Fri, 19 Aug|
Church of the Holy Spirit Tickets £25
RÊVERIE The life and loves of Claude Debussy
Lucy Parham piano, Simon Russell Beale narrator. Scripted by Lucy Parham Rêverie evokes Debussy’s complex emotional life through a personal and revealing journal, illuminated by a sequence of his most famous and atmospheric solo piano works.
Time & Location
19 Aug 2022, 18:30
Church of the Holy Spirit Tickets £25 , PL20 6HP (Includes a glass of wine in the interval)
About the Event
REVERIE – the life and loves of Claude Debussy
Scripted by Lucy Parham
The piano works by Debussy that perhaps most readily spring to mind are such ever-popular melodious gems as The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Arabesques, Rêverie, Clair de Lune and the Golliwogg’s Cake-walk. But Claude Debussy is far more than a charming miniaturist. His contribution to the piano repertoire and its development is immense and his far-reaching influence as a turn-of-the-20th-century composer is hard to overestimate. The two books of Préludes, Etudes and Images, Estampes and L’isle joyeuse all transformed the use of harmonic structure and instrumental tone colour, creating a new idiom with colours, subtleties and complexities that had never seen before. The use of the whole-tone scale, an innovative harmonic palette and judicious use of the pedal are just some of elements that contribute to making Debussy unique.
Born the eldest of five children into a humble family just outside Paris in 1862, Claude-Achille Debussy overlooked his prodigious pianistic talents in favour of becoming a composer. In 1885, whilst still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he won the coveted Prix de Rome, which enabled him to spend two years studying at the Villa Medici in Rome, mixing with artists, architects, musicians and sculptors. But, feeling both artistically stifled and lonely, Debussy was miserable for most of his time there and longed to return to Paris. The French capital was to remain his home for the rest of his life and central to his existence as a composer. He and his close friends Chausson and Dukas came to be at the heart of the city’s musical scene.
A thick-set man, with dark hair and a high forehead, Debussy did not present the classic image of a lothario. His relationships with women were, however, both numerous and complex. He had several affairs and two marriages – the second to Emma Bardac who, during her previous marriage to a wealthy banker, had also been mistress to Gabriel Fauré. Such was the scandal created by her affair with Debussy that the couple had to escape temporarily to Eastbourne and Jersey. His first wife, Lily Texier, was so distraught that she tried to commit suicide by shooting herself with a revolver in the Place de la Concorde. Although she survived, the incident caused Debussy deep humiliation from which he never fully recovered.
Debussy, who for his part was always wary of people’s judgements on others’ lives, wrote, “Another man’s soul is a thick forest in which one must walk with circumspection”. Ironically, it was recognition he had so craved as a young man that became the source of his depression as he grew older. The only person who brought him true and deep happiness was his daughter, Claude-Emma (or ‘Chouchou’ as he affectionately called her). He spent endless hours with her in his beloved garden of his house in the Bois de Boulogne with their dog, Xantho. He wrote Children’s Corner for her and -- unsurprisingly, with the eponymous toy being all the rage -- her favourite piece was the Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. Also central to his compositions was his love of the art of the Far East. Japanese lacquer and the Javanese Gamelan music he first heard as a young man were to influence many of his works. His study was crammed with objets d’art, paintings and books (including several English novels), all of which had their own specific effect on his output. But the cancer that was to eventually take his life was worsening and his compositional output was now consequently in decline.
The First World War had a profound effect on Debussy and he was frustrated that his lengthy illness prevented him becoming actively involved. As he lay in bed listening to the nightly air-raids, he wryly noted: “French art needs to take revenge as seriously as the French army does”.
Debussy died from rectal cancer in 1918 and, in a further tragedy, his beloved Chouchou died from diphtheria only months later at the age of fourteen.
Debussy’s legacy is immense. ‘Rêverie’ features a number of his piano works, but it was his entire output (including masterpieces such as the Violin and Cello Sonatas, the Quartet, numerous songs, the orchestral works Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune and La Mer and the opera, Pelléas et Mélisande) that set the course for the century which followed him. Discarding outworn rules, he forged a new and liberated future for classical music.
I have compiled ‘Rêverie’ from Debussy’s writings and correspondence. The music of the programme is not in strict chronological order – it was chosen first and foremost to reflect the mood of the letters.
Rêverie received its London premiere in the Wigmore Hall’s 2012 London Piano Series to critical acclaim, with actor Henry Goodman. Other actors joining Lucy Parham include Dominic West, Simon Russell Beale, Robert Glenister, Tim McInnerny, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Alex Jennings and Michael Maloney.
Notes: Lucy Parham
REVERIE - the music
Rêverie dates from 1900. The title implies a daydream in which the listener is invited to join and it remains one of his most enduring and popular piano works. It has been arranged for many instruments and used on the soundtrack of several films.
Danse bohémienne dates from Debussy’s teenage years. During the summers he was travelling across Europe as teacher to the children of the wealthy von Meck family and giving performances to earn money. He asked Nazheda von Meck, who was also Tchaikovsky’s patron, to send the piece to the Russian composer, whom he greatly admired. Debussy was very dispirited by Tchaikovsky’s response: “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks any unity".
