Debussy: Jeux, Poeme danséC’est l’extase (songs arranged and orchestrated by Robin Holloway) │ La mer

Achille‑Claude Debussy was born at Saint Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France, on August 22, 1862, and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. Serge Diaghilev commissioned Jeux for his Ballets Russes in the summer of 1912. Debussy began work that August and completed it in November. The premiere took place on May 15, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. Scenario and choreography were by Vaslav Nijinsky, scenery and costumes by Léon Bakst, the principal dancers were Nijinsky with Tamara Karsavina and Ludmilla Schollar, and Pierre Monteux conducted. Jeux was first heard in North America when Monteux included it in a concert performance with the Boston Symphony in January 1920. Monteux also conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in December 1946. The most recent performance, in September 2006, was given under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The score calls for two flutes and two piccolos, three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, sarrusophone (replaced here by contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, xylophone, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, celesta, two harps, and elaborately divided strings. Performance time: about seventeen minutes.

Six of the Debussy songs included in Robin Holloway’s suite C’est l’extase—Holloway’s Opus 118—were published together in 1888: “C’est l’extase” (composed in 1887), “Il pleure dans mon coeur” (1887), “L’ombre des arbres” (1885), “Green” (1886), “Spleen” (between 1885 and 1887), and “Chevaux de bois” (1885). Debussy then revised and republished them in 1903 under the title Ariettes oubliées. “Mandoline” was composed in 1882 and published in 1890. The poems for all these songs are by Paul Verlaine. Robin Holloway, who arranged, linked, and orchestrated these Debussy songs, was born on October 19, 1943, in Leamington Spa, England, and currently lives in Cambridge, England. He completed this setting in September 2012 on commission from the San Francisco Symphony, with the support of the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for New Works of Music. These are the first performances. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), three horns, two trumpets, harp, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

Debussy began work on La mer in the summer of 1903, completed the score in March 1905, but continued to make revisions for many years. Camille Chevillard conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra in the first performance, in Paris, on October 15, 1905. Karl Muck and the Boston Symphony gave the North American premiere on October 2, 1907. Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performance, in 1914; Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the most recent performances, in May 2010. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, tam‑tam, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, two harps, and strings. The string section Debussy hoped for but can rarely, if ever, have found is an unusually large one, including sixteen cellos. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.


Jeux was eclipsed by Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, which premiered two weeks later, and attacked, like most of Debussy’s late work, as feeble self-imitation. Debussy was not given to the kind of chutzpah that allowed Mahler to declare, “My time is yet to come,” but both masters came to be perceived as the founding fathers of twentieth-century music.

In 1912, Vaslav Nijinsky began his career as a choreographer with a ballet based on Debussy’s Prélude à  L’après-midi d’un faune, and the impresario Serge Diaghilev began to plan a new Nijinsky-Debussy ballet. Jeux is a story of a boy and two girls. The audience was given this synopsis: “The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”

Jeux begins with a brief introduction not so much slow as motionless, but suggesting the quick music to come. Most of Jeux moves in a rapid triple meter, though the sense of beat is subverted by syncopation, cross-rhythms, and all but constant rubato. Critical moments in the action interrupt this quasi-waltz. There is a mocking dance for the second girl in her jealousy and an impassioned recitative for the two groups of violins when the second girl seeks to dissuade her friend from leaving. It is at this point that moonlight and eros take over. “The second girl succeeds in taking her into her arms. Nonetheless, the boy intervenes by gently separating their heads that they may look around: the beauty of the night, the joy of the light, everything tells them to abandon themselves to their fantasies…. With a passionate gesture, the boy brings their three heads together, and a triple kiss mingles them in ecstasy.” Then the second tennis ball intervenes, and the music returns to the tempo of the prelude, but with a denser sound. The moonflooded stage is empty once more.

