Tribute to Claude Debussy

Tribute to Claude Debussy

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Claude Debussy, the First Modernist – An article by John Adams in the New York Times

Claude Debussy, the First Modernist

By John Adams

In 1890, the 28-year-old Claude Debussy felt forced to write the archetypal starving-artist letter to a friend. "Forgive me, but could you lend me 20 francs until the end of the month", he pleaded. "I'm very ashamed at writing to you, but I'm desperately hungry." This was the same Debussy who within the next dozen years would produce some of the most radically original, influential and popular of all European art music.

Hungry he may well have been (according to another friend, the composer could afford neither to eat nor to clothe himself), but "desperate" is a word almost impossible to associate with this most fastidious and discriminating of composers. Perhaps, as Stephen Walsh muses in his new biographical study, "Debussy: A Painter in Sound", he was merely resorting to his skills as "an adept borrower". Money and the practical necessities of life would remain a lifelong torment for him, an artist forever locked into his own internal world of sounds and images.

His was a creative voice so subtle and so thankfully free of histrionics and emotional excess that he is for us by now the quintessential French composer. Yet in gauging the seismic shifts in the evolution of Western classical music, convention tends to consign him to the much too confining role of "Impressionist".

His achievement, especially when one considers the mediocrity into which French music had declined in the years before his birth, was sui generis miraculous. And it is all the more impressive for having been wrought in an era when the imposing figure of Richard Wagner cast an almost suffocating spell not only upon music, but on almost all aspects of European culture.

Born in 1862, Debussy came of age around the time of the 1882 premiere of "Parsifal". A superb pianist – "He had a soft, deep touch which evoked full, rich, many-shaded sonorities", according to one friend – Debussy played all the major Wagner operas at the keyboard, and in his 20s he made a modest income accompanying lectures about "The Ring" for amateur listeners. Eventually he grew to become the anti-Wagner. Where the German master's expressive world is that of titanic wills in collision and of greed, redemption and the agon of scorching human passions, the Frenchman's voice is that of the natural world, of water and wind, of light and shadow, and of the most subtle gradations of sonority and color.

Stephen Walsh: A Painter in Sound (Knopf, 2018)
"Debussy's music never bullies", Walsh says. Whereas Wagner's default position is loud – not just acoustically loud, but emotionally and psychologically loud – Debussy's is soft. Perhaps because of this natural intimacy of voice and its aversion to theatricality and exhibitionism (think Richard Strauss' "Elektra" or Gustav Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand"), Debussy's importance is easy to overlook. This book reminds us just how astonishing the radicalism of this composer's creations really is.

Walsh, whose two-volume biography of Stravinsky brought both human scale and deep musical understanding to that composer's long and complex life, treats Debussy both as a creature of his own time and as a harbinger of 20th-century modernism.

His France was the France of la Belle Époque; of the Eiffel Tower, the Folies Bergère and the Dreyfus Affair; of Impressionist painting, Mallarmé's poetry and the novels of Proust. His life story is bracketed on the one end by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and on the other by the Great War. He died, yet again under financial duress, in 1918 just months before the Armistice after suffering years of an excruciating rectal cancer.

He was a notoriously stubborn man, a perfectionist indifferent to deadlines. "I write solely for myself, and other people's impatience doesn't concern me", Debussy responded when queried about delivering on time. As a youth he was unwilling to yield to the rigid orthodoxies of French musical education. His teachers scolded him for his willful bucking of the rules while still acknowledging his keen ear and his exceptional sensitivity to sound and musical gesture. A classmate described him seated at the piano when class was over "producing monstrous successions of weird, barbarous chords – that is to say, chords that were not classified in the official treatises of the Conservatoire".

These provocations turned out to be much more than mere student hubris. Rather, they were the genesis of his greatest contribution to classical music: the liberation of harmony from the straitjacket of tonic-dominant attraction. Conventional tonal music, whether it's a Bach fugue or a Beatles song, is bound together by the magnetic attraction of chords, which, reduced to their essence, function as question-and-answer, the "grammar" of music, as it were. If we think of the first two phrases of the song "Happy Birthday", we experience the first as the "question", and the second as the "answer". Almost every familiar musical motto obeys that polarity. What Debussy did was to pull apart the epoxy-strength attachment those chords share and allow them to float, not entirely free from each other, but in a more polyvalent, even ambiguous relation to each other. The result, especially when combined with his use of whole-tone scales, produced a music that felt exceptionally free of the angst and highly charged emotionalism of most of the Romantic repertoire. No surprise, then, that so many of his signature pieces embody or evoke nature, and that, as with many of the Impressionist paintings by his contemporaries, there are often no humans in the frame. A Debussy title is more often than not an image of a natural event: a warm sirocco moving across a plain; a seascape at dawn or at noon; dead leaves rustling in the breeze; early morning mists; moonlight reflecting off the surface of an old ruin.

Walsh's subtitle, "A Painter in Sound", amplifies those features that Debussy's aesthetic shared with seminal 19th-century painters, not only his French countrymen, but also the American James McNeill Whistler and the Englishman J. M. W. Turner, who may have had the most in common with his painterly approach to composing. "Lit from behind", Debussy's description of what struck him about the scoring of "Parsifal", is an apt way to understand his delicately luminous treatment of the orchestra in works like "La Mer", "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune", "Trois Nocturnes" and especially his enigmatic late ballet "Jeux", a work written in 1913 that languished in obscurity until it was championed a half-century later by Pierre Boulez, who found in it an entirely new invention of "irreversible" musical form.

