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Stephen Porter Reveals Debussy’s Préludes


Stephen Porter (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Stephen Porter has a thorough knowledge of and clear affinity for Claude Debussy’s Préludes.  He gave introductory comments about each of the préludes before playing each Book on each half of the program, in this, his eighth appearance on the Frederick Collection’s series last Sunday.  He had done likewise when I heard him play the Préludes on the Steinway in Bezanson Recital Hall on the UMass-Amherst campus some three weeks earlier, playing from memory in both performances, and in both, playing masterfully.

Claude Debussy published his Préludes, deliberately modeled on those of Frédéric Chopin, in two Books of twelve each, Book I in 1910, and Book II in 1913.  They were composed, fairly quickly in comparison with his other works, slightly earlier, in late 1909 and 1910, and in 1912, respectively, but not in the order in which they were ultimately arranged for publication.  They are collections or sets, not cycles, and, unlike J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations or his Cello Suites, for example, they do not have an overarching architecture or structure, although the order is not random, but carefully thought out, and they do lead to a spectacular climax in No. 24.  However, the texts that are generally printed as titles in concert programs and recording booklets or track listings were not presented as titles in the published scores, but rather appeared at the end of each piece.  Debussy intended them to be viewed more as indications of inspiration or origin, what we might today call prompts.  One should recall that the ‘titles’ given to Chopin’s were not his; they were created later by Hans von Bülow, and while only a few, such as the ‘raindrop’ and ‘funeral march,’ have stuck down to our time, he gave one to each prélude, and invented complicated programs or scenarios for all of them.

These ‘prompts’ are very diverse, ranging from works of art: an Ancient Greek column in the Louvre for No. 1, Danseuses de Delphes, and an Ancient Egyptian funerary jar lid that Debussy owned for Canope, No. 22; to a Breton legend for No. 10, La Cathédrale engloutie (the same legend that inspired Édouard Lalo’s Wagnerian-style opera Le Roi d’Ys), to a post card depicting a Moorish gate of the Alhambra sent to him from Granada, Spain, by Manuel De Falla for La Peurta del Vino, No. 15; from elements or phenomena of nature such as Le vent dans la plaine [The wind in the plain], No. 2 and Brouillards [Fog or Mists], No. 13; from works of literature, as in La danse de Puck, No. 11, inspired by an Arthur Rackham illustration in an edition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C. [= Perpetual President – Member Pickwick Club],” No. 21, from Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers; from a line of poetry for No. 4, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir [Sounds and aromas swirl in the evening air], stanza 1, line 3 in Charles Baudelaire’s Harmonie du Soir, a famous and iconic symbolist poem found in his Les Fleurs du Mal, to a phrase that Debussy found in a newspaper article reporting on the crowning of an Indian prince, in No. 19, La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune [The terrace for moonlight audiences] whose sonority appealed to him (This sounds like the technique for title choice of Erik Satie, who was one of his lifelong friends — they met weekly in Debussy’s home for nearly 30 years to discuss anything and everything, although Debussy did not imitate his music.); and from contemporary fads imported from America: the jazz cakewalk rhythm in Minstrels, No. 12, and the  name of a comic/juggler popular in the Paris of the time in No. 18, General Lavine — Eccentric, both with the English spellings, for example.  There are inter-relationships among various individual préludes as well: for example, Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses, No. 16 was also inspired, like No. 11, by an Arthur Rackham illustration in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and is also associated with the dance as are Nos. 1 and 11; Nos. 6, Des pas sur la neige [Footprints in the snow],” and 7, Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest [What the West Wind saw], form a sort of pair dealing with harsh weather; and La fille aux cheveux de lin, No. 8, inspired by a poem of this title by Leconte de Lisle about a Scottish maiden, in which the line is repeated in stanza 1, line 3, is similar in mood and style to Bruyères [Heather], No. 17.  No. 20, Ondine [the eponymous water sprite], was likewise the subject of an Arthur Rackham illustration that Debussy knew, but was also a German myth that swept Europe in the late 19th century, which was also treated by Ravel in his Gaspard de la Nuit, inspired by a poem in Aloysius [Louis Jacques Napoléon] Bertrand’s collection of prose poems of that title, the first such ever published in France in 1842 (but written in 1836), and numerous other composers and writers treated the legend as well.  No. 2, Voiles [Sails or Veils] was inspired by sailboats in a harbor swaying in the breeze, but is also associated with the American dancer Loïe Fuller, who wore long veils that she made float and swirl around her in her performances.

The music is also filled with small snippets of and subtle allusions to other music: God Save the King/Queen is quoted in No. 21, the Marseillaise, in Feux d’artifice [Fireworks], No. 24, which, in addition to the traditional Bastille Day celebrations, is also partially inspired by an 1875 painting by James Abbott McNeil Whistler entitled Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket that Debussy saw in London, and there are quotes from other music as well, including Au clair de la lune and his own Clair de lune in No. 19, and some from Stravinsky’s Petroushka, another of Debussy’s acquaintances whose bold and daring music he also admired but did not imitate.  An Italian folk song is hidden inside Les collines d’Anacapri [The hills of Anacapri, a town on the Island of Capri], No. 5, which was inspired by a picture on the label of a bottle of Italian wine.  One doesn’t need to know all these sources of inspiration, internal quotes of other music – indeed, some are inevitably lost on non-Francophone listeners, and interconnections among them to enjoy the music, but they certainly help understand and appreciate it more fully.  In these works, even more than in his Estampes and his two sets of Images (three if you add the Images oubliées that were never published during his lifetime), Debussy sought to create new sounds with his instrument – he once said that he wanted listeners to forget that it had hammers – and to evoke increasingly abstract images for their minds’ eyes.  They are very complex and intricate pieces beneath their surfaces of sonic paintings and in spite of their short lengths.  In Book II, he began writing the scores on three staffs instead of the standard two, and he did some experimenting with bi-tonality, using a different key in each hand, so those twelve are even more complex than the first twelve.

Debussy wrote these works at the keyboard of his 1904 Blüthner small (6’, 3”) grand that he purchased in 1905 in Eastbourne in England and had shipped to his last residence in Paris, an 18-room rented house with garden near the Bois de Boulogne [here], virtually the only piano that he ever owned; it is still extant and in playing condition in a museum [link here] in the Limousin (Limoges area), where it landed through the son of his step-daughter Hélène (“Dolly,” dedicatee of Gabriel Fauré’s Suite of that name) de Tinan.  This instrument has the company’s patented Aliquot system of sympathetically sounding strings, giving an added depth and resonance to the tones, especially in the upper registers.  The Frederick Collection includes a 1907 Blüthner with this feature, and the Préludes have been recorded by Elaine Greenfield using it.  The Collection’s 1877 Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert, details and images of which you can find in an earlier review of a performance on it [here] and the links within it, was used today; the difference in size makes its resonances similar if not identical to those of Debussy’s Blüthner.  The parallel stringing and wooden frame inevitably make them somewhat different from those produced by the Blüthner’s cast iron frame and over- or cross-strung bass register, but nonetheless quite appropriate.  The works were certainly played on, and some were undoubtedly premièred on Érards in Paris during Debussy’s lifetime, although they were likely never played then in their entirety as they were here today, but rather individually or in small groups, not necessarily of consecutive ones.  The Érard has 90 keys, the two additional in the bass, while Debussy’s Blüthner has only the by then standard 88.

This Érard, with its differentiation among the registers, its scintillating sound, crystalline clarity, sonorous ring, and its warm resonance, seemed to work wonderfully for the creation of Debussy’s sound world.  Porter’s understanding of the internal components of the pieces allowed him to bring out the fine nuances — the sense or feel of the sources, the hidden tunes, but they shone forth and came to life much better on the Érard; on the Steinway they remained more concealed and everything was more homogenous.  Porter plays with a bit more arm and body movement than Debussy, or his friend pianist Ricardo Viñes who premièred many of his works including several of the Préludes, is likely to have used, but there is no drama: everything is graceful and appropriate.  He rewarded his appreciative audience’s standing ovation with an eminently appropriate encore: Debussy’s Clair de lune, which elicited another standing O.  Porter has been selected as musician-in-residence this summer at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, where he will play the Préludes and many other Debussy works as part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.  The Érard will be used again in a special fundraising performance by Yuan Sheng of the Beijing Central Conservatory of an all-French program (Fauré’s Ballade in f#, Op. 19, Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin) at 4 p.m. on July 29th  at the Community Church in Ashburnham.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College in Northampton.

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