One day in 1891, General Meredith Reid appeared unexpectedly at the doorstep of Claude Debussy. Because the composer spoke little English and Reid spoke no French at all, it took a hastily obtained interpreter to sort out exactly what it was that the august General wanted from the composer. It turned out that the General wished to commission a piece of music. This became the ‘Marche écossaise’ or ‘Scottish March’ – its first title was ‘March of the ancient Earls of Ross’. Debussy originally wrote it for piano four-hands and in 1908 he orchestrated it but not without grumbling about ‘some scandalous failings’ in the work.
What does one make of a ‘heroic cradle-song’ – the literal translation of ‘Berceuse héroïque’? Debussy wrote it near the start of World War One to express his sympathy for Belgium and specifically for King Albert I and his soldiers. (Initially, Debussy considered writing a march instead but found a ‘berceuse’ more congenial: stressed by the war, yet ‘never having held a rifle’, he declared himself unfit to compose frankly military music.) The Belgian national anthem makes a shadowy appearance. Again, the ‘Berceuse héroïque’ originated as a piano work that the composer himself later orchestrated.
In 1897, the Pleyel firm introduced a new instrument – the chromatic harp. The standard diatonic harp required the use of pedals to produce semitones; Pleyel’s instrument dispensed with pedals and added additional strings – one for each semitone. Wishing to establish its legitimacy, in 1903, Pleyel asked Debussy to write a work for chromatic harp and string orchestra that could be used in both conservatories and concert halls. Debussy obliged with two ‘Danses’ – one ‘sacred’ and one ‘secular’. (The English word ‘profane’ is too strong.) Two days before the work’s 1904 premiere, Debussy’s estranged wife Lilly shot herself in the chest in despair over her husband’s desertion. Miraculously, she lived but Debussy’s reputation suffered. Manuel de Falla enthused over Debussy’s use of Spanish song in the first ‘Danse’, but Gabriel Fauré who had been devoted to Lilly, noted the composer’s ‘harmonic idiosyncrasies that are at times unusual and attractive, and at other times simply unpleasant.’ Posterity has favoured the ‘Danses’ but usually in a slightly reworked version for diatonic harp: Pleyel’s instrument never caught on.
In his twenties, Debussy twice visited Bayreuth, the emotional centre of all things Wagnerian. ‘Parsifal’ made a lasting impression on him and also on his music. The ghost of Wagner’s last music-drama haunts parts of ‘La Damoiselle élue’ (1888), ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ (completed in 1893-95), and ‘Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien’ (1911), a musical mystery play ‘cum’ dance work. In contrast to the devout religiosity of ‘Parsifal’, however, ‘Le Martyre’ seems almost to have been calculated to shock the Parisian bourgeoisie. It originated as a vehicle for Ida Rubinstein, the fiery and scandal-attracting dancer who had conquered Paris the season before with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The symbolist poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, wowed by her dancing, agreed to collaborate with her on a new production and suggested the story of Sebastian, an ancient Roman archer of epicene beauty – a favourite of Caesar – who rejects the emperor, converts to Christianity and is therefore sentenced to impalement with arrows shot by his reluctant fellow archers. D’Annunzio blended Christianity with pagan elements, conflating Adonis with Jesus Christ. The story’s incipient homoeroticism, plus the bare-limbed Rubinstein dancing the role of male saint, pushed Paris’s Roman Catholic Archbishop over the edge: he threatened those who attended with excommunication. (If only the video camera had existed in 1911!)
Debussy was d’Annunzio’s third choice of composer – the first two are just names in the history books today – and he wrote the score quickly, leaving some of the orchestration to his pupil, André Caplet who conducted the premiere performance. That premiere went on for nearly five hours, necessitating extensive cuts. Modern concert performances of ‘Le Martyre’ are perforce cut even further, leaving Debussy’s music, which requires, in addition to the orchestra, a chorus, vocal soloists, and a reciter. Four ‘symphonic fragments’ for orchestra alone are performed more frequently. In the first, which serves as a prelude, two young Christian brothers serenely await their martyrdom at the Roman Court of Lilies. In the second, Sebastian, inspired by their faith and their sacrifice, dances ecstatically on hot coals. The martyrdom of Sebastian (and its parallel to Christ’s crucifixion) is the basis of the third fragment. Finally, Sebastian is delivered and transfigured by the mercy of ‘the good Shepherd.’
Although he labeled it a ‘première Rapsodie’, Debussy never wrote a second rhapsody for clarinet. The ‘Rapsodie’, originally scored for clarinet and piano, was begun in the late fall of 1909, completed later that winter, and orchestrated in 1911. Written for the Paris Conservatoire, it remains a staple of clarinet juries, yet it has maintained a viable life of its own in the recital and concert halls. It begins dreamily (the initial tempo marking is Rêveusement lent) but in time, it shimmers more brilliantly and both the soloist’s agility and control over tone colour are challenged. Debussy wrote only a handful of concertante works; this one appears to have been his favorite of the three.
Like ‘Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien‘, an aura of sexual ambiguity surrounds ‘Jeux’ (Games) but here the ambiguity is much more playful. Flirtation and frustration are this ballet’s main themes. Choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913 for the Ballets Russes, ‘Jeux’ concerns a young man and two young women who nominally chasing after a tennis ball, end up chasing after one another. The ballet opens with the tennis ball falling onto the stage and with the young man in hot pursuit. Not finding the ball, he disappears into the trees. Cautiously, the two young women appear and believing themselves to be alone, they begin to share secrets. They are startled by the young man but before they can leave, he entices them back. He dances with one girl but the second girl becomes jealous. The young man then dances with the second girl. The first one makes as if to leave but the others draw her into their dance, and soon the three are engaged in a ‘ménage à trois’. This is broken up by the sudden arrival of a second tennis ball. What an even more interesting ballet this might have been if that plot development had been followed to its natural conclusion! Instead, the three dancers run off and ‘Jeux’ comes to an end.
Debussy is said to have disliked this scenario which apparently was inspired by a tennis match in Bloomsbury and he liked Nijinsky’s choreography no better. Nevertheless, this is the most subtle of his orchestral scores – and also his final one, because intestinal cancer finally would kill him five years later.
Eduard van Beinum
Danses pour harpe et orchestre
Phia Berghout, harp
Chamber Music Society of Amsterdam
Eduard van Beinum
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien : Fragments symphoniques
London Symphony Orchestra
George Pieterson, clarinet
Jeux (Poème dansé)
Concertgebouw: Grote Zaal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 1952 (Danses), May 1957 (Marche écossaise, Berceuse héroique), December 1976 (Première rapsodie), May 1979 (Jeux); Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, May 1963 (Saint Sébastien)