Movement 1: Animé et très décidé
Movement 2: Assez vif et bien rythmé
Movement 3: Andantino, doucement expressif
Movement 4: Très modéré
Before the first performance of the Debussy Quartet by the Ysaÿe Quartet on 29 December 1893, audiences at the Société Nationale had already heard Debussy’s cantata La damoiselle élue, of which one critic wrote prophetically ‘this subcutaneous injection may possibly produce dangerous eruptions among the young composers of the near future’. The Quartet too was to have a decisive influence, notably on Ravel. Some of the immediate responses from the critics were enthusiastic, but not those of Chausson, with whom Debussy was very friendly at the time. It is clear from a letter Debussy wrote to him on 5 February 1894 that Chausson liked things in the work which Debussy would rather had remained undetected, and that he found Debussy’s forms lacking in decorum: ‘I’ll write another one which will be for you, and I’ll try and bring some nobility to my forms’, responded Debussy, with just a hint of acid.
We can only guess as to exactly which parts of the Quartet Chausson objected to: the scherzo perhaps, full of flying pizzicati, and very probably a reminiscence of the gamelan he had heard at the 1889 Exposition; or indeed the very opening of the first movement, where an initially impassioned modal statement simply runs out of steam by the twelfth bar, to be succeeded by an apparently unrelated theme in a quite different mood. Chausson’s view was that Debussy did not roll up his sleeves and really get to work on his material—a similar response to that from Vincent d’Indy, who later told Georges Auric that both the Debussy and Ravel quartets were no more than ‘jolis morceaux pour quatuor à cordes’.
But then Debussy always resisted orthodox ‘development’ of his ideas, much preferring to exercise a looser ‘fantaisie’ through free variation, as in the transformations of the Quartet’s opening theme, which itself owes something to Grieg’s first String Quartet, also in G minor. To label these transformations ‘cyclic’, in the manner of Franck, is to miss something of the Debussyan essence. The theme does not, for example, culminate in any grand peroration like the one in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, unkindly dubbed by Alfred Cortot ‘l’embourgeoisement du thème’. Debussy’s approach is nearer to Monet’s in recording the variations of light on the façade of Rouen Cathedral. Contemporary critics noted that in the slow movement the Russian influence was alive and well, and it could be that this whiff of exoticism struck Chausson as unpatriotic.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2010