Debussy and the Rhapsody for clarinet

Debussy et la Rhapsodie pour clarinette
In 1909, Claude Debussy was elected member of the Conseil Supérieur du Conservatoire de Paris. As such, he was called upon to write two pieces for the clarinet class for the 1910 end-of-year competitions. This was the origin of the First Rhapsody for clarinet… Learn more in this fascinating article written by Guy Dangain.

What is a rhapsody?

These are pieces detached from Homer's poems that were sung by the rhapsodes, the name the Greeks gave to those who went from town to town to sing the poets' songs.

A rhapsody is a work made of pieces, disparate parts. It is an intermittent, spasmodic discourse, with a changing pace. It constantly oscillates: sometimes it lingers, sometimes it gets frantically excited, going as far as exaltation.

Claude Debussy Debussy's Rhapsody for clarinet is seductive, capricious, poetic. The various registers of the instrument are exploited in all its sound and expressive resources. This piece alternates between reverie and playfulness with an enchanting freedom and poetry. Of the Rhapsody, Debussy said: "This piece is certainly one of the most amiable I have ever written". Pierre Boulez was still astonished to find so much grace and poetry in a competition piece. But do not be mistaken, beyond an apparent technical simplicity it demands a perfect mastery of the instrument.

History of the Rhapsody

From the French repertoire, this is the most beautiful work for clarinet, a true kaleidoscope of a thousand facets of sound. This competition piece is dedicated to Prosper Mimart (1859-1928) as a token of sympathy. Mimart was Cyrille Rose's student. He was a soloist with Pasdeloup, Lamoureux, at the Opéra Comique, then at the Société des concerts du Conservatoire, and clarinet teacher at the Paris Conservatoire from 1905 to 1918.

We owe him a Méthode nouvelle de clarinette théorique et pratique, too little known in my opinion (Enoch editions). It is also to him that we owe the article on the clarinet in the famous Encyclopédie de la Musique et Dictionnaire du Conservatoire directed by Lavignac.

The first performance of the Rhapsody took place at the Société musicale indépendante salle Gaveau on January 16, 1911 by Prosper Mimart, with Krieger at the piano. The work was orchestrated in August 1910 and first performed in Russia; then at the Pasdeloup Concerts on May 3, 1919 by Gaston Hamelin, a fantastic pedagogue, who was a soloist with the Boston Symphony and then with the National Orchestra.

Debussy's sound conception

The sound, in its pure state, is a creative element in its musical structure, in the same way as melody, rhythm and harmony. Debussy has an exceptional sensitivity to the timbres of the instruments, an infallible way of renewing them and using the resonance of the sounds. He thus obtains the most bewitching effects. The taste for sonority is one of the distinguishing marks of French music. Claude Debussy talks about the implementation of sound; in 1915, he wrote: "We are still in the march of harmonies and few are those for whom the Beauty of sound is enough". He lightened the orchestra to the maximum in most of his works; he gave priority to woodwinds: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and removed the supremacy of brass instruments by having them most often muted. He willingly divides the string quartet.

Debussy lamented that the musicians of the time did not know how to "break down" the sound. For example, in Pelléas et Mélisande, the sixth violin is as important as the first. "I try to use," he said, "every timbre in a state of purity." He added: "Wagner went too far," and compared his music to a multicolored mastic spread almost uniformly in which he no longer distinguished the sound of a violin from that of a trombone. He spoke of a general reform of the traditional arrangement of the orchestra on the stage: "The strings should not form a barrier but a circle around the others, so that the intervention of the small harmony and harmony is something other than the fall of a 'bundle'."

Today, the problem remains. It is often impossible to be heard in an orchestral solo unless you force the sounds. There is currently a tendency to play louder and louder, which is totally abnormal for the beauty of the sound and for the accuracy. In a large orchestra, one should always think about doing chamber music, hearing all the sections. Debussy never abuses the forte. He practises more pianissimo and piano. In Jeux, 557 measures out of 709 are written in very soft nuances. It can therefore be said that Debussy reduced the "dynamics" in music. In the Rhapsody for Clarinet, out of 206 measures written, there must be about thirty in a nuance forte.

A few points of reference...

We can distinguish three periods in Claude Debussy's musical life:

  • The first one going up to Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) dominated by impressionism, tinged with symbolism;
  • The second, strongly influenced by naturism: La Mer (1905), les Iberia (1908). Naturism is a literary and artistic doctrine which was claimed by Zola, Monet, Rodin. It protested against the German, Scandinavian and Russian influences.
  •   The third, with an art of the composer essentially melodic, very clear and simple: Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). This is the neo-classical period. It is the one we are particularly interested in, since Debussy wrote the Première Rhapsodie pour Clarinette from the end of December 1909 to January 1910.

His style

Debussy tells us:

"I let my nature and my temperament speak for themselves; I especially tried to be French. The French forget too easily the qualities of clarity and elegance that are their own, to allow themselves to be influenced by Germanic lengths and heaviness. And yet we had a French tradition of delicate and charming tenderness. To the German depth one can regret all the same that French music has for too long followed paths that perfidiously distanced it from this clarity of expression: this accurate, this collected in form, particular and significant qualities of the French genius! Today, we hardly dare to be witty anymore, fearing that we might lack grandeur."


