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Programme Notes

Information for Thu 14 Jun 2007 7.30pm

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862–1918) First Rhapsody for Clarinet (1909–10)

Andrew Marriner clarinet

Debussy wrote few pieces for solo instrument and orchestra: only this work, the Saxophone Rhapsody, the two Dances for Harp and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. Somehow the display element, traditional in setting a solo instrument against an orchestra, was not in Debussy’s nature although, curiously enough, the Nocturnes were originally conceived for solo violin and orchestra. Why then the Clarinet Rhapsody?

Recent biographical information, for a long time suppressed, may help us to build a picture of the composer during 1909 and 1911, the period when the work took shape. It was first written as a morceau de concours: a competition piece for conservatoire students, in this form with piano accompaniment. Debussy’s manuscript is precise in its dates: it was started in December 1909 and completed the following month. The composer himself was on the jury when eleven clarinet players presented the piece for examination. He wrote to his publisher Jacques Durand in advance of the event which took place in July 1910: ‘I’ll tell you about it, that is if I’m still alive!’ A week later he was able to report that the concours went well and had the impression that his piece was liked. He commented on the correctness but mediocrity of the performers with the exception of one named Vandercruyssen who played the piece from memory and was, according to Debussy, a grand musician.

Those who know Debussy’s piece in the version with piano will have an extra dimension of enjoyment added as they hear Debussy’s thoroughly pianistic sonorities transformed rather than transcribed. Its accompaniment, often reliant on a cloud of resonance created by the sustaining pedal, here takes on quite a different character.

Maybe the piece ranks more among those pieces whose impetus was external rather than stemming from a burning artistic idea, but if it is a pot boiler then it is none the worse for it. Certainly the financial aspect was important when it came to the orchestration. In June he had been in Turin conducting a concert including works by Chabrier, Roger-Ducasse and Paul Dukas as well as some of his own. The orchestra had been recently formed and was entirely unaccustomed to the French style. Furthermore they were ill prepared. Debussy was not at ease in such situations, having no natural authority over orchestral musicians at the best of times. The whole event left him in a state of nervous exhaustion, and in July he was ordered to rest for at least a month by his doctor. He took the opportunity of pleading poverty to Durand who advanced him 3000 francs in anticipation of an orchestration of the Clarinet Rhapsody, commissioned by Elisa Hall of the Orchestral Club of Boston. It was she who had commissioned the Saxophone Rhapsody some years before and this second commission enabled Debussy to take his well-earned holiday.

Unfortunately the holiday was by no means a success. With his second wife Emma he settled for a month at the beach resort of Houlgate, near Pourville on the Normandy coast. While he loved the sea and the landscape, the high season crowds annoyed him intensely. To the composer André Caplet he said he was “doing nothing, not from laziness but because he couldn’t even think in this caravanserai”. But to his publisher he wrote that the orchestration of the Rhapsody ‘was nearly done’.

Durand published his correspondence with Debussy in 1927, at which time Emma Debussy was still alive, and many passages revealing personal details were cut. Recent examination of the original letters sheds a good deal of light on the strained relations between Debussy and his wife at this time, for he used Durand as someone in whom he could confide his feelings. ‘At the end of the holiday we’ll have to admit that we don’t know why we bothered


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