Program Notes

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)

I. Animé et très décidé
II. Assez vif et bien rythmé
III. Andantino, doucement expressif
IV. Très modéré - Très mouvementé et avec passion

In writing these notes I realize I could have titled this summer’s programs “Rebels and Pioneers; the Music of Debussy, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, and Piazzola.” These composers’ works were stunningly original and often met with puzzled expressions, rejection, or, in some cases, actual violence. Debussy was a child prodigy (he attended Paris Consevatoire when he was ten years old) and a revolutionary and his string quartet, like Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” stands at the threshold of a new era in expression; art was on the move at the end of the 19th Century.

Influenced by sources as disparate as French composer Cesar Franck, Javenese Gamelan Music, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and Impressionist painters Monet and Whistler, Debussy was the first to explicitly use color as a thematic device, and by “color” I mean musical color, also perhaps known as timbre. That’s difficult to describe in words but maybe a food analogy will serve: if composers since the classical era had developed themes just as chefs tweak recipes with herbs or spices, Debussy’s sensual and subtle music transformed the basic ingredients into new dishes in one way familiar, yes, but something completely different nonetheless.

In the same way, Debussy ties all four movements together in the quartet with many of the same themes but paints them in such different colors as to make them almost unrecognizable. This was a new approach to developing a theme and the final departure from the classical tradition of separate movements, unrelated thematically. The first movement switches back and forth between the earthy yet sternly controlled opening and the light-as-air second melody with its breezy underlying accompaniment. The second movement is a scherzo of sorts. Scherzo means “joke” in Italian but here it is serious fun with a quick middle section reminding one of dappled light seen through leaves on a hot summer day. The third movement starts as a long, languid exhale followed by a priest-like plainchant (in the viola) that leads to long and sad and increasingly impassioned melodies, redolent of nostalgia and conjuring distant memories of endless summers. The last movement starts with a declamation by the cello, strong and paternal, which, turning a corner, reveals an idling locomotive that departs and drives to the end. Whereas Piazzola was to push the instruments to their physical limits with wood thumps, itchy behind-the-bridge squawks, and Alfred Hitchcock “Psycho” shower-scene glissandi, Debussy pushes the instruments to their spiritual limits of expressivity.

Program notes by David Yang