The return of the prelude as epilogue is virtually the only moment of symmetry, of "form" in the traditional sense. One of many extraordinary features of Jeux is its eschewal of repetitions. When a musical idea does return, it is always transformed in rhythm or texture (even the prelude as epilogue). It is a form of thought, as Pierre Boulez puts it, "founded on the idea of irreversible time." The ratio of material to duration is high, and the result is music of astonishing density and abundance. Part of the power to create a sense of constant renewal is vested in the sound itself. This is a quiet piece, but everything is so richly packed that Jeux comes across as remarkably forceful. Here Debussy sought to invent "an orchestra without feet," one also in which the textures would seem to be "lit from behind, as in Parsifal."

C’est l’extase

Debussy’s production of some eighty art songs—mélodies, to use the French term—stretched from 1875 (when he was thirteen) to 1915 (three years before his death), but almost half of them date from before 1885. The practical explanation is that during his journeyman years Debussy earned an important part of his living as piano accompanist for a voice teacher, Mme. Moreau-Sainti; and then when he was eighteen, he became infatuated with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a thirty-two-year-old, married coloratura soprano who was studying in the studio. She would eventually prove to be the inspiration for twenty-seven mélodies by Debussy.

The poems for many of Debussy’s songs come from great names of nineteenth-century French poetry, including Alfred de Musset, Théodore de Banville, Théophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Louÿs, and Stéphane Mallarmé. And yet, if there is one figure who is the poetic equivalent of Debussy, it is Paul Verlaine (1844-96), whose output brims with poetic moodiness, surprising prosody, and proto-Symbolist allusions.

As a boy, Debussy had known Charles de Sivry, Verlaine’s brother-in-law. Sivry introduced the composer to the writers, artists, and intellectuals who gathered at the Parisian cabaret Le Chat Noir. The composer Paul Dukas remarked, “The strongest influence on Debussy is that of writers, not of musicians.” The way Debussy fit into this world was summarized in 1910 by the newspaper Azest, in Budapest, where he had appeared on tour: “For two days the most illustrious representative of French music—her poet, apostle, and prophet—has been here in Budapest. This illustrious visitor goes by the name of Claude Debussy. … Debussy has enriched music with new impressions, sentiments, and effects. And the importance of his poetic utterance is heightened by the fact that it is perhaps more than the mere grandiose ideas and novelties of one man alone: it shows the whole tendency of French music in a state of renewal, advancing toward an eclipse of the triumphant Wagnerism that resounds within it. … France herself took a long time to admit that it was Debussy who strove to create musical impressionism, as Manet, Monet, Rodin, Verlaine, Baudelaire and Mallarmé have endeavored to create it in the pictorial, sculptural, or poetic field. But art triumphed over reactionary prejudice, and Debussy is today the magnus pontifex of a new musical credo, in his own country as well as elsewhere.”

This codifying of the turn-of-the-century French aesthetic reaches a high point in Debussy’s song-settings of Verlaine’s ultra-refined verses. Debussy left twenty-one Verlaine settings. Of the ten of them that make their way into this new suite by Robin Holloway we hear seven at these concerts. The title C’est l’extase, which Holloway has given to his orchestrated suite, is the incipet of the first song of Ariettes oubliées (1903), the opening set of poems in Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles: “It is the languorous ecstasy, it is the fatigue of love, it is the shivering wood in the breeze’s embrace.” The slow, sinuous vocal line effectively captures Verlaine’s emotional precision. This sort of setting inspired the musicologist Julie McQuinn to remark, “The mysterious pleasure of the overwhelming, over-sensitized, erotic experience of nature that dominates Debussy’s early songs is balanced by its erotic opposite—a mysterious, sensual terror.” 

In February 1904, Debussy served as pianist when the Gramophone and Typewriter Company recorded three of these songs—“L’ombre des arbres,” “Green,” and “Il pleure dans mon coeur”—with the Scottish soprano Mary Garden. Debussy adored her singing, chose her to portray Mélisande in the 1902 premiere of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and dedicated the entire set of Ariettes oubliées to her through a warm-hearted inscription: “For Miss Mary Garden, unforgettable Mélisande, this music (already somewhat old-fashioned) in affectionate and grateful homage.”

