The Essential Hyperion, Vol. 2
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Movement 1: Andantino con moto allegro
Movement 2: Scherzo – Intermezzo: Moderato con allegro
Movement 3: Andante espressivo
Movement 4: Finale: Appassionato
But despite this setback, Debussy’s piano teacher, Antoine Marmontel, took note of his first prize in score-reading in 1880 (the only first prize Debussy was ever to win at the establishment until his Prix de Rome in 1884) to recommend him to Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Nadejda von Meck, who was looking for a pianist to accompany her and her children on their travels. He joined her at Interlaken on 20 July and two days later she wrote to Tchaikovsky telling him of the arrival of ‘a young pianist who has just won first prize in Marmontel’s Conservatoire class’—which was untrue—and that ‘although he only looks sixteen, he says he’s twenty’—also untrue: he was rising eighteen. If we are charitable, we may prefer to link Debussy’s loose handling of facts to the report accompanying his triumph in the score-reading exam, which spoke of him as being ‘un peu fantaisiste’ but as having ‘beaucoup d’initiative et de verve’.
Mme von Meck’s requirements at Interlaken, and again at Arcachon where the family moved in early August, were quite specific. He was to give piano lessons to her children, accompany her twenty-seven-year-old daughter Julia, who was a singer, and play piano duets with herself. On 18 August, a duet rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony left her in a state of nervous collapse (pre-echoes of Proust’s Mme Verdurin), but she had only praise for Debussy’s sight-reading abilities. At the same time he ‘ne le joua pas bien’ which must mean that, for all his digital accuracy, she recognised in him an instinctive lack of empathy with Tchaikovsky’s hysterical temperament. One thinks of Debussy’s later characterisation of the ideal French music as generating ‘emotion without epilepsy’.
From Arcachon, the party moved on through Paris, Nice, Genoa and Naples to Florence, where they arrived on 19 September. It was from here that Mme von Meck sent Tchaikovsky a Danse bohémienne her young pianist had written some time during the summer and which the master judged to be ‘a nice piece, but too short, with themes that never get anywhere and a defective form that lacks unity’. This criticism is certainly just, even if the complaint that Debussy’s music ‘never gets anywhere’ was to persist over far greater works than this one.
At the Villa Oppenheim in Florence, the family was joined by the cellist Danilchenko, who had just finished studying at the Moscow Conservatory, and the violinist Pachulsky, who also took on some secretarial duties. A well-known photograph shows the three looking suitably serious and dutiful: Debussy sent a copy home to his parents, inscribed ‘I send this young man to bring you my kisses and all my love’.
It seems the trio was required to perform every evening. We don’t know what their repertoire was, but it can be assumed that Beethoven and Schubert formed some part of it, together with Russian music. If they played Tchaikovsky, it can only have been in arrangements because he did not write his only piano trio until two years later, and then at Mme von Meck’s insistence. ‘I will not conceal from you,’ he wrote from Rome in 1881, once the beginning was written, ‘that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form.’ In the meantime though, the young Debussy had stolen a march on him and, during September and October, had written his own Trio in G major—possibly prompting Mme von Meck’s desire to have something similar from her protégé?
She mentions in her correspondence Debussy’s criticism of German music as being ‘too heavy and unclear’ and his Trio bears out this preference for lightness and clarity. Perhaps he was determined that here, at least, he and his colleagues should have some fun. Certainly all three players have their opportunities for tunes and for a certain amount of display. To modern ears it sounds nothing like the mature Debussy; more, at times, like Delibes, whose music was a mainstay of the Conservatoire score-reading class and was, moreover, highly approved by Tchaikovsky. The second movement, in particular, conjures up visions of footlights and tutus, its pizzicatos serving as a kind of mid-point between Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s String Quartet.
The work cannot be said to be anything more than salon music, written to give immediate pleasure, and as such does not merit deep analysis. Enough to note the features which, while here appearing sometimes as weaknesses, Debussy was later to transform into strengths: his penchant for four-bar phrases that sit down at the end of the last bar and wait for someone to do something, which in his mature work were to be crucial in engendering a contemplative passivity; his reliance on pedal notes, throwing decorative elements into relief; and a tendency towards modal melodic patterns, here too often unintegrated with the surrounding material and with a slightly forced, fake black-and-white aroma, but which, handled with mastery over a decade later, would help lend Pelléas et Mélisande its distinctive atmosphere of far away and long ago. And through it all, enough ‘fantaisie’ to keep everyone happy.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 1999