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Composer Notes

A brief guide to Debussy

Despite an insecure family background (his father was imprisoned as a revolutionary in 1871), Debussy took piano lessons and was accepted as a pupil of the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, but failed to make the grade as a concert pianist. The gifted musician directed his talents towards composition, eventually winning the coveted Prix de Rome in 1884 and spending two years in Italy. During the 1890s he lived in poverty with his mistress Gabrielle Dupont, eventually marrying the dressmaker Rosalie (Lily) Texier in 1899. His Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, although regarded as a revolutionary work at the time of its premiere in December 1894, soon found favour with concertgoers and the habitually conservative French press. Late in the summer of the previous year he had begun work on the only opera he completed, Pelléas et Mélisande, which was inspired by Mæterlinck’s play. It was an immediate success after its first production in April 1902.

In 1904 he met Emma Bardac, the former wife of a successful financier, and moved into an apartment with her; his wife, Lily Texier, attempted suicide following their separation. Debussy and Emma had a daughter and were subsequently married in January 1908. The composer’s troubled domestic life did not affect the quality of his work, with such magnificent scores as La mer for large orchestra and the first set of Images for piano produced during this period. Debussy’s ballet Jeux was first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in May 1913, a fortnight before the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Although suffering from cancer, he managed to complete the first three of a projected set of six instrumental sonatas. He died at his Paris home and was buried at Passy cemetery.

Profile © Andrew Stewart

Programme Notes

Information for this evening’s performance Wed 13 Jun 2007 7.30pm

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) Petrushka (1911)

A mere four years after finishing his private studies with Rimsky- Korsakov, Stravinsky was embarking on the work that would alienate him forever from his teacher’s circle. His first collaboration with the great Ballet Russes impresario Sergey Diaghilev – The Firebird – had already met with a mixed reception in Russia, some feeling it was lacking in originality, others finding it brilliant but superficial. Petrushka, however, caused serious outrage. Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s childhood friend and son of his revered teacher, had already questioned Stravinsky’s intention to use popular songs in his new work. On receiving the composer’s letter from France, containing fragments of half-remembered ‘street or factory songs’ together with a request to jog his memory, he obligingly sent Stravinsky the completed songs, but queried his intention to use such ‘trash’.

At the root of Rimsky-Korsakov’s displeasure was the urban nature of much of Petrushka’s borrowed material. The scholarly work of Russian ethnographers and folklorists had been deeply admired by his father Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian national school. Stravinsky’s apparent addiction to the cheap urban songs of his youth was a different matter entirely. One of the songs Stravinsky had already written into Petrushka was not even Russian: it was a ‘polka populaire’ by Emile Spencer entitled La jambe en bois, which he had heard played on a barrel-organ. The song – popular in France at the time – was about the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt and her wooden leg, with a text that might have provoked as many frowns in St Petersburg circles as smiles in France: ‘She had a wooden leg/and so it should not be seen/she had it fitted from beneath/with rubber washers.’ Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov would no doubt have appreciated the poetic justice in the legal proceedings that ensued, resulting in Stravinsky’s paying Spencer royalties from Petrushka for the rest of his life. What is certain, however, is that

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