The young Debussy's penchant for unorthodox harmonies was given an unexpected shock stimulant when he encountered a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. He described his delight with this strange and wonderful music as containing "every nuance, even those one can no longer name, in which tonic and dominant were no longer anything but empty ghosts for use on naughty little children". He responded to these exotic sounds in evocative piano pieces like "Pagodes", which imitate the sonorous and stately movement of that music from a faraway culture he could only imagine in his mind's eye.

Debussy revitalized and radicalized almost every musical form he wrote in. He composed songs to texts by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and other French poets throughout his life. His one full-length opera, the epochal "Pelléas et Mélisande", that moody chiaroscuro drama of spiritual impotence, made him, at the age of 40, suddenly famous. His catalog of orchestra works is small but canonic. "La Mer" and "Faune" in particular enjoy a popularity that has never diminished. But the true revelation of his imaginative range rests with his piano music. Here, in piece after piece, most no longer than a few minutes, his pictorial and sensorial powers were truly liberated. "It seems that in contact with the piano Debussy could write freely, exploring the implications of his unique idiom in a completely uninhibited way", Walsh writes. Two books of "Préludes", each with a cryptic title affixed to the final bar, range from slow, graceful dances to sultry nocturnal serenades to images of footsteps in snow, gardens in the rain, and to the evocation of a mythic underwater cathedral. These alternate with witty, puckish character sketches and the occasional virtuoso breakout piece that explodes like dazzling fireworks in the night sky.

It is said of Debussy that he "orchestrated with the pedal down". In other words, he made the orchestra resonate with the same sense of depth and glow that one obtains by playing with the sustain pedal engaged, allowing the tones to decay naturally rather than arbitrarily cutting them off. Hence his sound world echoes and shimmers and vibrates, expanding outward like the rippling waves of a pool when a pebble has been dropped into it, an image that he sought to depict in another piano piece, "Reflets dans l'eau".

It is not easy to write meaningfully about music without resorting to technical terminology, and the list of those authors who can find accessible language to convey its subtleties to the nonspecialist is depressingly short. Walsh is a deep reader of Debussy's music with an uncommon ability to translate complex details into words that are precise yet evocative and that are refreshingly free of academic jargon. His discussion of "Pelléas" is exemplary in this sense, focusing on the composer's treatment of text, particularly in his determination to make the vocal lines reflect the contours of everyday speech. How this adoption of extreme simplicity of utterance contrasts with Germanic vocal writing Walsh underscores by wryly quipping, "Only the clinically insane talk in the jagged lines of Parsifal and Kundry... or of the patently disturbed heroines of Strauss' ‘Salome’ or Schoenberg's ‘Erwartung’".

The women in Debussy's life suffered from his difficult, at times depressive personality. While acknowledging the composer's "unsatisfactory treatment" of them, Walsh is hard put to find reasons any of them are quite deserving of the great composer's (or our) respect, often referring to them in cringeworthy descriptions. One soprano with whom the composer was involved Walsh refers to as "a bird of the air in need of a perch". Gaby Dupont, Debussy's first serious love, had been "a not particularly stylish cocotte". Lilly Texier, Debussy's first wife, is "sexy but intellectually limited", while Maud Allan, the Canadian dancer who commissioned "Khamma", his "dance legend", "was a new kind of fish in Debussy's aquarium": "He had never written music" for a woman "of doubtful reputation". And his second wife, Emma Bardac, who endured unimaginable stress during their years of marriage, was, when they first met, in Walsh's words, "an attractive, well-kept 40-year-old" who "had no qualms about making herself available... to one of France's leading composers".

Even worse, he analyzes the composer's behavior by applying the old-school "genius card" myth, to wit, that behind this bad treatment "lay the instinctive feeling – which ordinary men usually manage to suppress – that emotional ties are a nuisance unless kept firmly in the drawer marked ‘when I need them’".

Walsh's study is focused on the music, less so on the historical and cultural setting. As an exposition of this unique and original music it does great service to the composer. Nonetheless, a casual classical music fan may find it daunting, as most of it is devoted to analyses of a lifetime of compositions. Reading the discussions of the various works without having the printed music and a recording at hand will limit understanding of the brilliance of Walsh's insights. Nor is this, quite frankly, as entertaining a read as the author's Stravinsky biography. But then, Stravinsky, the ultimate cosmopolitan bon vivant, lived a life outwardly far more exciting and colorful, becoming a virtual superstar celebrity in his old age. Debussy, a near-recluse who had only a small circle of friends, hated to travel, preferring the solitude of his piano and, as he said only half in jest to a friend, his small "75-centimeter table for writing things that have without fail to revolutionize the world".

[John Adams' newest work "Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?" will receive its world premiere performed by the pianist Yuja Wang with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in March 2019.]