Debussy scored his mélodies for voice with piano, and he was generally resistant when people suggested that he scale them up with an orchestral accompaniment. And yet, he could be swayed. When, in 1914, the Hungarian violinist Arthur Hartmann made a transcription for violin and piano of the song “Il pleut dans mon coeur,” the composer dropped by to review Hartmann’s work. “Looking into his eyes for a moment before unlocking my violin case,” Hartmann recalled, “I exclaimed, ‘What a pity you’re not dead, for then I could publish my transcription just as it is! But now I have to show it you and you’ll not like it.’ ” Debussy approved the transcription as it stood, declaring, “My friend, it is excellent. I prefer it now to my song.”

The English composer Robin Holloway, of course, did not have the advantage—or disadvantage—of seeking Debussy’s approval for his arrangement. Holloway sang as a chorister at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, studied composition with Alexander Goehr, completed his doctorate at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge (publishing his thesis on Debussy and Wagner, testament to a longstanding fascination with Debussy), and in 1975 joined the music faculty at Cambridge. Within a few years his writing became focused on delicate orchestrations, polyrhythms, and even neo-Romantic traits, the latter particularly on display in his breakthrough Scenes from Schumann (1970). “Now,” Holloway said, “the music had something behind it like harmony, direction, volatility of movement, a sense of instrumental color.” San Francisco Symphony audiences know his work through such compositions as his orchestration of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, his Viola Concerto, and the Clarissa Sequence and Fourth Concerto for Orchestra, all introduced here with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

“I am trying to write music,” Holloway has remarked, “which, though conversant with the most revolutionary technical innovations of the last eighty years or so, and by no means turning its back on them, nonetheless keeps a continuity of language and expressive intention with the classics and romantics of the past.” To the music critic Paul Griffiths he explained: “I think I want to do things that haven’t been done before, but I also want to do things that have been done before in my own way. Sometimes it almost seems as if I were a kind of shopping centre: I’d like to have a ‘Delius’ piece, a ‘Rachmaninoff’ piece, a ‘Xenakis,’ a ‘Copland,’ and so on, among my wares. Of course, to write such pieces as part of a deliberate program would be ridiculous; but something like this is what in effect happens as less and less is prohibited. One turns like a grateful plant towards all kinds of very contrasted composers who excite and please one, and pays them for what one takes in the form of a stylistic or technical homage.”

Robin Holloway has provided this glimpse into his new “Debussy piece,” C’est l’extase: “Debussy’s many settings of Verlaine all date, with three exceptions, from early in his career—indeed a few have remained unpublished outside fugitive editions; and some are preliminary attempts at poems later matched perfectly in Fêtes galantes. The exception is the second set of three with this title, following on in 1904 from the first of 1891. All six make a clear cycle, the closing song referring back to the sound of the nightingale that opens the first.

“The Ariettes oubliées, however, don’t really add up to a coherent whole: rather, they are six individual songs, of the highest caliber, composed around 1883, published with a dedication to Mary Garden…. The present work takes them as its nucleus (though not in the same order), and adds to them further Verlaine settings from the same epoch: three published originally in a group (1891), the fourth, ‘Mandoline’ (c.1880), a one-off that by common consent is the song where Debussy first found the way towards his individual voice.

“I have joined most of the [songs] by tiny orchestral links, retrospective or prospective, to transform mood, texture, tempo, key. Sometimes a sharper contrast is more effective than a link, and here the next song follows direct after a brief break.”

La mer

Debussy’s subtle orchestral Images and the elusive‑allusive Jeux were still in the future when La mer was introduced; even so, on the basis of the Debussy they already knew, Parisian critics in 1905 seemed to have a clear sense that this new score was somehow different. Some who had been among the composer’s most dedicated allies were now among the most disappointed of observers, specifically because La mer moved so decisively away from the mist‑washed, unmuscular delicacy that had been so valued by the Debussyists.

