Today, I will try something new: Over a week I will present three works from three different composers, recorded by one single ensemble and compiled on one single album. Three quartets, magnificently performed by the French Quatuor Ebène. The idea to group these posts sprang from the parallels between the pieces and the parallels between the pictures I matched to the posts. I discovered this album a year ago and immediately fell in love with all three quartets.
“I made myself a religion out of the mysteries of nature”, Debussy once said about his music. Everything is new with Claude Debussy, his personality, his way of thinking, his art, writes the French musicologist Brigitte François-Sappey. And the piece I will present first illustrates both points. Its sensuality and the tonal shifts reflect parallel developments in the field of painting with an emphasis on expressing an instantaneous sensation, catching a short-lived impression. With its cyclic structure the quartet transcends the rules of classical harmony. Debussy postulated that “any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity.” A radical shift in the conception of chamber music.
Three pictures, three colours
When I first heard his String Quartet (L. 85, Op. 10), a clear succession of pictures formed in my head. Picture one: I see a wheat field with red, white and blue wildflowers basking in the wind and a blue sky. Picture two: I see myself at the age of five or six making a puzzle depicting a rural landscape. People are working in the fields, there are woods, a small village, a castle at the distant horizon. The drawing was in the naive style, an idyllic nature, a calm, orderly world. I loved that puzzle, it showed the world the way I thought it should be. Picture three: It’s on a spring evening, close to sunset, I am returning with my parents from a stroll, my mother carries some of those wildflowers I mentioned already. A warm feeling of happiness floats through me.
The string quartet was written in 1893 and has four movements. It is a prime example for the ground-breaking development in music that Debussy had triggered. Thematic density – one theme, multiple variations – the thematic material in the first movement are the raw material for the following sections. Extreme rhythmic flexibility – the rapid change of pizzicato* and bowed passages in the second movement illustrate this. An obsession with timbre and sonority.
Density and clarity
Reactions to the quartet in the musical circles of Paris were split. Eugène Ÿsaye, who conducted the premiere in 1894, confessed he did not understand the piece, infuriating the composer. It took a long time until Debussy dared to think about writing a second quartet. He never wrote it. Paul Dukas however was exstatic: “Everything is very clear and concise despite the formal freedom. The melodic essence is dense, but it has a rich flavour.”
Debussy’s quartet feels like a summer dream, a modern one, pleasant, intriguing, in direct opposition to Romantic music. When I listen to it, I feel this sensation of warmth, happiness. Every time. Outstanding.
© Charles Thibo