Second Sight: Claude Debussy

Michael Castellaw, Steinway Model D274 (Hamburg)
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Second Sight: Claude Debussy - Michael Castellaw
Claude-Achille Debussy
(French pronunciation: [klod aʃil dəbysi]) (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures working within the field of impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions. In France, he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. A crucial figure in the transition to the modern era in Western music, he remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers. His music is noted for its sensory component and for not often forming around one key or pitch. Often Debussy's work reflected the activities or turbulence in his own life. In French literary circles, the style of this period was known as symbolism, a movement that directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.
The Two Arabesques (Deux arabesques), L. 66, is a pair of arabesques composed for piano by Claude Debussy. They are two of Debussy's earliest works, composed between the years 1888 and 1891, when he was still in his twenties. Although quite an early work, the arabesques contain hints of Debussy's developing musical style. The suite is one of the very early impressionistic pieces of music, following the French visual art form. Debussy seems to wander through modes and keys, and achieves evocative scenes through music.
The Suite Bergamasque (French pronunciation: [bɛʁɡamask]) is one of the most famous piano suites by Claude Debussy. Debussy commenced the suite in 1890 at age 28, but he did not finish or publish it until 1905. It seems that by the time a publisher came to Debussy in order to cash in on his fame and have these pieces published, Debussy loathed the earlier piano style in which these pieces were written. While it is not known how much of the Suite was written in 1890 and how much was written in 1905, we do know that Debussy changed the names of at least two of the pieces. "Passepied" was called "Pavane", and "Clair de lune" was originally titled "Promenade Sentimentale." These names also come from Paul Verlaine's poems. It is interesting, however, to note that "Promenade Sentimentale" alludes specifically to one of Verlaine's earliest collections, "Poèmes saturniens," a fact that Debussy obviously took into account when he changed the name (and most likely a lot of the music) in order to suit both his later style, and Verlaine's.
The second set of Images, published in 1907, is entirely written on three staves, making easier identification and tracking of horizontal flow and voice distribution. Louis Laloy, Debussy biographer, suggests that the composer was inspired for Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells [ heard ] through the leaves) by the French rural habit of sounding the church bells from All Saints' Day until the Mass of the Dead on All Souls' Day. A whole-tone scale and layering of sounds give the effect of a background shimmer through which emerge melodic fragments, while the whole image of the sound permeating the landscape is accentuated by bell overtones. The title for Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (Descent of the moon upon the temple which used to be) was suggested by the dedicatee, Laloy. Rather than following a programmatic guideline befitting the title, the music transmits an impression of oriental stillness and serenity, particularly through the use of the gamelan effect. Poissons d'or can be understood as either goldfish in a bowl or golden fish on Chinese lacquer, embroidery or Japanese print, according to the source. Its illustrative effects are achieved by extensive use of toccata style, trills and tremolos, a perfect example of music that, by transcending the inherent technical prerequisites, a sovereign and creative interpretation can transform into a work of art.
La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune combines the mood of the moonlit paysage with the suggestion of the Oriental spirit. According to Schmitz, the idea originated either from Pierre Loti's L'Inde sous les Anglais , describing the terraces where counsel is held at moonlight, or René Puaux , who in Le beau voyage describes the Durbar ceremonies for the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India and speaks of "the hall of victory, the hall of pleasure, the garden of the sultanesses, the terrace for moonlight audiences". It is therefore puzzling that there are no Hindu or Eastern hints in the music itself. The water-nypmh Ondine was already portrayed four years prior to this prelude by Ravel in Gaspard de la nuit . Lore has it that these water-nymphs from Nordic folklore lured, with their song, innocent passers-by to their death. As to Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. PPMPC, the French pianist Alfred Cortot wrote: "Every bar of this piece finds its mark, from the comic use of God save the King to the snatches of whistling in the last page, passing through all variations of absent-minded seriousness, diffidence and complacency, that make up the humorous figure which is Samuel, Pickwick, Esq." The British customarily find fault with Debussy's characterisation of Dickens's hero, in that, according to Dawes, it fails to take into account his kindness and warmth and instead concentrates on caricature. As is commonly known, Pickwick, the chairman of the Pickwick Club, dedicated his life to "the purpose of investigating the source of the Hampstead ponds". The name Canope is derived from Canopus, an ancient Egyptian city on the Nile , and refers to eponymous funerary urns in which organs of the deceased were buried with the mummy (two copies of which Debussy kept on his desk). The music does not describe the object itself but instead evokes the mood that the viewing of it produces. To this effect, Debussy uses inflected Dorian mode with the obvious tonal centre on D. The prelude Les tierces alternées is unique in the set in that it does not refer to an extra-musical content (and therefore does not constitute programmatic music), indicating instead its basic modus operandi and indeed foreshadowing the concept of the studies. Its outer parts are written in a toccata texture with alternating hands while the middle part is a gracious dance. Translated as "Fireworks", the Feux d'artifice can be particularly associated with Lisztian textures and technical resources, including glissandi, cadenzas, octaves and powerful chords. The piece requires a new technique in which black key positions and patterns are equal to white ones and its harmonic sequences and dynamic contrasts demand complete technical control. In the effervescent sound image of a true visual spectacle there is even a short quotation from the Marseillaise , with which the prelude and the cycle end.