Debussy: Petite Suite

Petite Suite

BORN:  August 22, 1862. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris, France
DIED:  March 25, 1918. Paris

COMPOSED:  1886 through early 1889, originally for piano four-hands. The orchestration presented here was created in 1907 by Henri Büsser

WORLD PREMIERE:  November 4, 1907. Camille Chevillard conducted, in Paris

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 14 mins

An early work in the catalogue of Claude Debussy, the Petite Suite would become one of his most popular and frequently heard pieces. When he composed it, as a sequence of four pieces for piano four-hands, he had just completed the student phase of his life. That had begun in 1872, when, at the age of ten, he entered the Paris Conservatory, the only school he ever attended. When it became apparent that he was not going to succeed as a virtuoso pianist, he switched the focus of his studies to composition. During the decade of the 1880s he supported his studies by working as an accompanist in a voice studio, serving several stints as a piano teacher for the children of Nadezhda von Meck (famous as Tchaikovsky’s patron), and playing piano for a Parisian choral society directed by the composer Charles Gounod, who became a mentor. All the while he perfected his composing skills in the Conservatory classes of Ernest Guiraud, and in 1884 he was awarded the Prix de Rome, a seal of approval desired by all emerging French composers of that era. That award enabled him to live and compose in Rome for two years, after which he returned to Paris in 1887 and began to stake a career without the comfort of a financial or academic safety net.

The Petite Suite of 1889 is probably the least characteristic work by Debussy to have found a place in the enduring repertory. Another year would pass before his personal sound became consistently imprinted—in, for example, the Deux Arabesques and Suite bergamasque for piano (both ca. 1890) on the route to such masterpieces of the ensuing decade as the Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un faune (1891-94), Nocturnes (1897-99), and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902). We do, however, get a momentary glance toward the later Debussy in the opening movement of Petite Suite, En Bateau (In a Boat), where passing ripples of sixteenth notes trace the suggestion of a whole-tone scale. But in general these four movements seem more of a tribute to, or an impersonation of, other French masters of the time. The overall impression of En Bateau derives from its long-spanning melody that glides above rolled chords—a sound that evokes Gabriel Fauré more than it does the later Debussy. The title En Bateau must refer to the poem of that name that had appeared in 1869 in the collection Fêtes galantes by Paul Verlaine, Debussy’s favorite poet—an erotic text whose scene is set on a skiff that floats across dreamy, moonlit water.

Cortège,” another poem from that Verlaine collection, pictures a genteel lady preceded by her pet monkey, the train of her dress carried by a helper. Debussy’s instrumental reaction is at once energized and insouciant, its melody perhaps suggesting the monkey and attendant, its little eruptions depicting the comic aspect of this ceremony. Whose music does this resemble? Surely it is the Georges Bizet of L’Arlésienne.

The third and fourth movements have no specific connection to Verlaine, although the Menuet inhabits the same enchanted Watteau-and-Fragonard landscape that informs much of Fêtes galantes. Here we sense the Classical elegance of Jules Massenet, who had summoned up eighteenth-century manners so effectively in his then-recent operatic hit Manon (1884). For his finale, Ballet, Debussy seems to pay obeisance to Léo Delibes, a distinguished ballet composer whose gravity-defying scores are filled with grace, and to Emmanuel Chabrier, the master of optimistic clarity.

Debussy’s Petite Suite was published in its original four-hands version in 1889, and transcriptions for solo piano and for violin and piano appeared in 1906. What catapulted it to true popularity, however, was its 1907 adaptation for chamber orchestra by Henri Büsser (1872-1973). Throughout his long life of 101 years, Büsser played an important supporting role in French musical life, remaining sharp and involved to the very end. As a youngster he had studied organ with César Franck and composition with Gounod, Massenet, and Guiraud. In 1905 he was named chief conductor of the Paris Opéra, and in 1939 he became director of the Opéra-Comique. He twice recorded his orchestral version of Debussy’s Petite Suite: in 1931 with the Orchestre Straram and in 1952 with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française.

On the occasion of his hundredth birthday, Büsser gave a long filmed interview to the ORTF (Office National de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française) in which he recounted approaching Debussy: “Dear Debussy, wouldn’t you be so good as to give me the right, the permission to orchestrate your Petite Suite? I have the orchestration already in my head!” “Oh!” he said to me, “you can’t know the joy you bring me; with my whole heart I authorize you to do this!”

The music takes on a vivid cast through Büsser’s orchestration. In En Bateau, a solo flute spins out the long melody against murmuring rolled chords in the harp—a quintessentially French (and Debussian) sound—and the flute also gives voice to the fleeting whole-tone allusions in the veiled timbre produced at the bottom of its range. In Cortège, woodwinds endow the lines with snappy gusto, and the brasses join in briefly to add a touch of brilliance. English horn adds its pungent tone to the Menuet, and tambourine adds a touch of pizzazz to the Ballet. Debussy was fond of this orchestration, and he programmed it himself as a touring conductor.

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

(January 2018)