Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Claude Debussy, Teen-Aged Composer

This evening, “Stuart & Friends” will present its annual evening of chamber music with conductor Stuart Malina playing the piano with several friends and colleagues from the Harrisburg Symphony. The program – 7:30 tonight at the Rose Lehrman Center of the Harrisburg Area Community College – opens with Mozart’s well-known “Kegelstatt” Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano and concludes with one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire, the “Trout” Quintet of Franz Schubert. (Follow the links for more information about those more familiar pieces.)

But there’s something very unusual in between. And I don’t say that as a warning because it’s not that kind of unusual.

As a composer, I’m always fascinated to hear where a famous composer “comes from,” and by that I mean how that familiar style evolved into the unmistakable voice of the mature composer.

Even hearing Mozart’s earliest works, you realize the seeds of the mature Mozart’s style. But, say, in Wagner, is his early Symphony in C Major something you would expect from the composer who would later write Tristan und Isolde written about 25 years later?

One thing you can say about Claude Debussy’s Piano Trio in G Major is that if you play it unannounced for your music-loving friends, chances are no one will guess who wrote it. If you’re familiar with “Clair de Lune” or La Mer, it lacks the hallmarks of what we think of as Debussy’s style. But even bold and innovative composers come from somewhere, some place where they learn their trade, to put it efficiently if not very aesthetically.

This is Debussy the Teen-ager, a recording with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performing the four movements of his piano trio, posted at YouTube.
--- --- --- --- --- --- ---
1st Movement
2nd Movement
3rd Movement
4th Movement (ignore the fact the opening frame says it’s the 3rd Movement)
--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

There is one fact that you should know. In 1880, Claude Debussy the pianist was hired to be the “house pianist” for a wealthy Russian widow who was traveling through Europe with her daughters. She needed someone to give them piano lessons and to accompany her elder daughter who was a singer. Also, the mother enjoyed playing piano duets – piano, four-hands, two on a bench.

The summer ended in Florence where she added a violinist and a cellist to create an in-house, private piano trio to play for her and her guests. In the photograph (left), Debussy, then 18, is seated on the floor. They were expected to perform every evening, and much of their repertoire consisted of Beethoven and Schubert trios.

This woman, incidentally, is well known because of her friendship and support for Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.

In 1877, Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy Russian railroad tycoon, began commissioning short works from him to be played at her private salon evenings and this quickly turned into a considerable (and significant) “underwriting” of Tchaikovsky’s talent so he could devote him to composing. (If you consider a minor government minister had to support his family on 300-400 rubles a year, the annual stipend she gave Tchaikovsky of 6,000 rubles was quite a fortune!)

As she wrote to him, she described herself as "very unsympathetic in my personal relations because I do not possess any femininity whatever; second, I do not know how to be tender, and this characteristic has passed on to my entire family. All of us are afraid to be affected or sentimental, and therefore the general nature of our family relationships is comradely, or masculine, so to speak.”

The one stipulation she made was that they never meet. As a result, their letters constitute a valuable document of Tchaikovsky’s creative output and personal views.

Then, suddenly, in 1890, she broke off their relationship, confessing bankruptcy, though this might have been too overstated.

Meanwhile, during the summers between 1880 and 1883, she employed Claude Debussy who also joined her in Russia. He himself never met Tchaikovsky but he, no doubt, heard a great deal about him and probably played a good deal of his music as Mme von Meck liked to hear her favorite music frequently and she was quite imperious about the way she handled her servants (as she viewed her musical employees) as well as her family and friends.

She did, however, send Tchaikovsky a short piano piece that Debussy had composed for her that first summer, a Bohemian Dance. Tchaikovsky was not enthusiastic: "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 unity".

What else Debussy may have composed for her, we don’t know. Many of these manuscripts may have disappeared into family archives, the typical boxes in the attic somewhere, yet to be unearthed.

I’m not sure when this piano trio came to light: I can find no reference to a first performance. Even the first published edition doesn’t mention its publication date (see photo, below) and its first recording only came out in 1984!

Now, the assumption has always been that Debussy composed this piece to play it for Mme von Meck. That would seem logical. He had played all these great trios from the classical repertoire, why wouldn’t he want to write something of his own and get it heard? If she sent Tchaikovsky this little dance, did his reaction indicate she wouldn’t waste his time sending him a large-scale work like a full-length, four-movement piano trio? What was her reaction or those of her friends who might have heard it? Did they hear it?

Another interesting detail is that many sources indicate the trio was composed “c.1879” which would be a year before he was first employed by Mme von Meck.

Without seeing the manuscript, I can’t say they’re wrong but it doesn’t make sense. It’s an early work – François Lesure, the man who catalogued Debussy’s music chronologically, refers to it as L.3. And he published his catalog only in 1977. Since the first published edition refers to it as L.3, that implies the publication dates between 1977 and 1984, making it a fairly recent discovery, one way or another.

1st Page of Trio "composed in 1880"
But if you’ll notice in the photo of that 1st edition’s first page, it says “Composed in 1880.”

I’ll take that as more or less verification that it was, in fact, written for Mme von Meck.

Besides, Debussy, at 17, was primarily aiming to become a pianist (he was hired as a pianist) and most of the early works he composed were piano pieces he could perform himself or songs friends of his would sing.

Anyway, the point is – this is very young Debussy, even if there are missing works in Lesure’s catalog predating the Trio at No. 3!

Does it sound like Debussy? Are there fingerprints we might hear? Probably not – they might be things he picked up imitating other composers who influenced his contemporaries like Chausson (who wrote his own Trio in 1881 at the start of his career) or Chabrier (he had not yet reached his own maturity in 1880), music that is not generally known to American audiences, these days (even Massenet is unfamiliar, though he and Saint-Saens were the leading composers of their day in France). The opening of the scherzo reminds me of some of the popular dance-parodies Debussy wrote in his some of his later piano pieces, like the Children’s Corner or the Preludes for Piano.

But more to my thoughts would be imagining a young Frenchman stuck in Russia and perhaps getting a chance to hear something like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov which certainly has considerable bearing on the opera he would started thinking about ten years later, Pelleas et Melisande.

Though someone could say “perhaps he heard the historic Diaghilev production in Paris?” But that wasn’t until 1908, and Pelleas was premiered in 1902. But Boris had been performed 26 times in Russia before 1882 when it suddenly disappeared from the repertoire, not to be staged again until 1904. So… possible?

It’s very likely Mme von Meck would have had a copy of the score lying around, whether she liked it or not. Again, possible… but only conjecture. After all, there are many hours in life that cannot be accounted for in those few facts available from those times.

- Dick Strawser

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I agree there is not much that points to Debussy in the first movement. Second and third movement certainly have patterns that you recognize from other early works, such as Clair de Lune, Danse bohémienne, etc. But true, it still lacks the distinct style that we associate with Debussy. However, that was soon to follow after this.