Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Landmarks (14)

Achille-Claude Debussy, Six Épigraphes Antiques (1914) piano four-hands. Arranged by the composer from incidental music originally scored for two flutes, two harps and celeste, there are also versions for two hands, and for orchestra, but the four-handed version is a remarkable ensemble piece and seems to me to be the optimal expression of these little pieces. Arrangements of theatrical music for piano, two- or more-handed, are often simply a tool for accompanying rehearsals (in the absence of the larger ensemble), but a small number of these arrangements have managed to become concert works in their own rights, and the Six Épigraphes Antiques work as well in the concert hall as in the home .

It's a music appreciation cliché to identify Debussy as one of those composers for whom instrumentation and timbre are essential to the character and identity of a piece of music. This is trivially true for a lot of much. Anything well-written for horn, for example, is going to be so constricted by the playing-technical aspects of the instrument -- and more so, in the case of a natural horn -- that simply reassigning material from another instrument is seldom going to function, let alone thrive. In the best cases, like the case at hand, the transcription of a piece of music from one set of resources to another can be revelatory, and the revelations concern both the source and the medium of the arrangement.

With regard to the source, stage music for The Songs of Bilitis, the uniform timbre of the piano brings out aspect of contrasting pitch collections and pitch symmetry that continue to resonate in later music, particularly in the music of Bartok (an incubatory relationship between piano music and music for other instruments is shared by Debussy and Bartok). And with regard to the medium, in the Six Épigraphes, the composer decisively moves the piano back into the realm of percussion instruments (a move shared, albeit with alternative technical means, with the slightly later experiments of the teenaged Henry Cowell in California). But the aspect of percussion that Debussy grabs onto is not that of the noise maker or time marker, but of an ensemble character, one that he presumably recognized in his contacts with Flamenco or with the Gamelan Madenda he had heard and returned to hear at the World's Fair.* Playing the Six Épigraphes Antiques with a like-minded musician friend (you needn't be great pianists, just good musicians who can get around at the keyboard) is a delight on a par, in my book, with playing Javanese music.


* Contrary to another music appreciation-land fib, there is no material evidence -- in terms of instruments, scales, rhythms, or borrowed tunes -- of Debussy being "influenced" by the Gamelan Madenda. Instead, he responded enthusisatically to a music with which he recognized some substantial shared sensibilities, and those shared sensibilities lie more within the realm of ensemble and texture than in pitches or rhythms. AFAIC, Debussy's capacity to form such a recognition is amore than adequate demonstration of a unique musical personality. Why diminish it with unsubstantiated talk of "influence"?


PWS said...

I have never heard this piece that makes me very angry indeed.

Daniel Wolf said...

Don't get angry about this, you still have time to hear it, or better yet, get the score and plough through it at the piano with or without the right partner.

What I get angry about is not having Debussy's 3rd Chamber Sonata (planned for oboe, horn, and harpsichord). It's tragic not having that music, even more than not having the Mahler 13th, 14th, 15th...

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