pour les Degrés chromatiques. It is
all the more incredible that a man who has been silent for so
many months after feeling the mentally and emotionally crushing
impact of the start of the war accompanied by the highly painful
effects of his cancer, which even made dressing in the morning
something he likened to completing all of the labours of Hercules
in one go, could write such fiendishly difficult yet delicate
studies, all of which were composed in eight short weeks.
In his Homenaje Falla quotes from Debussy’s La
Soirée dans Grenade which Falla marvelled at considering
that it had been written “by a foreigner guided almost
solely by the vision of his genius”. Then we have the
last three of Debussy’s Études that again
show how ahead of his time Debussy was. Suffice to say that
serial composers Boulez and Barraqué included the works
in their analyses. Jan Michiels points out that the study pour
les Sonorités opposées perfectly illustrates
Debussy’s phrase that “Music is made for the inexpressible”.
How empty people’s lives must be if they can’t “get
into music” for surely we all need something that can
express things we have no other way of doing.
The Études end with the superb pour les Accords
with its contrasting fast and furious opening set against its
slow and reflective middle section before returning to the opening
theme once more. Debussy’s friend Stravinsky’s contribution
to the musical homage is a fragment from his own Symphony
for Wind Instruments presented in a liturgical style.
The disc ends with Debussy’s own beautiful Les soirs
illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon with its
allusions to Baudelaire. He wrote this for his coal supplier
- it is to be hoped that it was appreciated as something infinitely
more valuable than money!
This disc is a joy to listen to. It is a carefully chosen and
winning programme that by setting Debussy’s works in amongst
those of his friends makes the whole experience more poignant.
It also serves to help the listener appreciate the wealth of
Debussy’s invention and the esteem in which he was held
by his musical colleagues. I loved it. Jan Michiels is an excellent
advocate of this music. He plays with obvious love and understanding
of all the nuances and revels in Debussy’s fabulous sonorities.