Source: The New York Times, November 25, 2018

Illustrations by Andy Potts

More photos

See also

“Debussy: one of the most original of moderns”, 1908, & “French composer Claude Debussy dies”, 1918 – Two articles from the Guardian archive

Javier Perianes plays Claude Debussy: Préludes Book I, & Estampes (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor – Renaud Capuçon, Lahav Shani (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Préludes, Books I & II – Walter Gieseking (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor – Alina Pogostkina, Jérôme Ducros (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: La Mer –  Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Fabien Gabel (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Les Trois Sonates (The Late Works) – Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: La Mer – Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Jacek Kaspszyk (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune – National Youth Orchestra of the USA, Valery Gergiev (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy and the Poetic Image

Nikolai Lugansky plays Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Deux Arabesques, and οther works for solo piano (Audio video)

100 Years After Debussy's Death, He Remains the First ‘Modern’ Composer – An essay on Claude Debussy by Stephen Hough in the New York Times

Terrified and delighted: Works by Claude Debussy and André Caplet inspired by Edgar Allan Poe – Musicians from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Pour le piano, Estampes, Images (oubliées) – Zoltán Kocsis (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: Images, D'un cahier d'esquisses, L'Isle joyeuse, Deux arabesques, etc. – Zoltán Kocsis (Audio video)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Suite | Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, & Manfred Overture | Johann Strauss Jr.: Die Fledermaus Overture – Jean-Guihen Queyras, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider – Saturday, December 15, 2018, 08:00 PM EST (GMT-5) – Livestream

Jean-Guihen Queyras (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider leads the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a program of two Strausses, and music of Schumann: the Overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr., and music from Richard Strauss' sly, seductive Der Rosenkavalier, with its loving, poignant finale. Also, Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras performs Robert Schumann's lyrical Cello Concerto.

Saturday, December 15
Los Angeles: 05:00 PM
Detroit, New York, Toronto, Lima08:00 PM
Brasília: 11:00 PM

Sunday, December 16
London: 01:00 AM
Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Warsaw, Stockholm, Oslo: 02:00 AM
Athens, Kiev, Jerusalem, Beirut, Cape Town03:00 AM
Moscow, Ankara: 04:00 AM
Abu Dhabi: 05:00 AM
New Delhi: 06:30 AM
Beijing, Manila, Hong Kong: 09:00 AM
Tokyo, Seoul: 10:00 AM

Live on Livestream

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

♪ Manfred Overture, Op.115 (1848-1849)

♪ Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129 (1850) *

i. Nicht zu schnell
ii. Langsam
iii. Sehr lebhaft

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013): Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher pour violoncelle solo: III. Vivace (1967-1970)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

♪ Der Rosenkavalier Suite, WoO 145 (TrV 227d) (1945)

Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899)

♪ Die Fledermaus Overture, RV 503-1 (1874)

Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello *

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

(HD 720p)

Live from Orchestra Hall, Max M. Fisher Music Center, Detroit

Saturday, December 15, 2018, 08:00 PM EST (GMT-5) / Sunday, December 16, 2018, 03:00 AM EET (GMT+02:00)

Live on Livestream

Photo by Marco Borggreve
The French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1967. Jean-Guihen Queyras enjoys an enviable reputation as a musician of exceptional versatility and integrity. His musical horizons are seemingly boundless and he is in great demand both as a soloist with international orchestras and conductors, a chamber musician and as a solo performer.

He has performed with many of the world's great orchestras including The Philharmonia, Orchestre de Paris, NHK Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, Philadelphia, Tonhalle Zürich, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Netherlands Philharmonique, under the baton of conductors such as Franz Brüggen, Günther Herbig, Ivan Fisher, Philippe Herreweghe, Jiří Bělohlávek, Olivier Knussen and Sir Roger Norrington. He is a regular soloist with several early music ensembles such as Freiburg Baroque and Akadamie für Alte Musik Berlin and he made his Carnegie Hall debut in New York with Concerto Köln in March 2004.

His extensive repertoire incorporates a number of contemporary works and he has given several world premieres including Ivan Fedele's cello concerto (Orchestre National de France, Leonard Slatkin) and Gilbert Amy's concerto (Tokyo Symphony Orchestra at Suntory Hall, Tokyo).  He has also premiered and recorded Bruno Mantovani's concerto with the Saarbrücken Radio Sinfonieorchester and Phillippe Schoeller's Wind's Eyes with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg. He will be premiering a new cello concerto by Michael Jarrell in the 2012-2013 season, a co-commission by the orchestras in Utah, Lyon, Luxembourg and Suisse Romande.

Jean-Guihen is frequently asked to host artistic residencies. These have included projects in the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and De Bijloke in Gent. Since the 2010-2011 season, he has been "Artist in Residence" with the Hamburg-based chamber orchestra, Ensemble Resonanz, with whom he leads and plays several eclectic programmes in the Laieszhalle Hamburg, Köln Philharmonie, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord Paris, the Konzerthaus Wien and the Muziekgebouw Amsterdam. This residency has recently been extended to include the 2012-2013 season. Furthermore, he will be soloist in residence of the Netherlands Philharmonic for the seasons 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.

Jean-Guihen's particular focus on repertoire for solo cello, which articulately demonstrates the exceptional narrative and expressive force of the monodic instrument, led him to devise and perform several series of concerts featuring the Suites by J.S Bach alongside contemporary works and he commissioned six composers (Kurtag, Harvey, Mochizuki, Amy, Nodaïra & Fedele) to write an "echo" to each of the six Bach Suites for solo cello, in a project called "Six Suites, Six Echos". He made his BBC Proms debut to unanimous acclaim (Haydn in C) in 2008 and appears regularly at the Aldeburgh Festival. His regular chamber music partners include the pianists Alexander Melnikov and Alexandre Tharaud and the violinist Isabelle Faust. He is a member of the Arcanto Quartet with Tabea Zimmermann, Antje Weithaas and Daniel Sepec, and performs regularly with Zarb specialists Kevan and Bijan Chemirani.