The First Arabesque was published in 1891 and it was composed for much the same reason as Schumann composed his popular Arabesque – to earn money. It has remained a popular salon piece for over one hundred years.
Pagodes is the first of three pieces that comprise the collection Estampes (Prints). Each depicts a geographical location – the Orient, Spain and France – and Debussy conceived each piece as an individual picture from an album. He was even very particular about the design of the front cover of the sheet music, since he wanted the player to see an evocative image for each piece. In Pagodes, the influence of the Javanese gamelan is obvious from the first bar and the use of the pentatonic scale and gong effects Debussy utilises immediately draw us into the world of the Orient. In this piece and the following one, La soirée dans Grenade, you can almost sense the tension between the erotisicm of the dance and the languid delicacy of the writing. Based on a dance – the habanera - this piece suggests the dying heat at the end of the day is replaced by the smouldering heat of passion.
Jardins sous la pluie, the third piece of the set, is influenced by two French nursery songs “We’ll go down to the woods and play” and “Sleep child, sleep”. These are both artfully woven into a toccata-like figuration which is alternately brilliantly virtuosic and playful. Its final peacock-like flourish was inspired by the end of Chopin’s Mazurka in D Op.33 No.2, which employs a similar technical effect.
Technical effects, like technical demands are prevalent in the two books of Etudes (1914). His last major works for solo piano (and like several of his piano compositions, inspired by Chopin) these twelve studies, each tackling a specific technical challenge, see Debussy’s style change dramatically, becoming more abstract. “Pour les huit doigts” (for the eight fingers) is a fleeting, whirling piece that takes under a minute to play, but presents many difficulties for the player – not least in view of Debussy’s stipulation that no thumbs be used, just the eight fingers.
La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) is from the first book of Préludes, which dates from 1910. It is based on a poem of the same title by Charles Leconte de Lisle, which was very close to Debussy’s heart. The gentle, rocking, tonal theme tenderly conveys the words of the poem. The preceding Prélude, the haunting Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow) is, by contrast, a stark and achingly lonely work. Its hushed and almost repressed tones convey a deep sense of loss and Debussy wrote on the score, “this rhythm should evoke the depths of a bleak, frozen landscape”
Poissons d’or (Golden Fish) is the final piece of Images Book Two. The extraordinary shimmering effect Debussy achieves is inspired by the Japanese lacquer of darting golden carp that hung on his study wall in his house in the Bois de Boulogne. Debussy captures the movement and freedom with incredible finesse and alarming accuracy – it is not just the fish you hear, but also the water in which they move. The contrast with the Golliwogg’s Cake-walk could not be greater. Composed in 1908, it forms part of the six-piece set – Children’s Corner. Inspired by Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Album for the Young, Debussy wrote these pieces for his beloved daughter Chouchou. The set bears the inscription, “To my darling little Chouchou – with her father’s tender excuses for what follows”.
Golliwogs were then all the rage and Chouchou adored hers, bought for her by her father. With typical humour, Debussy inserted a quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde into the central section whilst the outer sections romp along in the style of a cakewalk – a jazzy ragtime dance with sharp rhythms and accents, with contrast supplied by long pauses.
Another set of pieces is Suite Bergamasque, published in 1905 and containing probably his most famous composition - Clair de lune(Moonlight). It was inspired by Verlaine’s poem of the same name and title, with its poignant description of “the still moonlight, sad and beautiful”, and its seductive delicacy has captured listeners’ imaginations for over a century. The key of D flat – so effective in one of Chopin’s most famous and tranquil Nocturnes – here exercises a similar magic. Sound painting comparable with Clair de lune is achieved in Reflets dans l’eau, (Reflections in the water), the first piece of Images Book One. Composed whilst Debussy and Emma Bardac were in Jersey in 1904, it depicts restless light on water. Debussy was always fascinated by water and whilst writing his symphonic sketches La Mer (also in 1904) he wrote: “The sea has always fascinated me to the point of paralysing my creative faculties. Moreover, I’ve never been able to write a page of music under the direct, immediate impression of this great, blue sphinx – La mer was composed almost entirely in Paris!”
L’isle joyeuse (The Joyful Island) was also composed at this time and was inspired by Watteau’s painting ’L’embarquement pour Cythère’ or Cythera, the mythical island of love – yet it was written amidst the landscape of a less fabled island, Jersey. In the painting, young lovers disport themselves before a statue of Aphrodite and in this technically brilliant, exuberant and sensual work, Debussy is at the height of creative powers.
Notes: Lucy Parham
Arabesque No. 1
La soirée dans Grenade (Estampes)
La fille aux cheveux de lin (Preludes Book 1)
Jardins sous la pluie (Estampes)
Des pas sur la neige (Preludes Book 1)
Reflets dans l’eau (Images Book 1)
Poissons d’or (Images Book 2)
Golliwogg’s Cake-walk (Children’s corner)
Clair de lune (Suite bergamasque)
Etude “pour les huit doigts” (Etudes Book 1)