Rare Debussy Pieces of 1915

From Roy Howat’s annotations to vols 13 of the Tall Poppies CD Series:

In June 1915 Debussy helped his wife Emma with Le Vêtement du blessé, a charity for war-wounded, organising a concert and contributing an autograph page of music for auction. The page in question – an exquisite little waltz that repeatedly puns on its opening cadence  fortunately survives in a copy Debussy gave Emma on her name-day, and was eventually published in 1933 as Page d’album. In 1980 this was republished by Theodore Presser in a corrected Urtext edition by Roy Howat.

The much more sombre Élégie appeared early in 1916 in autograph facsimile, in a fundraising book called Pages inédites sur la femme et la guerre; its cello-like melody and D-minor key recall the Cello Sonata that Debussy had completed the previous summer. Under the last bar appears the date 15 December 1915; a week earlier Debussy had undergone a cancer operation from which he never properly recovered.

Etude retrouvée is the title given to a 13th Etude of 1915 discovered in 1977 and realized by Roy Howat in an edition published by Theodore Presser. A six-page manuscript from Debussy’s posthumous papers, headed “Pour les Arpèges composés”, had always been assumed to contain sketches for the familiar Etude of that name. On closer examination the manuscript turned out to be a quite different piece. It became clear that Debussy had worked in 1915 on two distinct versions of “Pour les Arpèges composés”, finally choosing one and keeping the other among his papers, probably with a view to later use. (The collapse of his health in 1916 unfortunately put a stop to further plans.) This rediscovered draft needed only the completion of some partly sketched figurations, plus a few clefs and key signatures, to be playable. While Debussy would undoubtedly have refined it further, the version that survives still provides a fascinating glimpse into his compositional workshop, as well as a beautiful Etude in its own right. The piece also serves as a useful intermezzo between the two books of Etudes (as on vol. 1 of the Tall Poppies series) since Book 2 starts in the same tempo as Book 1 ends (the two books were never intended to be played directly in tandem).

For many years Debussy’s Études and Élégie were considered his last word for the piano. In November 2001, however, “Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon” surfaced, revealing an extraordinary story. During the extremely harsh wartime winter of 1916-17 Debussy’s musical coal merchant managed to divert scarce supplies of fuel to the Debussy household. As thanks (and doubtless payment) he received the beautifully written manuscript of this piece, probably composed in February or March 1917. With characteristic humour, Debussy’s title (= ‘Evenings lit by glowing coals’) quotes a line from Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le balcon’. The piece also opens with an allusion to Debussy’s earlier Baudelairean Prelude “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir”. Like “Les sons et les parfums”, the music blends a tinge of café or night club with Debussy’s habitual refinement.

© 1997-2002, Roy Howat / Tall Poppies Records.