Jean-Guihen has made several successful recordings for harmonia mundi and, following the success of  his much anticipated recording of Bach's complete solo Suites in 2008 for which he received immediate acclaim (Diapason d'Or and CD of the month in Diapason, CHOC du Monde de la Musique etc), he has released two further recordings; a Debussy-Poulenc CD with pianist Alexandre Tharaud, which was awarded the Diapason d'Or de l'Année in 2008 and "Cello Concertos of the 21st Century", released last year. Previous CDs include Schubert's "Arpeggione" alongside works by Berg and Webern (again with Alexandre Tharaud), Dvořák's cello concerto with the Prague Philharmonia under the baton of Jiří Bĕlohlávek) and Haydn and Monn's cello concertos performed on a period instrument with the Freiburger Barockorchester, praised in both The Independent on Sunday and the Saturday Telegraph as the definitive baroque version.

Jean-Guihen was the solo cellist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, with whom he recorded the Ligeti Cello Concerto for Deutsche Grammophon, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Gramophone Contemporary Music Award). He recorded Dutilleux's Tout un Monde Lointain for Arte Nova/BMG and Boulez's Messagesquisse for Deutsche Grammophon (Gramophone Contemporary Music Award).

In November 2002, Jean-Guihen Queyras received the City of Toronto Glenn Gould International Protégé Prize in Music, awarded to him by Pierre Boulez and the Glenn Gould Foundation, and was recently made "Instrumental Soloist of the Year" at the French Classical Music Awards as well as "Artist of the Year" by the readers of the Diapason magazine.

Jean-Guihen Queyras is Professor at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany and one of the Artistic Directors of the "Rencontres Musicales de Haute-Provence" which take place in Forcalquier in July each year.

He has played a cello made by Gioffredo Cappa in 1696, on loan from Mécénat Musical Société Générale since November 2005.


Photo by Lars Gundersen
Cementing his reputation as a conductor of rare musicality and panache, the 2017-2018 season saw Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider give acclaimed performances at the helms of the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, London Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and Cleveland orchestras. This season and next, he returns to the Orchestre National de Lyon, Detroit Symphony, Montreal Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and Luxembourg Philharmonic, and expands the list of Opera houses he appears with by making debuts with the Semperoper Dresden and the Hamburg Opera. He also continues his Nielsen project with the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducting and recording the complete symphonies. Also a virtuoso violinist of distinction, he features as Artist in Residence with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, both performing with and conducting the orchestra in a series of concerts across the 2018-2019 season, including his conducting debut at the Musikverein and a European tour with Philippe Jordan.

Szeps-Znaider has a particularly strong relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra; an orchestra he conducts and performs with as soloist every season, and with whom he has recently recorded the complete Mozart Violin Concertos, directed from the violin. The first album comprising Concertos 4 and 5 was released on the LSO Live label in March 2018 with The Strad extolling Szeps-Znaider's playing as "possibly among the most exquisite violin sound ever captured on disc". Concertos 1, 2 and 3 follow in November 2018.

His extensive discography also includes the Nielsen Concerto with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, Elgar Concerto in B minor with the late Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden, award-winning recordings of the Brahms and Korngold concertos with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, the Prokofiev Concerto No.2 and Glazunov Concerto with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and the Mendelssohn Concerto on DVD with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Szeps-Znaider has also recorded the complete works of Brahms for violin and piano with Yefim Bronfman.

Szeps-Znaider (b. 1975, Copenhagen, Denmark) is passionate about supporting the next generation of musical talent and spent ten years as Founder and Artistic Director of the annual Nordic Music Academy summer school. He is now President of the Nielsen Competition, which takes place every three years in Odense, Denmark.

Szeps-Znaider plays the "Kreisler" Guarnerius "del Gesu" 1741 on extended loan to him by The Royal Danish Theater through the generosity of the VELUX Foundations, the Villum Fonden and the Knud Højgaard Foundation.


Jean-Guihen Queyras (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Johann Strauss Jr.: Die Fledermaus Overture, RV 503-1

Although the form may have initially gained popularity in 1850s Paris, operetta soon filled the seats of theaters throughout Europe. Austrian audiences were particularly enamored with these quick-paced theatrical works by composers such as Offenbach and Suppé. The comic plots and infectious melodies of the genre were a natural fit for Johann Strauss, Jr., whose polkas and waltzes had been delighting Viennese audiences for years.

Strauss' most popular stagework, Die Fledermaus (The Bat), is best characterized as a romp – a husband sentenced to prison stops by a party on his way to jail, finds his wife in the company of an overly-attentive companion, and wackiness ensues. The catchy, tuneful music mirrors the quick-paced action onstage, and it is paired with remarkably skillful orchestration (Brahms, on hearing the show for the first time, is said to have remarked, "Now there is a master of the orchestra!"). It is no coincidence that Die Fledermaus is the single most oft-performed operetta in the repertoire.

