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Hyperion Records

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The Seine at Herblay (1890) by Paul Signac (1863-1935)
Track(s) taken from CDA66495
Recording details: March 1991
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: February 1995
Total duration: 16 minutes 1 seconds

Suite bergamasque, L82
circa 1890; revised for publication in 1905

Prélude  [4'10]
Menuet  [3'44]
Clair de lune  [4'32]
Passepied  [3'35]

Other recordings available for download
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Suite bergamasque has always been a favourite of mine, ever since I first played it at the age of fourteen. Its third movement is Debussy’s biggest hit, Clair de lune, but the rest is also very atmospheric and it makes a wonderful whole. It was written fifteen years before it was published in 1905, by which time Debussy’s style had changed considerably. He thus insisted on writing the date 1890 on the title page. The whole set went through many revisions and even changes of titles—Clair de lune first being called Promenade sentimentale (a good thing he changed it!), and the final Passepied starting life as Pavane.

With three movements having titles borrowed from the Baroque, it might be thought that the main influence of this suite was the music of that period—especially that of Couperin and Rameau for whom Debussy had the greatest admiration and from whom he liked to trace his musical lineage. However the biggest clue lies rather in the adjective ‘bergamasque’. This links it to the world of the Commedia dell’arte and also to the poet Verlaine, whose poem Clair de lune alludes to ‘masques et bergamasques’ and an idyllic Arcadia (Debussy set this poem twice to music). Verlaine’s cycle, Fêtes galantes, was in turn inspired by the elegant and frivolous world portrayed by the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

The opening Prélude is marked Moderato (tempo rubato), and it is important to give it the requested rhythmic freedom. Debussy, like most French composers, insisted on being faithful to his score, but realized that after exactitude comes talent. It has some beautiful changes of colour, and a great sense of space. There is an almost direct quote from Fauré’s setting of Clair de lune in bar 33. The Menuet requires good contrast between the staccato and legato touches as well as the ability to create a fanciful mood. The long sustained passage of fifteen bars before the coda has a great sense of sweep and should be played as one continuous line.

What would Debussy say if he knew his Clair de lune had been used in the soundtrack of at least fourteen major films and even in a TV commercial for Lexus automobiles (mutilated beyond belief)? It made him mad enough to be labelled an ‘Impressionist’ composer. Of all the pieces recorded here, you could probably apply that adjective most appropriately to this masterpiece, yet it still doesn’t seem quite right. I prefer how the French pianist Jacques Février described it: ‘The first to date of the great sonorous landscapes of Debussy.’ Its hushed stillness at the beginning is almost unbearably beautiful. Thinking how to interpret it, I am reminded of what Debussy said about metronome marks and why he so rarely used them: that they are all right for one bar, ‘like roses for the span of a morning’. Debussy told the pianist Maurice Dumesnil to use a general flexibility in this piece, and not to confuse the harmonies by using too much pedal. The harmony in fact is the melody here—it is not just a pretty tune. The C flat that is introduced the last time the theme appears must pierce us with its feeling of regret.

The Passepied is not at all in the standard Baroque metre for this dance (3/8), but it does bring us back to the aristocratic, noble colour of the other movements. Its main difficulty lies in playing the left hand staccato while phrasing the right hand (similar to Chabrier’s Idylle and Reynaldo Hahn’s song Quand je fus pris au pavillon). Debussy evidently held back this work from the publishers for months because he wasn’t happy with the last few bars. I think he finally got them perfect.

from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2012

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