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The cheerful ‘Cortège’ was prompted by Verlaine’s depiction of an elegant lady whose pet monkey, dressed in a brocaded jacket, struts and gambols in front of her. A black child holds her elaborate dress rather higher than he ought, but the lady, as she waves a lace handkerchief in her gloved hand, seems quite oblivious to the insolence of her ‘familiars’.
Confusingly, the minuet third movement is a transcription of a song called ‘Fête galante’ which Debussy had composed in 1882, to words not by Verlaine, but by the proto-symbolist poet Théodore de Banville. Debussy described his setting as 'Louis XIV music with 1882 turns of phrase'.
The theme of the energetic concluding ‘Ballet’ is given out initially by the secondo player. At the first performance of the Petite suite, which Debussy gave together with his future publisher Jacques Durand at a private salon on 1 March 1889, the composer apparently got carried away, leaving Durand struggling to keep up. A more languorous middle section is in the style of a waltz, and its melody is combined with the movement’s opening idea in a coda.
More sombre in tone is En blanc et noir. This is one of Debussy’s late works, and written not for piano duet, but for two pianos. In August 1914 the composer asked Jacques Durand to find something to keep his mind occupied. He was already suffering from cancer, and his illness left him with a feeling of helplessness in the face of the terrible events that were unfolding around him, as the war began to take its toll. Durand responded by suggesting that Debussy should prepare a new edition of Chopin’s piano music, and it was while he was working on that project, in the summer of the following year, that he composed not only his own set of Études, but also En blanc et noir.
No piece of Debussy is more intimately bound up with the feelings aroused in him by the First World War than the middle panel of this triptych. Debussy dedicated it to Lieutenant Jacques Charlot, Durand’s cousin and associate, who had been killed 'by the enemy', as Debussy put it in his inscription, on 3 March 1915. The piece evokes not only the sounds of bugle-calls and distant gunfire, but also the face of the enemy, in the shape of the Lutheran chorale ‘Ein fester Burg ist unser Gott’.
Debussy’s original title for the three pieces of En blanc et noir described them as ‘caprices’ in black and white. The colours refer to the keys of the piano, but also to the music’s changing moods. Writing to Durand on the significant date of 14 July 1915, Debussy told him: 'I have to confess I have slightly changed the colour of No 2 of the Caprices (‘Ballade de Villon contre les ennemis de France’): it was too consistently black and almost as tragic as a ‘Caprice’ by Goya!' Three weeks later Debussy sent Durand a new passage to be inserted into the piece, which considerably lightened its mood following the appearance of a broadened version of the chorale tune. 'It’s my concern for proportions that has made this change necessary', Debussy told him. 'Also, it makes things clearer and cleans the atmosphere of the poisonous vapours momentarily emitted by the Luther chorale—or rather by what it represents, because it’s still a fine tune.' Debussy’s bitter reference to ‘poisonous vapours’ must have been prompted by the fact that a few months earlier the Germans had used gas against French and British troops in Flanders.
Each of the three pieces is prefaced by a literary quotation, and the lines at the head of the opening number, taken from the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, seem to refer to Debussy’s own frustration at not being able to take an active part in the war:
Qui reste à sa place
Et ne danse pas
De quelque disgrace
Fait l’aveu tout bas.
He who remains seated
and doesn’t dance
makes a hushed confession
to some disgrace.
The music unfolds in an exuberant swirl of triplets whose progress is interrupted only by short episodes of contrasting material: a tiny scherzo-like idea in dotted rhythm, a syncopated waltz-melody, and an incisive motif given out by both players in unison. This last is a severe test not only of the players’ ensemble, but also of the conscientiousness with which the piano tuner has carried out his task.
The second piece bears a quotation of the envoi from one of François Villon’s famous ballades. Villon’s own title for the poem was ‘Ballade contre les Mesdisans de la France’ (‘Ballad against the detractors of France’), but Debussy’s anti-German sentiments at the time led him to substitute the stronger noun ‘ennemis’ for ‘mesdisans’.