Analysis and interpretation of the work

I consulted the manuscripts of the Rhapsody at the National Library. There are two manuscripts: one for clarinet and piano written from the end of December 1909 to January 1910 (D and F 7636); the other for clarinet and orchestra, written and orchestrated after the end of year competition, and published in 1911 (D and F 8280). Obviously the two manuscripts are very different. All suppositions remain possible:

  1. Concertation between Professor Prosper Mimart and the composer for problems of instrumental technique;
  2. Change wanted by the composer;
  3. However, there are in certain places corrections that are difficult to explain. The score of the editions Durand (Rhapsodie - Music: Claude Debussy © 1919 ed. Durand) is completely in conformity with the manuscripts. And yet! Mystery of the oral tradition?

The introduction is eight measures. It is suspended in space and time, in a diaphanous nuance. Debussy indicates "Dreamily slow…". One could very well say: "In a softly sonorous mist", "From dawn to noon on the sea"… Moreover, I find that this Rhapsody bears some resemblance to the symphonic triptych La Mer (1905). Speaking of this introduction, Vladimir Jankelevitch tells us: "Sometimes preliminaries delay the installation of a development that is about to begin, but which is strangely slow to decide, to hesitate, to grope." The triple eighth notes of this beginning will be played in a soft nuance, smoothly and quietly, like an improvisation (cf. Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, Jeux).

The tempo of the quarter note is 50. Debussy indicated in many of his works metronomic movements, so that one could observe the tempo he wished, and yet did he not say that the metronomic movement lasted the space of a bar like "roses in the space of a morning". Then came the two triplet bars with the number 1, the movement of water. A slight sway and the sentence settles in, soft and penetrating. It is dawn. Everything is calm, almost silent, in the morning mist (1st theme). One beat before 2, the B has a special meaning. The first ray of sunshine has just dawned, the movement comes alive, everything awakens. A soft luminosity appears (2nd theme). On the 6th and 8th bars of 2, the arpeggios in ascending movement shine the sparkling light on the water; the musical discourse becomes more pressing, like a garland of light, running furtively over the waves. This sudden cadence is a real flight forward that is very often found in Debussy's music. Many articulations, small notes, trills. All this with finesse and elegance. The tempo is "the double faster" compared to the poco mosso which is played at about 72 on the quarter note.

The four measures before 3 will allow us to come back to this serene and magnificent phrase, but at the upper octave (1st theme), with 4 trills quite marked accompanied by parallel chords (bells of the sunken Cathedral). The ascent in triple eighth notes will be done in a harpistic style, like a fairy's finger sliding on the strings. There will be no preparation or ending, the whole C of the number 3 being the culmination. This phrase (1st theme) will be adorned with magnificent arabesques, sound symbols of the curved line. We are now on "the double faster", that is to say the double of the "dreamily slow" (100 to the quarter note). The atmosphere becomes threatening - everything is moving and agitated. I mentioned earlier "a kaleidoscope of sound". Debussy exposes these themes for an instant - here 13 bars - the last four already bringing us back to a more soothing, more flexible climate (3rd theme). The articulations will be of great importance. Nuances, points, accents, dashes and trills must be rigorously respected. This "moderately lively" is interpreted bar by bar. Here we find Debussy's anti-wagnerism. Here everything is distinct, short, delicate, precious. After a series of ascending trills, he re-exposes the second theme.

The second part of this Rhapsody begins at number 6: recapitulation of the 3rd theme without flourish, but with vigor and assurance. In the 3rd and 4th bar of 6, Debussy takes the opportunity to announce scherzando the 4th theme. It is a dialogue between clarinet and piano. The 3rd tempo of these bars being a weak tempo, it will be without attack, like a relay; on the 7th bar of 6, in the space of 2 bars, he places a 5th theme, which we find again at the extreme end (number 12).

The scherzando ("playful and light"), if one respects the composer's thought, must remain in the same tempo, i.e. "moderately lively" (72 to the quarter note). This metronomic indication seems to me a little slow, but I believe that there is a current tendency to play it too quickly. 104 on the quarter note would be reasonable and very musical, because this theme must be hesitant, fearful. Moreover, the second major of the piano that accompanies it is threatening, I would even say squeaky. This theme asserts itself little by little to be taken up again in the upper octave. Debussy, certainly thinking of the competition piece he was writing, slips us twice a "rather vicious" dash of fourth. Then, to make up for it, he grace us with a melody full of charm and tenderness (reminder of the 2nd theme), which delicately leads us to the "soft and penetrating" of the beginning (1st theme) with a different lighting: first dark, then opening in a fan-like manner with the sextolets of the piano.

Everything is illuminated by trill calls in a lively tempo at number 10. The arabesques inflame and wrap up the tempo. They create a climate of panic escape. For Jankelevitch: "It is the wind of panic that blows, the hurricane carries everything, tempo and tone in its tornado. The theme of the scherzo gives way to the irritation of a dizzying accelerando and furiously precipitates its galloping rhythm. The tonality itself falls into chromaticism. The melodious Rhapsody dissonates, panting, begins to squeak and ends in disarray."

    Renowned soloist, former professor at the CNSM of Paris and acoustic advisor at Henri SELMER Paris, Guy Dangain was awarded the French record prize for his interpretation of Debussy's Rhapsody with the Orchestre National de France. Learn more about Guy Dangain