The show's overture is in the grand tradition established by Rossini and other composers of light opera. Little attempt is made to fit the piece into any classical form; rather, the overture gives us a preview of the tunes that will be heard in the course of the evening. Polkas and waltzes spill effortlessly one after another out of the orchestra, the memorable melodies and sudden tempo changes foreshadowing the aural delights to come.

First performance: April 5, 1874, Theater an der Wien, Vienna. Johann Strauss Jr., conductor.

Source: Chris Myers (

Robert Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129

It was rather surprising that the arch-Romantic Robert Schumann should have decided, in 1850, to essay his Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129. Schumann had started learning the cello himself in the 1830s and he had written a number of instrumental duos in which the cello is an alternative to the horn or oboe or viola; but after the success of his first work specifically for cello and piano, the Fünf Stücke im Volkston of 1849, he may have felt encouraged to try the larger medium of cello and orchestra. As originally drafted (by October 1850 – it was Schumann's first large-scale composition after he took up his duties as Municipal Music Director in Düsseldorf that autumn) the work was entitled Konzertstück, presumably because of its comparatively modest scale and the way the three movements are run together into a fantasia-like continuum, with a network of subtle thematic cross-references.

Schumann may have intended the work for Christian Reimers, the principal cellist of the Düsseldorf Orchestra, but though he rehearsed the work with Reimers in March 1851 no public performance ensued, and an informal run-through with another cellist in 1852 had no more definite outcome. On the other hand these sessions gave Schumann grounds for plentiful revision, especially in balancing the orchestra's contribution against the solo part, all of which was incorporated in the score published in 1854. By that time Schumann's reason had given way and he was confined in the sanatorium at Endenich where he died two years later. Meanwhile his Cello Concerto remained unperformed. It only received its public premiere in Leipzig in June 1860 at the hands of the distinguished cellist Ludwig Ebert, and it did not secure its place in the repertoire until the early twentieth century, thanks largely to the championship of Pablo Casals.

The published title, "Concerto for cello with orchestral accompaniment", reflects the fact that Schumann keeps the cello centre-stage, and the orchestra often in the background, so that the soloist is able to project his lyrically expressive part without having to force his tone. In fact Schumann's orchestration is notably discreet, especially in his sparing use of trumpets and drums. Three introductory wind chords (themselves delineating an important motif) are all the preparation necessary for the soloist's superb first-subject melody, an archetypal flight of romantic fancy, at once ardent and melancholic. A more vigorous orchestral transition leads to the musing second subject in C major, which contains within itself another three-note motif that soon gains independent existence and, along with a further figure in terse triplet rhythm, plays a considerable role in the development. In the course of this the first subject is heard on the horn, in keys (such as F sharp minor) distant enough to have been hazardous had Schumann not known he could rely on the comparatively recently introduced valve horn.

The recapitulation is regular but flows seamlessly into the F major slow movement, a lyrical song without words in Schumann's most dreamily expressive vein. The gentlest pizzicato accompaniment backs the solo cello, which in the middle section embellishes the melody in plangent double-stopped thirds. The orchestra then alludes to the work's opening subject, and the cello breaks into an agitated recitative leading to the determined finale. This seeks to invest its resolute, vaguely march-like opening figure with a propulsive determination that Schumann's solo-writing, always prone to introspection, never quite allows. Reminiscences of the first movement continue to infiltrate the discourse, and the movement culminates in a cadenza with discreet orchestral accompaniment (itself an innovation) which favours the cello's lower strings, before coming to a brusque conclusion.

It was only three years after Schumann composed his Concerto that the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms burst into the Schumann household at Düsseldorf, and it is really Brahms – who never wrote a cello concerto – who provides the point of contact for the four composers on this programme. It was in Düsseldorf that Brahms met Dietrich, and they became lifelong friends: almost immediately Schumann, Dietrich and Brahms collaborated in composing a violin sonata for the violinist Joseph Joachim. Also, from the 1850s Brahms was on friendly terms with Volkmann, whose music – including his Cello Concerto – he admired. And Gernsheim, of a slightly younger generation, also became a friend of Brahms, a staunch advocate of his works and an ardent "Brahmsian" in his own musical idiom.

Source: Calum MacDonald, 2007 (

Robert Schumann: Manfred Overture, Op.115

Schumann was possessed of a keen literary mind. His studies at the Leipzig and Heidelberg Universities and his own career as a writer, including an early attempt at a novel, helped to hone his natural insights in this direction. So, when the opportunity arose in 1848 to provide incidental music for Lord Byron's Manfred, he threw himself into the project with a fervor. Although only the wildly popular Manfred Overture has ever entered the repertory (the rest being rather difficult to program), Schumann's Opus 115 score actually includes 15 additional numbers for orchestra, choir, and various solo voices. The overture was first performed in March of 1852 with its composer at the helm, while a complete performance of the Manfred score was given by Franz Liszt in Weimar just three months later.