The final piece is prefaced by a line from a poem by the 15th-century Duke of Orleans: ‘Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain’ (‘Winter, you are nothing but a rogue’). Debussy had made a choral setting of the poem in 1898, which he incorporated ten years later into a set of Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans. Musically, the piece, with its fleeting chromatic lines, is closely related to the opening study from the second Book of Debussy’s Études, ‘pour les degrés chromatiques’. The piece is inscribed to Stravinsky, with whom Debussy had on one occasion sight-read the four-hands version of Le sacre du printemps, and a motif which unfolds in longer notes against the predominantly swirling movement is strikingly reminiscent of one of the ballet’s folk-like melodies. Many years later Stravinsky described how struck he had been while listening to En blanc et noir by the manner in which the quality of Debussy’s piano writing had influenced him as a composer.
Like Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants and Fauré’s Dolly suite before it, Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye belongs to a tradition of French piano duets written for grown-ups to play, and children to listen to. It takes its inspiration largely from the 17th-century fairy stories of Charles Perrault, whose ‘Mother Goose Tales’ supplied Ravel with his title—hence the archaic spelling of 'oye', rather than 'oie'. He composed the opening ‘Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty’ in September 1908, and added the remaining numbers at the request of Jacques Durand, who was also his publisher, in the spring of 1910. The pieces, for which Ravel’s subtitle was 5 Pièces enfantines, were written at the country house of his friends Ida and Cipa Godebski, and were intended for their young children.
Ravel had previously invoked the stylised form of the pavane in his famous Pavane pour une Infante défunte, of 1899, and the ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’ is a delicate miniature that serves essentially as a curtain-raiser to the suite. The following piece, ‘Petit Poucet’, is headed by a quotation from Perrault: 'He thought he would easily find his way by means of his bread which he had scattered everywhere he had passed by; but he was very surprised when he could not find a single crumb of it again: the birds had come and had eaten everything.' Tom Thumb’s aimless wandering through the forest is suggested in the music’s smoothness and rhythmic regularity, much of it moving in parallel thirds. Only towards the end do we momentarily hear the chirping of the birds and the call of the cuckoo.
A journalist who visited Ravel in 1931 described how he felt on entering his home as if he had stepped into a Chinese curio shop. On asking the composer about his fascination with the music of the Orient, Ravel replied: 'I consider Javanese music the most sophisticated of the Far East, and I frequently derive themes from it: ‘Laideronette’ from Ma mère l’oye, with the tolling of its temple bells, was derived from Java both harmonically and musically.' ‘Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas’ is in fact a fairy march written in pentatonic style, and unfolding entirely on the black notes of the piano. In the second half of the piece, while the primo player takes a rest, we hear the bells mentioned by Ravel. The story of Laideronette comes from Serpentin Vert by the 17th-century writer Madame d’Aulnois, who seems to have been the first to have used the description ‘contes de fées’, or ‘fairy tales’, for her collections.
In ‘Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête’ Ravel depicts Beauty in a graceful waltz, and the Beast by means of growls deep in the bass of the piano. At the end, as the spell is broken, a delicate glissando leads in to a magical transformation of the Beast’s motif, and to a distant echo of the waltz. That waltz owes a debt to the Gymnopédies of Satie; and a copy of Ma mère l’oye bears a dedication in Ravel’s hand, 'for Erik Satie, grandpapa of ‘The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast’ and others, affectionate homage from a disciple'.
The concluding ‘Le jardin féerique’, inspired by the ending of Perrault’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, functions as an apotheosis. From its quiet beginning it rises to a triumphant series of fanfares to which glissandos at the top of the keyboard add a dazzling veneer.
In the year after he completed Ma mère l’oye, Ravel orchestrated it and also refashioned the music into a ballet, for which he provided an introductory fanfare as well as an additional opening number. Also more familiar in orchestral guise is La valse—indeed, it comes as a something of a surprise to learn that Ravel’s piece was initially written first for solo piano, and then for two pianos. All the same, it had been commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets russes, and the heading of Ravel’s score sets the scene: 'Swirling clouds intermittently part to reveal waltzing couples. They gradually disperse, and we see an immense room filled with a whirling crowd. The scene becomes progressively brighter. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth ff. An imperial court around 1855.' Diaghilev, however, disliked the piece, and he never produced it for the stage. To Ravel, he complained, 'It’s a masterpiece, but not a ballet. It’s a portrait of a ballet, a painting of a ballet.'
