French Impressions program notes

Friday, August 14, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Debussy: Syrinx for Flute

Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Syrinx for Flute (1913)

Syrinx was originally entitled La Flûte de Pan, composed by Debussy to serve as a musical addition to Gabriel Mourey’s 1913 play, Psyché. The Greek god, Pan, and the nymphs of Arcadia, including Syrinx, are the play’s subject. In the Pan mythology, Syrinx turns herself into reeds in order to escape Pan’s amorous pursuits. When Pan hears the tones of the reeds produced by the blowing wind, he is so taken that he forms the reeds into his Pan flute, which becomes his calling card.

This incidental music for the play was designed to be played by Pan himself, offstage, as the nymphs listened in, overcome with joy from the sound of the flute. Two weeks before the play’s premiere, Debussy had yet to come up with a note, as he wrote Mourey:

So far, I have not found what is needed…because a flute singing on the horizon must quickly contain its emotion! I mean, we have no time for multiple restarts, and further: any artifice becomes coarse, the design of the melody cannot count on any interruption of color. Please tell me, very precisely, after what lines the music starts. After several attempts I think that one has to stick to the Pan flute alone without other accompaniment. This is more difficult but more in the nature of things.

It came down to the wire. Just a week before the premiere, Debussy was still working on the piece, and Mourey had yet to find a performer. French flutist Louis Fleury ended up quickly learning the new piece, earning the composer’s dedication. Fleury took an immediate liking to the music and would end up playing it (and jealously guarding the unpublished score) frequently on recital stages throughout the remainder of his career.

The pitch material of Syrinx is structured around a descending melodic line that opens the piece: a sinuous progression that meanders chromatically down from a B-flat to a D-flat. This one-measure figure returns continually throughout the piece, sometimes precisely repeated, other times shifted down an octave, and other times in altered and varied forms. The effect establishes B-flat as a kind of central tone for the opening section. The middle section becomes more tonally adventurous (and ambiguous), emphasizing an E-flat center. The effect is disorienting, and we find ourselves surprised when a series of trills lands on a note that turns out to be a familiar B-flat, commencing a return to the descending melody from the opening. The piece ends with a satisfying surprise: the twisting, chromatic descent of the main motif is expanded and straightened out, projecting a deliberate motion from B-natural down to D-flat, all in whole tones.


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1892-3)

Debussy’s early string quartet was premiered by César Franck’s Société Nationale de Musique, devoted to performing French chamber music. The piece shows Franck’s influence, especially in regards to its use of cyclic form—a principle that unifies movements by the continual reappearance of themes transformed and developed over the course of the piece. The remarkable aspect of his quartet is the incredible range of color Debussy is able to achieve with merely four string instruments. The piece displays a masterful control over the instrumental brushstrokes that never feels forced or artificial. Also exceptional is Debussy’s sheer ingenuity of the melodic development, as he relies on short motifs and rhythmic patterns creatively varied and combined to generate a dizzying mélange of unusual harmonies and textures.

The short opening theme of the first movement is the seed of the cyclical structure of the work. Beginning with two accented chords, the instruments project the strong and direct rhythm of the theme together, making it easy to recognize as it is transformed within the movement and the piece. The quick triplet turn in the theme, with its A-flat Phrygian inflection, is another element that Debussy will return to again and again in the quartet. By maintaining this rhythmic contour and triplet gesture, Debussy musically connects the opening to the second theme of the movement, which is more subdued. The two themes are inventively developed and combined, leading to a glittering ending.

The second movement, in ABA form, plays the role of the Scherzo in the quartet. The viola enters with a quick ostinato pattern that is derived from the germinal theme of the first movement, while the other instruments play a lively pizzicato dance with an infectious rhythm. In the contrasting B section, a prolonged version of the first movement theme in the first violin, simmers above the rolling lower string parts and is eventually combined with the ostinato pattern. The repeat of A sees creative modifications, including a recasting of the melody in the unusual 15/8 meter.

The D-flat major third movement opens with a lullaby on muted strings. A soulful viola melody leads into another theme that incorporates the triplet gesture, slowly building in intensity before the opening returns as a short reprise.

After a quietly meandering introduction, the final movement takes off with a driving theme that begins in the cello, with the balance of the ensemble joining in. The germinal theme of the first movement is brought back in earnest in this movement with its rhythmic values augmented. These two themes are combined in dramatic fashion, and the piece ends with a flourish in the first violin.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi