Program Notes: Debussy and Ravel

The great conductor Pierre Boulez considered Claude Debussy’s 1898 tone poem, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), to be the beginning of modern music. Boulez’ assessment should not detract from our appreciation of Debussy’s continual and sometimes radical musical experiments after that groundbreaking piece. Debussy continued to push music even further along the modernist continuum throughout his career. 

The works on tonight’s program exemplify this emerging modern style of music as it shed the last vestiges of the Belle Epoque era that Debussy had inherited. The influence of this new style was felt far beyond the borders of France and would change Western music forever.


Claude Debussy

Debussy had shown little interest in composing pieces for small ensemble after writing a string quartet in 1893. According to Debussy’s publisher Jacques Durand, a program at the Concerts Durand in 1914 reawakened the composer’s interest in chamber music. With Durand’s encouragement, Debussy set about writing six sonatas planned for different combinations of instruments. He completed the first three between 1915 and 1917: both the Sonata for Cello and Piano and the Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola in 1915, followed by the Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1917. Each of these is a masterpiece.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano is constructed in three movements. The piece opens with a pair of ascending chords in the piano, G minor to C major, that the violin answers with a simple downward theme. Over the next 15 minutes, Debussy revisits the tension between these two harmonies repeatedly. 

The melodic material of the work is beautiful, but the real magic lies in the delicate ambiguity of Debussy’s harmonic language. The music hovers and darts like a hummingbird, pausing in places but never alighting for long. Debussy transports the listener from glistening effervescence to exotic, sultry, and melancholy sound worlds. Shimmering piano lines serve as connective tissue between the slower-paced music, setting up the more explosive sections. The effect on the listener is breathless and intoxicating. 

Sadly, Debussy was never able to complete the last three sonatas of his planned set. The violin sonata would be Debussy’s final complete work before he succumbed to cancer in 1918, after a long and arduous battle.


Javanese Dancer, Paris 1889

Images Book 2 comprises three of a set of six works that Debussy completed between 1901 and 1907, along with Images for Orchestra in 1905.

In Images Book 2, Debussy seems to reach back to sensibilities he explored after his first encounter with Javanese Gamelan music at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889. Images Book 2 employs ‘gamelan-like’ effects that reflect an Asian influence.

The first piece, Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells Through the Leaves), is said to have been inspired by the bells in the village of Rahon in Jura, France. Rahon was the birthplace of Debussy’s close friend, Louis Laloy, who was an expert on Asian philosophy and culture.

The second piece, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the Moon Sets over the Temple That Was), was dedicated to Laloy. In this piece, Debussy seems most explicitly to employ gamelan-like sounds.

For the third piece, Poissons d’Or (Goldfish), Debussy gathered his inspiration from the paintings on a Japanese lacquer box that he owned.

L’Embarquement pour Cythère by Antoine Watteau


Some have drawn a connection between L’lsle Joyeuse and Debussy’s romantic life with his second wife Emma, with whom he traveled to Jersey Island in 1904. Although L’lsle Joyeuse conveys anecstatic frenzy that certainly could support such a claim, a first version of the work is known to have been performed a year earlier, making such a connection doubtful. 

More likely sources of inspiration for L’isle joyeuse are Antoine Watteau’s 18th-century painting, L’embarquement pour Cythere, which hangs in the Louvre, along with paintings of Turner that Debussy saw at the National Gallery in London in 1903The piece lasts over 6 minutes, making it Debussy’s longest work for solo piano. Debussy had initially intended L’isle joyeuse to be part of his Suite Bergamesque, but ultimately chose to develop it into a stand-alone work. Debussy later revised the original 1903 version substantially, noting to his publisher, Durand, August 1904: “This piece seems to me to combine every way of attacking the instrument.”

L’lsle Joyeuse celebrates the exotic. In it, Debussy normalizes a whole-tone harmonic language that would have been impossible to imagine before his composition of Prélude à l’après-midi dun faune in 1898.


Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel had planned to write a trio for years, before finally starting in March of 1914. Progress on the piece was initially slow. Ravel’s mother was Basque, the composer identified closely with Basque culture, and he very naturally spent the summer of 1914 in the French Basque commune of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near his native town of Ciboure. As the First World War consumed Europe that summer, Ravel hurried to finish the Trio so that he could enlist and serve the war effort. Writing to Igor Stravinsky, Ravel said, “The idea that I should be leaving at once made me get through five months’ work in five weeks! My Trio is finished.” Ravel was accepted into the French army, and eventually became a volunteer truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.

Ravel’s brilliant orchestration abilities were a perfect match for the usual problems associated with the piano trio genre. He exploited the full ranges of the instruments, placing the violin and cello two octaves apart to give each room to stand out without competing with one another. He also utilized a complete variety of available instrumental effects such as trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos, and arpeggios. 

Roland-Manuel, Ravel’s first biographer and friend, claimed that Ravel had heard some street musicians in Saint-Jean-de-Luz playing what would become the theme for the Trio’s first movement, “Modéré.” Whether true or not, Ravel was in Saint-Jean-de-Luz as he composed the trio, and he later described the Trio’s first movement as “Basque in coloring.”

The second movement, “Pantoum: Assez vif,” is a scherzo modeled after a Malaysian verse form in which the first verse’s second and fourth lines repeat as the second verse’s first and third lines. The form was popular with poets such as Charles Baudelaire.

The third movement, “Passacaille: Très large,” is a passacaglia in the form of a long arch. The piano starts a bass line that is picked up in turn by the cello and violin, then builds to a monumental climax that crests and returns toward the sounds with which it began.

The final movement, “Finale: Animé,” opens with a pyrotechnic display of harmonics in the strings that create a charged atmospheric accompaniment for the piano theme. The writing is symphonic in sweep throughout, drawing an unprecedented level of brilliance and sonic voluptuousness from the three instruments. The piece builds with a collision of themes, trills and harmonies, and finishes with irrepressible excitement.

Ravel dedicated the Trio to his counterpoint teacher, André Gedalge. It was premiered in Paris in January 1915 by pianist Alfredo Casella, violinist Gabriel Willaume, and cellist Louis Feuillard.

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