Debussy: La Plus que lente

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. He composed his short piano waltz La Plus que lente in August 1910. It is unclear when La Plus que lente was premiered in France, but it reached Britain on November 26, 1910, when an obscure pianist named Cernikoff played it in London’s Aeolian Hall. The only previous San Francisco Symphony performances were in April 1999, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the composer’s own orchestration from 1912. The work is scored for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, cimbalom, piano, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.

When Debussy composed La Plus que lente, he was already experiencing symptoms of the cancer that would take his life eight years later. Though he began experiencing bouts of illness as early as 1909, he did not allow this to impinge on his busy schedule. In the ensuing seasons, financial allurements compelled him to undertake tours to conduct his music (and works by such of his contemporaries as Dukas, Chabrier, and Roger-Ducasse) in Vienna and Budapest (in December of 1910), Turin (1911), and Russia (1913). During his brief visit to Budapest he participated in a program of his solo and chamber works that included his String Quartet and his piano suite The Children’s Corner; in a letter to a friend, Debussy complained that the Redoute Hall’s audience of 1500 was “startlingly out of proportion” to the works being played. He was impressed by the Gypsy-style cafe ensembles he encountered in the city. Of one Gypsy musician, Debussy wrote, “In an ordinary, commonplace café, he gave one the impression of sitting in the depths of a forest; he arouses in the soul that characteristic feeling of melancholy in which we so seldom have an opportunity to indulge.”

That “characteristic feeling of melancholy” must have related in the composer’s mind to La Plus que lente (The Slower than Slow), a little piano waltz he had penned four months earlier. The piece may have been intended as a movement for a third, unrealized series of Images that Debussy briefly contemplated (the first two series having appeared in 1905 and 1907). As a four-minute stand-alone piece it’s lazy and atmospheric, but ultimately inconsequential, an exaggerated parody of the sentimental slow waltzes that were enjoying a fad just then. Sibelius’s orchestral Valse triste, from 1904, is an enduring example, but in 1910 denizens of Parisian palm courts were enjoying a popular song, now long forgotten, named “La Valse lente,” which seems to have been the direct inspiration for the one-upmanship of Debussy’s title. Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, smelled commercial possibilities in such a piece and commissioned Henri Mouton, a busy arranger in Paris, to prepare an orchestration of the waltz. But Debussy, who supported the project in principle, was not pleased with the result, and he let his opinion be known in a letter to Durand on August 25, 1910:

I’ve examined the “brasserie-style” orchestration of La Plus que lente and it seems to me to be needlessly decorated with trombones, timpani, triangle, etc. . . . and therefore designed for a kind of “brasserie de luxe” I’ve never come across! I’ve no desire to upset Mr. Mouton, who is probably a master of the genre, but there are one or two clumsy passages that could easily be avoided! I have taken the liberty of trying out another kind of arrangement which strikes me as more practical. One other point: It’s impossible to start a piece in a brasserie the way you would in a salon; you simply must have a few introductory bars. . . .  Anyway, let’s not limit ourselves just to brasseries; we must think of the innumerable “Five o’clocks" and the gatherings of beautiful listeners I had in mind!

If you want something done right, of course, you must do it yourself; and so in 1912 Debussy interrupted his jam-packed schedule to prepare his own salon arrangement of La Plus que lente. The sounds of Budapest—or of other Gypsy musicians he had heard in Paris (to one of whom he gave the work’s original piano manuscript)--must have fueled his eccentric but inspired decision to include the cimbalom, that archetypical dulcimer-like instrument of Hungarian traditional music, in his orchestration. Whether Debussy’s arrangement is more practical than Mouton’s (as he claimed) is open to argument; cimbaloms and cimbalom-players do not abound outside Hungary, and including one in the ensemble has certainly kept this music off-limits for many orchestras. All the same, Debussy’s group makes a magical sound, and the composer further enriched this seductive piece by adding the several introductory bars he felt Mouton’s version had needed.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (London)

Reading: Debussy: His Life and Mind, by Edward Lockspeiser (Cambridge) | Debussy on Music, edited by François Lesure and translated by Richard Langham Smith (Knopf)