The ethereal sound of the harp was perfectly suited for the luminous 19th century and early 20th century musical world of Claude Debussy. This new recording from Telarc features Yolanda Kondonassis' sensitive transcriptions of many of the composer's most evocative pieces.
Debussy gave the harp a new voice and an unprecedented prominence in his "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune" of 1894. He included the harp in all of his later orchestral works, wrote for it a splendid solo piece, and partnered it with flute and viola in one of his last chamber compositions.
In 1904, the Parisian harp-making firm of Pleyel succeeded in having a course devoted to their newly developed chromatic harp instituted at the Brussels Conservatory, and the company's officials asked Debussy to compose a work specifically for the new instrument that would serve both as a test piece for the students and as a demonstration of their harp's potential to prospective buyers. The result was the Danses sacree et profane. Despite Debussy's advocacy, Lyon's chromatic harp found little favor, and the pedal harp remains the standard instrument to this day.
In 1882 and again in 1890, Debussy made vocal settings of Paul Verlaine's poem Clair de lune ("Moonlight"). Debussy best captured the nocturnal essence of Verlaine's poem in the famous Clair de lune that serves as the third movement of his Suite bergamasque.
The two books of Preludes are quintessential examples of Debussy's ability to evoke moods, memories and images. The heathlands named in the title of Bruyeres may be the moors of the Scottish highlands or the severe coast of Brittany or some other stark landscape. The meandering melody line suggests both the openness of the countryside and the loneliness of a wanderer upon the land. La fille aux cheveux de lin ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"), based on the poetry of French writer Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894), tells of a young Scottish girl singing in the morning sunshine of her simple, unaffected love. La cathedrale engloutie ("The Sunken Cathedral") was inspired by an ancient Breton legend of a submerged cathedral that rises briefly above the waves on clear mornings, bells tolling and priests chanting. Debussy evoked this miraculous phenomenon by suggesting the parallel harmonies of Medieval organum and the smooth melodic leadings of Gregorian chant.
During his early years, Debussy turned to the refined style of the French Baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau for inspiration in his instrumental music. Several works of that time are modeled on the Baroque dance suite, including the Petite Suite of 1889, from which comes En bateau ("In a Boat"), a lullaby-barcarolle that uses exotic whole-tone scales in its central section.
Since the representation of animate creatures was forbidden in the Arab tradition, the art of Moorish cultures developed around elaborate geometrical and botanical patterns that carefully interlaced scrolls and curves and spirals with dazzling virtuosity. Such art has come to be known as "Arabesque"—a term subsequently applied to any ornamentation that used flowing traceries of sinuous, undulating or geometrical designs. Robert Schumann borrowed the word as the title for his Arabesque for Piano of 1839, and Debussy found it appropriate for the two short piano pieces that he composed in 1888, his first published keyboard works.
Reverie and Valse romantique date from around 1890, following Debussy's return to Paris from his hated Prix de Rome residency in Italy, when he was full of ambitious plans but short of cash. Reverie, with its evocative harmonies and its dreamy lyricism, became one of his most beloved miniatures, not only in its original piano version but also in a variety of arrangements for other instruments and as the 1930s pop song My Reverie. The Valse romantique is largely delicate and wistful, reserving its strongest gestures for the closing measures.
Debussy modeled his Sarabande of 1894 after the dance that had emigrated to Spain from its birthplace in Mexico in the 16th century. In its original form, the Sarabande was so wild and lascivious that Cervantes ridiculed it and Philip II suppressed it, but it had become considerably more tame by the time it was assimilated into French and English music during the 1700s. Debussy said his piece, with its parallel harmonies and pseudo-archaic style, showed "a slow serious elegance, rather like an old portrait, or a memory of the Louvre."
One of the greatest joys of Debussy's life was his daughter, Claude-Emma, affectionately called "Chouchou," who was born in October 1904. When she was two, her father wrote for her the charming Serenade for the Doll, and two years later added to it five movements grown from his adult's view of childhood's delights to create the Children's Corner Suite. The Little Shepherd features a long, winding melody portraying the boy's improvised piping on his rustic instrument.