Ravel had first thought of writing a homage to Johann Strauss in 1906, under the title of Wien ('Vienna'), but it was not until towards the end of 1919 that the idea bore fruit. By then, Ravel, as an ambulance driver, had witnessed the horrors of the First World War, and so it is tempting to see his piece not as a nostalgic recollection of the golden age of Vienna, but as an apocalyptic vision of a world that had been destroyed. However, all such interpretations were dismissed by the composer, who insisted that the music represented the apotheosis of the dance, and that the mid-19th century Viennese setting should be taken at face-value.
On 8 June 1912 the Ballets russes gave the first performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, with Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in the title roles. Also on the programme was a staged version of Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune—a piece whose shimmering orchestral colours made a deep impression on Ravel. Debussy’s music vividly conjures up the atmosphere of the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé which inspired it, with its description of the languor of a hot Sicilian afternoon, and the half-hearted attempts of a faun to pursue a group of nymphs. Debussy himself arranged his piece for two pianos in 1895, shortly after he had completed the orchestral score, and Ravel made his piano duet transcription some 15 years later, adding such individual touches as the fleeting harp-like arpeggios at the end of the opening flute solo, which, in the absence of the orchestral colours, serve to enhance the music’s exoticism.
More straightforward are the 4-hands arrangements by Léon Roques of two of Debussy’s most popular piano pieces: the waltz La plus que lente and La fille aux cheveux de lin (from the first Book of Préludes), both of them in the unusual key of G flat major. Roques made a number of transcriptions of music by both Debussy and Ravel, including a more familiar version of La plus que lente for violin and piano. His piano duet arrangements generally content themselves with amplifying the harmony and adding octave doublings to the melodic line, as in the final moments of La fille aux cheveux de lin.
The arrangement by Henri Dutilleux of the most famous of all Debussy’s piano pieces, ‘Clair de lune’, from his early Suite bergamasque is more subtle still. So respectful is Dutilleux of Debussy’s original that he leaves the initial eight bars exactly as they were; and having two pianos at his disposal he is able elsewhere to augment the sonority almost imperceptibly by having the players use the same pitches in parallel, as he does, for instance, in the Tempo rubato passage following the opening page of the piece. The music itself does not seem to have much to do with moonlight, and it is instructive to learn that until quite a late stage Debussy had toyed with the idea of calling it ‘Promenade sentimentale’.
Misha Donat © 2024
Whatever is missing is to be found in the many transcriptions that weave their way through the repertoire. Often, major composers themselves have undertaken the task of transcribing their own creations, as well as those of their peers, elevating this art form to an even higher plane. Consider the magnificent example of Ravel, transcribing Debussy’s revolutionary and breathtaking Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Here, we have two master composers joining hands, colleagues who admired each other’s genius and were captivated by specific compositions. In the process of transcribing, they couldn’t help but infuse their own brilliance, revealing what they found captivating about a particular work while preserving its original essence.
Similarly, we find Dutilleux’s two-piano version of Debussy’s perennial favorite, Clair de lune, adding a touch of enchantment, despite the challenges of adapting this delicate piece for two majestic instruments.
Debussy’s En blanc et noir, as its title suggests, is an unapologetically pianistic creation. Crafted specifically for two pianos, it manages to transport the listener into a magical, eerie, and powerful atmosphere that clearly transcends the boundaries of black and white.
Then there are compositions that are well known in their orchestral versions, like Ravel’s La valse, Ma mère l’Oye, and Debussy’s Petite suite. While inherently pianistic in their own right, the textures and colors of their unforgettable and vividly imaginative orchestral versions reside in our collective consciousness and enrich our understanding of the works.
Thus, we discover that even when we narrow our focus to the works of two single composers from the same period and country, we find ourselves traversing an expansive spectrum of emotions, from the most intimate to grand, symphonic scale compositions. This is undeniably one of the most beautiful and captivating aspects of piano four hands and two-piano music, likely the very allure that drew numerous great composers to this format.
The making of this album has been an incredible source of joy and privilege every step of this journey.
Lucille & Alessio ©