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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Claude Debussy (1862–1918) began working on his solo piano Suite bergamasque around 1890, when his career prospects were as yet a bit murky. He took his original impetus from Verlaine’s 1869 poetry collection Fêtes galantes, itself inspired by painters such as Watteau who provided the visual complement of the “galant” style of eighteenth century music. “Your soul is a delicate landscape/ Where roam charming masques and bergamasques/ Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost/ Sad under their whimsical disguises,” writes Verlaine in the poem Clair de lune. Just imagine those taffeta phrases uttered by a courtier to his lady amist one of Watteau’s etheral landscapes…

By the turn of the twentieth century Debussy had morphed into a radical adventurer whose influence changed the course of modern music. It would seem that he came to think poorly of his early suite and resisted its publication; only after substantial revisions (and perhaps some strong-arming by his publisher) did he allow it to reach print in 1905.

Suite bergamasque opens with an antiquarian-scented Prelude followed by a second-place Minuet cast in atypically jumpy rhythms. In last place comes a gently merry Passepied of infectious charm, the perfect ending for this graceful nod to a gracious past. Before the Passepied comes Clair de lune, at first seemingly out of place amid all that rococo punctilio but upon closer inspection fitting right into place as the sarabande of innumerable Baroque dance suites—a slow dance in triple meter with a slight emphasis on the second beat of the measure. Time would prove it the standout movement of Suite bergamasque and easily Debussy’s most familiar composition, available in any number of arrangements, as here in a popular 1924 version by Alexander Roelens for violin and piano.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.