The Manfred Overture is one of Schumann's finest orchestral creations; it conveys very effectively the urgent despair of Byron's work. Three remarkable chords precede the pained, chromatic tune in the oboe and second violins. A somber texture is provided by the orchestra, here Schumann's frequently ineffective and superfluous doublings seem most appropriate, until the passion can be restrained no longer and a wild rout ensues. A few brief fragments of lyric thought in the major mode occasionally poke through – how effective are such outbursts of hope against so grim and indefatigable a background! The energy is momentarily spent as we near the midpoint of the piece; chorale-like fragments in the brass and isolated woodwind chords receive a terse commentary from the lower strings. As the anguished pursuit continues, it is easy to see the marked influence that Schumann's imitative orchestral procedures had on Tchaikovsky. The underlying E flat tonality is firmly re-established by a long succession of E flat minor chords in the winds, against which an agitated violin figure (with that piquant raised fourth, a prominent feature throughout the work) finally runs out of energy as the initial oboe melody returns.

Source: Blair Johnston (

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Suite, WoO 145 (TrV 227d)

Richard Strauss avoided making available arrangements of music from his popular opera Der Rosenkavalier, and this seems contrary to the expedient way in which he handled his music. Various passages of the opera, however, lend themselves to being excerpted. Notable among them is the final scene, which is often presented by itself in concert, as are the waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, which occur in various arrangements.

Despite the immediate and profound popularity of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss was reluctant to create, let alone sanction, a suite from the opera or any other kind of work derived from the score. (This stance differs from the way he treated the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos [1912] which was not only revised in 1917, but the incidental music for the play that preceded it became the basis for the suite Der Buerger als Edelmann [1917].) In 1924, however, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was involved with plans to film Der Rosenkavalier, and he persuaded Strauss to arrange music from the opera to accompany the film. Since this occurred approximately several years before sound was introduced into film, the score would have been performed by an orchestra while the film was projected.

The film itself was divided into two parts, the first starting with Baron Ochs's visit to the Marschallin and followed by flashbacks which gave some background on both characters. The cinematic narrative then went on to the events that occur in the second act of the opera; that is, the presentation of the rose; a love scene between Octavian and Sophie; the duel between Octavian and Ochs; and, at the end, Ochs retired to bed and reminiscing while waltzes play in the background. The second part introduced characters and situations that are not part of the opera, such as the Feldmarschall, who is informed of the events and returns to find a situation on par with Mozart's Marriage of Figaro when it comes to complications. The drama resolves, as it does in the opera, but the film required a different score than occurs in Der Rosenkavalier, and rather than undertake a new project, Strauss allowed Otto Singer and Karl Alwin to arrange the music. This is the first of the sanctioned arrangements, and this kind of treatment opened the door to other, popular arrangements of music from Der Rosenkavalier that circulated without the composer's imprimatur. In response to this, Strauss made his own arrangement of waltz sequences in 1934 and 1944; at the same time, other orchestral arrangements by various individuals emerged throughout the composer's lifetime. In fact, the best-known suite of music from the opera is an anonymous arrangement that Strauss eventually approved in 1945, and which is generally accepted.

The music opens with the horn call that occurs at the opening of the opera and proceeds to various moments from different parts of the work. The emphasis is on the waltz tunes, which pervade the suite, rather than some of the other, vocal music. The colorful and evocative orchestration famous in the opera is retained in the suite; in juxtaposing ideas from various parts of the opera, though, the timbres change more rapidly than on stage. For those who know the opera, the suite recalls many favorite moments; for those unfamiliar with Der Rosenkavalier the suite is an excellent introduction to the work.

Source: James Zychowicz (

Jean-Guihen Queyras (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

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Live on Livestream: All Past Events

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor "Pathétique" – Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (HD 1080p)

Under the baton of the talented Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6 in B minor "Pathétique", Op.74. Recorded at Gothenburg Concert Hall, on October 11, 2018.

Tchaikovsky composed the Symphony No.6 in B minor between February and August 1893, and conducted the first performance on October 28 of that year in St Petersburg. Already in 1890 Tchaikovsky had written to his patroness of 13 years, Nadezhda von Meck, about a possible "Program Symphony". By 1893 he was ready to follow through on the idea, dedicated to his nephew Vladimir Davidov, the "Bobyk" (or "Bob") of many diary-entries and letters during the 1880s. After a successful premiere, however, he was not satisfied with Program Symphony (No.6) on the title page. Several days later Modest suggested "patetichesky", which in Russian means "(1) enthusiastic, passionate, (2) emotional, and (3) bombastic" (rather than "pathetic" or "arousing pity," as in English). Pyotr Ilyich was delighted by the suggestion: "Excellent, Modya, bravo, patetichesky!". He wrote this onto the score, and sent it the same day to his publisher, Jurgenson. Two days later, however, he had qualms and asked Jurgenson to suppress subtitles – to issue the work simply as Symphony No.6, dedicated to Bobyk. One week later, he was dead. As for Jurgenson, he could not resist the opportunity in 1893 to publish No.6, in elegant Lingua Franca, as Symphonie pathétique. The sobriquet has stuck ever since.

During the work's incubation Tchaikovsky was in rare good spirits, pleased with his boldness and fluency, especially in the trailblazing finale, a drawn-out Adagio of funereal character. Where others still wrote conventional slow movements, he hit on the idea of "a limping waltz" in 5/4 time. And he made the scherzo a march that builds to such a pitch of excitement that audiences ever since, everywhere, applaud at the end.

