Saturday, April 17, 2010

Preview: Debussy from "Syrinx" to "Afternoon of a Faun" -- or is it vice versa?

Paula Robison plays Debussy's "Syrinx" at the 1986 Festival Casals in Puerto Rico.

If you spend much time among flutists -- a course of action I'm neither recommending nor especially warning against -- you'll find that "Syrinx" is one of the standbys to which they return constantly in warmups and instrumental noodling.

by Ken

You may have noticed that in last night's preview featuring three simple but exquisite little pieces by Claude Debussy (1862-11918), in assorted arrangements as well as the piano originals, I neglected to include dates of composition. This wasn't entirely neglect. Except in the broadest terms, I have more difficulty hearing time with Debussy than with almost any other composer. The dates just didn't seem to come into the discussion. For the record, the Suite bergamasque, which includes "Clair de lune" ("Moonlight"), was written around 1890.

It's a good question, and deserves an answer. The answer is that nobody knows. Oh, it has a bunch of linguistic analogs that suggest various meanings, but what exactly it means, we don't know. You might think it would help that Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)wrote a piece called Masques et bergamasques, but he didn't do that until 1919, when Debussy had recently died, and the likelihood is that what he meant by "Bergamasques" was, "whatever the heck Debussy meant, morbleu.")

Book I of the Preludes for Piano, which includes the lovely little "Fille aux cheveux de lin" ("Girl With the Flaxen Hair"), was written around 1907-10. And the Children's Corner Suite, which includes "Golliwogg's Cake-walk," was written in 1906-08. Now that you're an expert on dating Debussy's compositions, where would you guess Syrinx, the haunting piece for solo flute we heard above, fits in?

In fact, "Syrinx" is relatively late Debussy. The piece, named for a nymph pursued by the god Pan, was written in 1913 as part of one of the many projects in Debussy's career that didn't pan out -- in this case incidental music for Gabriel Mourey's never-completed play Psyché. And speaking of projects that didn't pan out, would you guess that "Syrinx" preceded or followed this piece, in which Debussy clearly also had the flute on his mind?

Julius Baker, flute; Lisa Emenheiser Logan, piano (arr. Jaubert). VAI, recorded live, 1982

This, one of Debussy's most-played works, is in fact early-ish, generally dated around 1892-94, and it's from yet another busted project. Debussy had a plan for a little suite inspired by Mallarmé's poem L'Après-midi d'un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), but he wrote only this prelude, which is thus technically the Prélude à "L'Après-midi d'un faune", though you won't often find it listed that way, but rather as, simply, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Now if it strikes you that you've never heard it sounding quite like this, you're right. Debussy composed it for flute and orchestra:

Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris, Manuel Rosenthal, cond. Adès, recorded 1957-59

The live recital performance of the Jaubert flute-and-piano arrangement, however, is as far as I know the closest the great flutist Julius Baker, renowned in particular for the unique beauty of his tone, came to recording the piece. (Leonard Bernstein did make a recording with the New York Philharmonic, but that was in 1960, five years before Baker was lured into the Philharmonic's fold as principal flutist.)


In 2000, the year he turned 85, the legendary Julius Baker (1915-2003), principal flutist of, successively, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the CBS Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Bach Aria Group, and (from 1965 to 1983) the New York Philharmonic, and one of the country's great flute teachers (at the Juilliard School from 1954, then from 1980 at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where he had studied with legendary Philadelphia Orchestra flute principal William Kincaid), did a fabulous interview for Yamaha Woodwind Instruments with his onetime student Jeff Khaner, principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1982 to 1990 and since 1990 of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The 45-minute-plus interview, posted in three parts, is intercut with other interviews and performance excerpts. (In Part 2 there's a clip of Baker and Khaner playing a Kuhlau duet together.) And every now and then Baker picks up his flute and plays!

(UPDATE: I was curious about the chronology myself, and discovered that Jeff Khaner was all of 22 when he became principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the country's "big five" orchestras. And so he would have been about 40 in 2000 when he did this interview, already a ten-year veteran as Philadelphia principal, as high a position as his profession has to offer. Now as he turns 50, he can look back on an amazing 20-year run in Philadelphia and a combined 28 years as a principal with two of the world's top orchestras.)


In the '70s, the two great flutists appeared together on The Dick Cavett Show, playing the Rondo from Franz Doppler's Andante and Rondo for Two Flutes and Piano, Op. 25.

IN TOMORROW'S SUNDAY CLASSICS POST -- Tomorrow we listen again to the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in full orchestral garb, the Saxophone Rhapsody, and La Mer.


Roaming the landscape (and seascape!) of the imagination -- the full orchestral splendor of Debussy (4/18/2010)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Saxophone Rhapsody (cond. Martinon, Masur), La Mer (cond. Boulez, Rosenthal, Martinon, Masur), Three Nocturnes (cond. Plasson)
Preview 1: Debussy -- the man who heard the music in moonlight (4/16/2010)
In various arrangements as well as the piano originals: "Clair de lune," "La Fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"), and "Golligwogg's Cake-walk"
Preview 2: Debussy from "Syrinx" to Afternoon of a Faun -- or is it vice versa? (4/17/2010)
Syrinx played by Paula Robison and Jean-Pierre Rampal (videos) and Julius Baker. Afternoon of a Faun conductred by Manuel Rosenthal
Preview: Mezzo Susan Graham shares her favorite Debussy: "Clair de lune"! (2/10/2012)
Played by Aldo Ciccolini, Peter Frankl, and Walter Gieseking, plus Virgil Fox (organ), Angel Romero (guitar), and Jascha Heifetz (violin)
More "impressions of Debussy" (2/12/2012)
A bevy of pianists play the first of the Two Arabesques, "Reflets dans l'eau" from Series 1 of the Images for Piano, and the prélude "La Cathédrale engloutie"; plus the last of the three Images for Orchestra, Rondes de printemps, is conducted by Manuel Rosenthal, Jean Martinon, and Charles Munch
Preview: More Debussy -- a quick entrée into one of the truly unique pieces in the musical literature
(2/17/2012) Act I, Scene 1 of Pelléas et Mélisande conducted by Ernest Ansermet (twice), Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, and Herbert von Karajan
Still more "Impressions of Debussy" (2/19/2012)
Three performances of the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; Jeux conducted by Pierre Boulez, Manuel Rosenthal, and Jean Martinon; and an assortment of performances of the opening of the Tower Scene of Act III of Pelléas et Mélisande

SUNDAY CLASSICS POSTS The current list is here.

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