« Claude Debussy au piano : rompre ou perpétuer ? »
par Rémy Campos, musicologue
Musée océanographique


Musée océanographique

Durée approximative 1h20

22H30 – AFTER

avec Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Hôtel Hermitage, Crystal Bar

Programme du concert

Joseph Haydn
Sonate pour piano no 59 Hob.XVI.49 en mi bémol majeur
Sonate pour piano no 62 Hob.XVI.52 en mi bémol majeur

Claude Debussy
Nocturne en ré bémol
Danse (Tarentelle styrienne)
L’Isle joyeuse

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano

The union of opposites

At first glance, the composers Haydn and Debussy seem ill-matched. It is true that the latter’s catalog includes Hommage à Haydn (1909), based on the motif B-A-D-D-G (Haydn’s name being obtained by associating the letters of the alphabet with the musical notes). But this short piece has the smell of a commission. Debussy had, in fact, responded to the request of the International Music Society, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Haydn’s death. Yet he mentions the Austrian composer only once in all his articles and music reviews. He never refers to him in his abundant correspondence. This is hardly gushing!

The image of a musician in the service of the same prince (Nicolas Esterházy) for almost three decades (from 1762 to 1790) would certainly have sufficed to dampen his respect. The nature of the two composers’ respective piano corpus widens the gap even further, with over sixty sonatas from the older composer and none from the Frenchman – who nonetheless returned to the genre between 1915 and 1917, but in the realm of chamber music. At a time when Debussy was seeking his own path, the sonata embodied, in his eyes, a dried-up tradition, tediously systematized.

From harpsichord to Romantic piano

This assumption does not really stand up to closer observation, however, since each of Haydn’s sonatas offers a unique solution, exploiting the possibilities of the fortepiano, whose construction underwent constant changes in the second half of the 18th century. As early as the Sonata no. 39 in D major (ca. 1773), with its light and transparent writing, the music is conceived for struck strings – no longer for the harpsichord. The Sonata no. 59 in E flat major (1789-90) retains a fairly linear writing style, reminiscent of earlier scores. On the other hand, Haydn explored at an early stage the “grand concert sonata” category, intended for expert performers. For the Sonata no. 31 in A-flat major (ca. 1768-1770), the earliest score in Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s two recitals, Haydn chose a key rich in flats, which was rare for his time (the second movement, in D-flat major, ventures into even more surprising territory). The initial Allegro moderato, featuring brilliant flourishes, is full of contrasts and surprises. A quarter of a century later, the Sonata No. 62 in E-flat major (1794) took these experiments to a very high level of achievement. Launched by powerful chords, it contrasts registers and textures in a symphonic spirit, ending with a Presto sparkling with repeated notes and whirling lines. Was the piano the fountain of youth for the sixty-year-old composer?

With their remarkable expressive density, the slow movements leave entertainment music far behind – even the Adagio of Sonata no. 39, originally entitled Divertimento. With its internalized climate and an expressive counterpoint that hypnotizes the listener, that of the Sonata no 31 rejects the immediate seduction of an accompanied melody. While the elegance of the cantabile sometimes recalls Mozart, it is Schubert that certain passages of Sonatas nos. 59 and 62 seem to foreshadow. Furthermore, the spirit of improvisation comes through, here and there, in the ornamental writing, in the suspension of the discourse, which the composer pretends not to know how to prolong or in the cadential sections. Relishing the freedom Haydn leaves to the performer, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays his own cadenza in the Adagio of the Sonata no. 31.

Images and poetry

Debussy could have been seduced by this spirit of improvisation, especially since he began his career during the twilight years of Romanticism, the dawn of which had been anticipated by Haydn. But he found his roots in Chopin, one of the few composers he admired unreservedly. In fact, it is poetry that should be invoked as his original source of inspiration. In the 1880s, Debussy wrote mainly vocal mélodies, inventing harmonic colors and instrumental textures that would later enrich the Tarentelle styrienne and the Ballade slave (1890, respectively reissued, in 1903, under the titles of Danse and Ballade), as well as the Nocturne (1892).

Visual references accompanied his attainment of full pianistic maturity. In 1894, he first attributed the title of Images to three pieces that remained unpublished until 1977. The third, Quelques aspects de “Nous n’irons plus au bois” parce qu’il fait un temps insupportable, is a preparatory work for Jardins sous la pluie, the last of the future Estampes (1903).

From then on, he gave most of his pieces titles that trigger visual and poetic associations. Pagodes refers to the Indonesian gamelan he heard at the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s fair). With its obsessive habanera rhythm, La Soirée dans Grenade gives off the heady perfume of an Andalusian night. Jardins sous la pluie, which quotes Nous n’irons plus au bois and Do, do, l’enfant do, poetically suggests the flow of water, the rustling of leaves and the return of the sun. As for L’Isle joyeuse (1903-04), an exuberant and shimmering isolated piece, Debussy compared it to Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour l’île de Cythère, pointing out that it contained “less melancholy” than does the painting.

As with Chopin, Debussy’s Préludes are far removed from the role of curtain raiser in a Baroque suite. Reflecting emotions born of a memory, a poetic or a pictorial work, their titles are placed in parentheses at the end of each piece, preceded by an ellipsis, inviting performers and listeners to give free rein to their own vision In the wake of his First Book of Preludes (1909-10), Debussy composed twelve new pieces (1911-12), in which he continued his imaginary journeys. A postcard of the Alhambra, in Granada, sent by Manuel de Falla, gave birth to La puerta del vino, a habanera to be played “with sudden contrasts of extreme violence and passionate sweetness.” The harmonies and the peaceful melody of Bruyères take us to Celtic lands, while La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune is a dream of India, discovered in the stories of René Puaux and in L’Inde (sans les Anglais) by Pierre Loti.

The female characters fascinate by their fragility and their unreal, elusive grace, as with Ondine and the “fées sont d’exquises danseuses” (fairies are exquisite dancers), inspired by the book illustrations of English artist Arthur Rackham, for the story by La Motte-Fouqué and for “Peter Pan,” by James Matthew Barrie. Debussy’s Anglophilia also comes out in Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. – an allusion to “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club,” by Dickens. In a similar vein, ‘General Lavine’ – Excentric sketches a witty portrait of American juggler Edward Lavine.

Some pieces, such as Brouillards, Les tierces alternées and Feux d’artifice are based on “sound objects” rather than real themes. In several Préludes, including Feuilles mortes, the twilight colors evoke autumn. Like a distant lament, a quotation from Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (1894) comes through in Canope, named after funerary urns of ancient Egypt. Already in 1910, the composer confided to his publisher, Jacques Durand, “An artist is by definition a man accustomed to dreaming, who lives among ghosts… (…) In short, I live in memory and in regret.” Haydn, in old age, wrote for the piano with the vitality of a young man. We must dare, when listening to late Debussy, to contemplate the darkened sun of melancholy.

Hélène Cao

Photo ©B Ealovega