A lugubrious Adagio prologue begins with a bassoon solo in E minor that makes its way upward through the murk of divisi string basses, followed by a nervous little motif that blossoms into the main theme of an Allegro ma non troppo sonata-structure in B minor. The memorably sighing, mauve-hued melody that dominates this movement is actually its secondary subject. A crashing orchestral tutti sets up the passionately agitated development section, followed by a condensed reprise and a brief, calmed coda.

Tchaikovsky's marking for this D major "waltz" movement is Allegro con grazia – a song and trio with extended coda whose mood may be wistful, even melancholic midway, but whose spirit is balletic, to the extent of echoing Nutcracker's "Waltz of the Flowers", composed a year earlier.

The March-Scherzo, Allegro molto vivace in common time, has an elfin character at the start. It is a sonatina (exposition and reprise without development) that quick-steps to an explosive climax but always returns to tonic G major.

Another sonatina (symphonic developments were Tchaikovsky's bête noire) is anchored in B minor, although the tragic second theme enters in D major. The overall mood is inconsolably grieving, but not "pathetic". Ultimately, the music returns to those murky depths in which the symphony was born some 40 minutes earlier – without, however, benediction or hope.

Source: Roger Dettmer (

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

♪ Symphony No.6 in B minor 
"Pathétique", Op.74 (1893)

i. Adagio – Allegro non troppo

ii. Allegro con grazia
iii. Allegro molto vivace
iv. Finale. Adagio lamentoso

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Gothenburg Concert Hall, 
October 11, 2018

(HD 1080p)

Hailed by The Guardian as ​"the latest sit-up-and-listen talent to emerge from the great Finnish conducting tradition", the 2018-2019 season will see Santtu-Matias Rouvali (b. 1985) continuing his positions as Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, alongside his longstanding Chief Conductor-ship with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra close to his home in Finland.

Rouvali has regular relationships with several orchestras across Europe, including the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Bamberger Symphoniker and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. As well as making his debut with the Münchner Philharmoniker this season, he also returns to North America for concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Following a very successful Nordic tour with Hélène Grimaud last season, the Gothenburg Symphony is back on the road in February 2019 for a tour hitting major centres in Germany and Austria with pianist Alice Sara Ott, and percussionist Martin Grubinger who premieres a new percussion concert by Daníel Bjarnason. Rouvali looks forward to other ambitious touring projects with his orchestras in the future, including appearances in North America and Japan.

In addition to the extensive tour, Rouvali's season in Gothenburg opens with Strauss' Alpine Symphony accompanied by Víkingur Ólafsson Mozart Piano Concerto No.24, and he looks forward to collaborations with Janine Jansen, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Baiba Skride throughout the rest of the season.

As another cornerstone to his tenure in Gothenburg, he is adding his mark to the Orchestra's impressive recording legacy. In partnership with Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Baiba Skride, a recording featuring concertos from Bernstein, Korngold and Rozsa is released in autumn 2018. This continues his great collaboration with Baiba Skride following their hugely successful recording of Nielsen and Sibelius' violin concertos with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in summer 2015.

Rouvali has been Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra since 2013. Highlights of the tenure so far include a Sibelius symphony cycle in autumn 2015, and the Orchestra's first tour to Japan in spring 2017 where they were accompanied by an exhibition of original Moomin drawings by Tove Jansson to mark the opening of the new museum at the Tampere Hall. He opens the 2018-2019 season with a Beethoven programme with pianist Javier Perianes.

Alongside an extremely busy symphonic conducting career, as Chief Conductor in Tampere he has conducted Verdi's La forza del destino and most recently world premiere of Olli Kortekangas's My Brother's Keeper (Veljeni vartija) with Tampere Opera in spring 2018.


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Santtu-Matias Rouvali – All the posts

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – All the posts


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor "Pathétique" – San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (Download 44.1kHz/16bit)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor "Pathétique" – hr-Sinfonieorchester, Lionel Bringuier

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor "Pathétique" – MusicAeterna, Teodor Currentzis (Download 96kHz/24bit & 44.1kHz/16bit)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6 in B minor, "Pathétique" – Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (HD 1080p)

Monday, December 10, 2018

“Debussy: one of the most original of moderns”, 1908, & “French composer Claude Debussy dies”, 1918 – Two articles from the Guardian archive

Debussy at the piano in the home of the composer Ernest Chausson
(who is turning the pages), 1893. De Agostini/Getty Images

Debussy: one of the most original of ‘moderns’

2 February 1908: On his first visit to London, The Observer reviews Claude Debussy conducting his works at the Queen's Hall

M. Claude Debussy, who by nature is almost as shy and retiring as his music is diaphanous, came to London during the week and appeared as conductor at the Symphony Concert of the Queen's Hall Orchestra yesterday. It was decidedly interesting to see this imaginative modern in the flesh and to hear his interpretation of two of his works. His appearance in our concert-room emphasises rather curiously the extreme slowness of our methods in matters operatic, or, perhaps it would be better to say, our strange attitude towards the lyric art.

M. Debussy is unquestionably one of the most original of "moderns", and yet his chief work – his opera "Pelléas et Mélisande" – has not been seen in England, although it has, since its production in 1895, attracted more than a common amount of attention abroad.

The new work which M. Debussy brought forward yesterday afternoon – the set of three of symphonic sketches, "La Mer" – is comparatively fresh, seeing that it is as yet only three years old. A choral work of character and importance in its way – "The Blessed Damozel" – dates even farther back, but it may be taken as an earnest of desire to be a little more progressive that performance of this has been arranged for shortly.

