Sea Here (2)…

Image result for debussy houlgate

Debussy at the beach in Houlgate, Normandy, in 1911

In last night’s posting, I drew admiring attention to a bit of so-called ‘cyclic technique’ found in Debussy’s three-movement orchestral piece La Mer — first performed on 15 October 1905. If anyone who has now heard the whole piece still wants me to point out exactly what bit I was talking about when I spoke of the decisive third appearance of that wonderful chorale-like fragment, I will now present all three of its appearances in suitably coded clips, so that the insecure reader can experience them all in the most rapid succession. (Be aware, though: if you decide to listen to that third clip without ever having heard the entire piece, then the angels who protect this blog will make you grow donkey ears…)

So, here are the three appearances of our ‘cyclic’ idea — the first in the first movement, the other two in the third…

All right, then: let’s move on to what I promised would be my second point — concerning something I called an ‘odd and intriguing detail about which I still haven’t come to a conclusion’. What I’m talking about is something that takes us away from the topic of ‘ideas that recur in later movements’ — and brings us to an example of an idea that was once heard in a movement, and now isn’t.

Sounds mysterious? Well, in a way, it is…

When I first got to know La Mer — via that battered ex-library LP, all the way back in the late ’70s — the big work-up towards the end of the final movement included a passage that sounded like this (you’ll see here that the vision mixer cuts to a dramatic close-up of the trumpet players for the brass entry…):

Well, a little time passed, and — some time probably in 1980 or thereabouts — there came a day when I was listening to a different recording of La Mer. I can’t remember the details — but I do very definitely remember that, when we reached this dramatic passage, I didn’t hear what I was used to hearing. What I heard instead was this

My face must have been ‘a picture’, as they say: of those exciting brass fanfares — on trumpets and horns — there was not a trace, and, without them, the remaining ‘background’ elements of texture (in particular that now futile tremolando accompaniment to almost nothing) struck me as distinctly weedy and ineffective…

What on earth was going on? I mean, while it’s far from unknown for players to miss their entries once in a while, the fact is that for two trumpets and two horns all to miss the same entry — and for none of them to catch on for eight whole bars — was a possibility too unlikely to be worth considering… Something, in other words, must have been going on with the actual score


(Click to see a larger image)

Well, a bit of investigation revealed that the four fanfares were present in Debussy’s original orchestral manuscript (see my red highlighter indicating two of them on the page over to the right) as well as in the 1905 first edition — but were removed by the composer in the production of the 1909 revised score. It also turned out that the composer’s earlier, condensed ‘short score’ (that’s a manuscript sketch ‘short’ on orchestral detail, not in terms of length) didn’t have them in: plainly, Debussy added the fanfares at a slightly later stage of composition — and then took them out again, some time after the work was officially finished and premiered.

But that’s not the full extent of the weirdness. At the same time he was working on his orchestral manuscript, Debussy was also producing a piano duet version of La Mer (that’s for four hands at one piano: in those days something that would be played domestically as well as publicly). And therefore it’s probably not so surprising that what we find in that version is the following:

But now look at this. After 1907, Debussy had a fairly close professional relationship with André Caplet (1878-1925; like Debussy, a winner of the famous Prix de Rome). On Debussy’s say-so, Caplet produced two-piano versions of La Mer that were written for four and six hands — and in both of these, the fanfares are, as it were, half-present: the first two brass entries aren’t represented at all, but the third and fourth are. Here’s how that sounds — first in the two-pianos, four-hands version…

… and now — Gawd help us! — in the two-pianos, six-hands version:

In other words, it really does look as if Debussy, having put in these brass fanfares after writing this bit of his ‘short score’ but before the work was fully orchestrated and published, then took them out in stages. What makes this thought particularly interesting is that the story which circulates to this day about the fanfares’ deletion tells us that, at some point before 1909, someone told Debussy that these brass parts sounded like something in Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut (premiered 1893) — and that Debussy (who couldn’t stand Puccini’s music), immediately took the things out, and mutilated his texture in the process.

It seems to me that there are two things to be said about that. The first is that I need to recall (with due modesty…) ‘Doran’s Third Law’ — which states that ‘A completely false musical anecdote will survive forever as long as its motivational mainspring is one composer’s detestation of another‘. The second is that the big problem with this particular story (apart from the complete lack of substantiation and various issues with the chronology that I won’t bore you with) is that, if it is the case that what was ‘wrong’ with the four little fanfares was that they were ‘too reminiscent of something in Puccini’, then the problem would hardly have been solved by deleting two of them

(For what it’s worth, the nearest thing to these fanfares that I’ve ever been able to find in Manon Lescaut is the motivic material used in this segment towards the end of Act 1…

…which, to me at least, is a ‘resemblance’ thin to the point of actual non-existence…) followed me through all of this, the reader will now know what it is that I’ve never quite been able to decide. First, what on earth did Debussy have against those fanfares that, to start with, seemed as if it could be fixed by deleting two of them, but then turned out to require the removal of all four of them? Secondly, why did the revised orchestral score’s mutilated, fanfare-less version of the passage — with its loss of motivic and gestural interest and its weakened musical contrast with what comes immediately afterwards — seem sufficiently acceptable to him that he never provided a proper replacement? And, thirdly, what is it that a conductor and orchestra ought to do nowadays? Because while I myself am firm and consistent in my belief that a composer’s revisions are a composer’s revisions, and thus things that you and I are not permitted to mess with or undo, the fact remains — doesn’t it? — that this particular revision is simply lousy. It may seem tempting to do what Abbado does in that video above — and as Munch, Ansermet, Karajan, Ashkenazy and Solti did on record — and simply reinstate the exciting fanfares. But since there were, over the years, various other revisions that Debussy made to his original published score, the truth is that electing to put the 1905 fanfares back produces a spurious edition — a piece that, in its precise combination of details, never actually existed. From this point of view, the only time one should hear those fanfares played is when the conductor and orchestra present an avowed performance of the entire — and, strictly speaking, obsolete — 1905 score out of sheer historical or musicological interest…

Maybe you have some thoughts…?


microdonateIf you’ve enjoyed reading this or another posting, please consider making an anonymised micro-donation in return! Micro-donation — 50p, 50c, whatever — is the way to sponsor the creation of quality content outside the control of corporate-owned and power-serving media structures. To micro-donate to me, with guaranteed anonymity, simply click on the button… Thanks!

One thought on “Sea Here (2)…

  1. There’s simply too much we don’t know, perhaps, about the circumstances surrounding Caplet’s two-piano versions to treat them with anything like authority. Perhaps he made the decision himself, without reference to Debussy? Perhaps he asked Debussy, and received an off-the-cuff response, and that Debussy never paid any attention to those transcriptions. I don’t think we can be sure that a “2 out of 4” approach represents either Debussy’s thinking, a stage in his thinking, or something he’d given more than the briefest iota of thought to.

    That said, the core question is intriguing. There’s no doubt which of Debussy’s two scores works best at this point. I don’t know anything about the score of the revision – presumably it’s based on the 1905 score and would have, at this point, crossings out? In other words, a definite excision rather than an accidental omission. But I agree with you final point – making up a bastardised version is not acceptable, even if the end result is “better”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s