Debussy all his life maintained a nearly total silence about his childhood. (At the time of the birth of Achille, Manuel‑Achille Debussy and his wife ran a small ceramics store, the father soon changing to a job with the Fives‑Lille Railway Company, which entailed moving the family to Clichy, a suburb of Paris). He did, however, make occasional and affectionate references to summer weeks spent at the beaches of Cannes. He learned then to love the sea, and no one who knows Debussy’s music need be told that what he loved particularly was its unpredictability, its ever‑changing nature. His parents at some point conceived the notion that he ought to be a sailor, but his vocation was determined when a Mme. Mauté de Fleurville, a lady with fascinating connections (she had been a pupil of Chopin and was the mother‑in‑law of Paul Verlaine), discovered his musical gift.

Thirty years elapsed between those inspiring lessons and the first sketches for La mer—years spent at the Paris Conservatory; as household pianist to Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Mme. Nadezhda von Meck; as an eager student of the music of Wagner; as a friend of contemporary poets and painters, who interested him more than most of the musicians he met; as a man perpetually in difficulties with and over women, and who more than once thought of suicide; as the composer of a growing catalogue of works that attracted an attention not only widespread but, given their originality, remarkably respectful. La mer was only the composer’s seventh major orchestral score, but it is so brilliantly assured that Debussy seems here to have invented the sound of the modern orchestra.

As we gradually learn to discern objects in near darkness, so we learn to hear motion in the stillness of Debussy’s dawn. Thematic fragments detach themselves from the surrounding texture until at last a clear sense of motion, of rhythmic pattern, is established. Debussy is most evocative in the wonderful theme for cellos, its pattern of swell and retreat echoed subtly in the timpani and horns. It even looks like a wave on the page—so much, in fact, like the wave in the painting by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai that Debussy asked his publisher to put a detail from that painting on the cover of his score.

The sketch of the Play of the Waves is scherzo and intermezzo in this not‑quite‑symphony, an interlude of lighter weight and less dense musical facture between the passions and storms, the awesome concentration of the first and third movements. The dialogue in the finale is often tempestuous. Exhibiting that new preoccupation with firm and perceptible formal design, Debussy ties the triumphant peroration to the last bars of the opening movement, the journey from dawn to noon.

—Michael Steinberg (Jeux and La mer) and James M. Keller (C’est l’extase)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: For Jeux—Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony)  |  Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony)  |  Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (London/Decca)

For C’est l’extase—Holloway’s C’est l’extase has not been recorded, but interested listeners may turn to many recordings of the Debussy songs it incorporates, including those by Frederica von Stade (for Ariettes oubliées) and Gérard Souzay (the others), in both cases with pianist Dalton Baldwin (EMI France); also Von Stade with Martin Katz, for Ariettes oubliées (RCA Victor Red Seal)  |  Dawn Upshaw with James Levine, for Ariettes oubliées and “Mandoline” (Sony)  |  The 1904 acoustic recordings of Mary Garden and Debussy performing three of the songs are available in the collection Claude Debussy: The Composer as Pianist (Pierian).

For La Mer—Michael Tilson Thomas and the Philharmonia Orchestra (Sony)  |  Pierre Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)

Reading: The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, edited by Simon Trezise and including the essays “Exploring the Erotic in Debussy’s Music” by Julie McQuinn and “Debussy in Performance” by Charles Timbrell (Cambridge University Press)  |  Debussy Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Amadeus)  |  A Portrait of Claude Debussy, by Marcel Dietschy (Oxford University Press) 

An interview with Robin Holloway appears in Paul Griffiths’s New Sounds, New Perspectives (Faber)  |  Also: Holloway’s On Music: Essays and Diversions, 1963-2003 (Continuum/Claridge Press)