The "Afternoon of a Faun" came first on yesterday's programme, and M. Debussy, who is typically French to look upon, and who bears himself with a certain aloofness which one associates with the poet, was heartily welcomed as he took his place at the conductor's desk.

As a conductor be has peculiar methods – almost as vague as his music – and his beat must be difficult to follow. For all that, however, the Queen's Hall orchestra responded to his direction with rare feeling, and the interpretation of the curiously elusive picture of the resting Faun, the shimmering heat of noonday and amorous thoughts which pass through the creature's mind was presented with singular grace and delicacy. The playing of the soft passages was charming, and such rhythm as the music possesses was emphasised to a nicety.

Cover of the first edition of Debussy's La Mer, A. Durand and Sons, 1905
The next example was the set of three symphonic sketches "La Mer". The titles sufficiently indicate the quality of it the music – "From Dawn to Noon at Sea", "Gambols of the Waves", "Dialogue between the Wind and Sea". The work at first hearing gave the sense of disappointment, in spite of the admirable performance which the composer secured for it. Regarded as programme music – of the special Debussy kind – the three sections are all too much of the same tone. It is a wonderful score, and all the effects in tonal peculiarities come out clearly – a quality in which the composer is certainly far ahead of many who express themselves in this particular way.

But the subjects seem to call for at least a breath here and there of real force, of elemental strength; and in this point the composer seems to have failed. Altogether it most be said that the earlier work proved much more satisfying as music, and made far more satisfying as music, and made far more of an appeal after its own kind.

The soloist at the interesting concert was the magnificent cellist, Professor Hugo Becker, who for sheer virtuosity is incomparable, while his tone is deliciously full and rich. He played a concerto – really a concert-piece – by Volkmann, a composer who was prolific and tasteful, but scarcely inspired. It was an effective display piece, and the accomplished soloist presented it in the best possible way, but It of served to emphasise the fact that there is very little really interesting music written for the ‘cello.

The concert began with the virile "Egmont" overture and ended with the well worn, but still wonderful, "Unfinished" Symphony of Schubert. Both these were directed by Mr Henry J. Wood, and were played with the utmost furnish.


French composer Claude Debussy dies

27 March 1918: Of all composers in our day Debussy has the finest aesthetic. He has left us a world of beautiful music

The famous French composer Claude Achille Debussy, who had been suffering from cancer, has died in Paris at the age of 55. Debussy is not only the most original but the most refined and, since Berlioz, the first truly modern composer of the French school.

His first works gave merely the sense of an exquisite refinement and freshness, and when in 1884 he won the Rome prize with his scenic cantata L'Enfant Prodigue there was little to proclaim the most revolutionary of modern French harmonists. In the setting of Rossetti's poem The Blessed Damozel, for female voices and orchestra, he found a subject and a medium of expression as exquisite as even his imagination could desire. His fastidiousness now turned itself to the invention of harmonic subtleties, in as judicious concessions to poetic ideas and the sense of the picturesque as can be reflected in music. Debussy's genius in this harmonic development has not only been vindicated by the admiration of his own works but by the adhesion of a host of followers, whose work has made the French school the most significant of our day.

With his orchestral prelude on Mallarmé's Après-midi d'un Faune, Debussy has convinced the general ear of a sensuous colour and atmosphere in orchestral music of which it had not been merely unconscious but sceptical and even derisive. The subdued tones of Maeterlinck's drama Pelléas et Mélisande provided him an ideal medium for a triumph which stands alone to point the true way in the future development of dramatic music.

Debussy is one of the leaders in the true assimilation of song and speech, and in the relation of lyric melody to the instrumental, harmonic and poetic fancy. He is also one of the few who know the true refinement and poetic nature of the pianoforte.

Of all composers in our day Debussy has the finest aesthetic. He has left us a world of beautiful music, and his influence is the most fertile since that of Wagner.

[This edited extract from the obituary that appeared in the Guardian on 27 March 1918, two days after Debussy's death.]


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Claude Debussy, the First Modernist – An article by John Adams in the New York Times

Javier Perianes plays Claude Debussy: Préludes Book I, & Estampes (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor – Renaud Capuçon, Lahav Shani (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Préludes, Books I & II – Walter Gieseking (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor – Alina Pogostkina, Jérôme Ducros (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: La Mer –  Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Fabien Gabel (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Les Trois Sonates (The Late Works) – Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: La Mer – Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Jacek Kaspszyk (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune – National Youth Orchestra of the USA, Valery Gergiev (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy and the Poetic Image

Nikolai Lugansky plays Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Deux Arabesques, and οther works for solo piano (Audio video)

100 Years After Debussy's Death, He Remains the First ‘Modern’ Composer – An essay on Claude Debussy by Stephen Hough in the New York Times

Terrified and delighted: Works by Claude Debussy and André Caplet inspired by Edgar Allan Poe – Musicians from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (HD 1080p)

Claude Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Pour le piano, Estampes, Images (oubliées) – Zoltán Kocsis (Audio video)

Claude Debussy: Images, D'un cahier d'esquisses, L'Isle joyeuse, Deux arabesques, etc. – Zoltán Kocsis (Audio video)