A Second Suite Bergamasque

From Roy Howat’s annotations for his Tall Poppies Debussy Piano Music series, vol. 2 (TP123)

“Second Suite Bergamasque” is an informal title for the largest and most symphonic of all Debussy’s piano triptychs, one that was dispersed in the oddest of circumstances. In summer of 1903 Debussy started to play to his friend Ricardo Viñes parts of a new “Suite bergamasque” in three movements, ending with “L’île joyeuse”; in January 1904 he played Viñes all three pieces, and at about the same time adverts by the publisher Eugène Fromont identified the suite’s opening piece as “Masques”. The suite, though, never appeared as such; in its place Fromont published, in 1905, a totally different four-movement Suite bergamasque that Debussy had composed in 1890, and in autumn 1904 Masques and L’isle joyeuse appeared as two separate pieces from the publisher Durand.

This mysterious story involved, among other things, a probable conflict of publishers, a creditor who enforced the publication of the 1890 Suite bergamasque in the teeth of Debussy’s protests, and, to top it all, Debussy’s elopement to Jersey – his own isle joyeuse – with Emma Bardac in July 1904. Over that summer he rewrote “Masques” and “L’isle joyeuse”, whose anglicised respelling suggests an added autobiographical allusion to Jersey. Meanwhile the missing central piece is not hard to identify. In January 1904-exactly when he first played the complete new suite to Ricardo Viñes-Debussy completed and dated the manuscript of a piece called D’un cahier d’esquisses, which was promptly printed in the magazine Paris illustré. At that time Debussy wrote single pieces only for special commissions, and such magazine publications usually had the purpose of publicising a larger collection to come. D’un cahier d’esquisses (literally “from a sketchbook”) thus suggests an announcement along the lines of “work in progress” or even “watch this space”, and might eventually have taken on a more definitive title. Most telling of all, it forms a perfect prologue to L’isle joyeuse: its closing chord leads naturally into the latter piece’s opening trill and “quasi-cadenza”, its barcarolle rhythm anticipates the central part of L’isle joyeuse, and its repeated cadenza fanfare returns triumphantly in the last part of L’isle joyeuse.

Unfortunately D’un cahier d’esquisses was sold early to the Brussels publisher Schott, some months before Durand – who was soon to become Debussy’s exclusive publisher – persuaded Debussy to sell him Masques and L’isle joyeuse. Durand may have hoped to recoup rights to the central piece (no papers survive to prove exactly what happened), but this never eventuated. Such banal circumstances appear to have broken up a great triptych. Restoration of the suite not only makes optimum sense of L’isle joyeuse (especially its opening), but also rescues its two distinguished companion-pieces from years of neglect. (Their neglect is also partly due to erroneous tempo indications in the original editions, corrected in the Œuvres Complètes de Claude Debussy, series 1 vol. 3.) According to the pianist Marguerite Long, Debussy was very attached to Masques, which he considered to be not “The Comédie Italienne … but the tragic expression of existence.” Intriguingly, the form and proportions of Masques are precisely mirrored by its opposite “twin” L’isle joyeuse – until the exact point where the latter piece’s coda opens out jubilantly, leaving all sombre echoes of Masques behind.

A fully documented account of this story can be found in Roy Howat’s article “En route for L’isle joyeuse: the restoration of a triptych”, Cahiers Debussy, 19 (1995), pp. 37-52. The three pieces appear together (in chronological order of their first publication), edited by Roy Howat, in Œuvres Complètes de Claude Debussy, series 1 vol. 3 (more info please click on the ‘Debussy’ tab).

© 1999, Roy Howat / Tall Poppies