Program Notes

Sarabande and Danse
(orchestrated by Ravel)

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

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERES: Maurice Ravel’s orchestrations of the Sarabande and Danse by Claude Debussy were made in 1922—the Sarabande in November, the Danse in December—and were premiered March 18, 1923, with Paul Paray conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux at the Salle Gaveau in Paris. Debussy’s original piano setting of the Sarabande, composed in 1894, had been premiered as part of the suite Pour le Piano January 11, 1902, with Ricardo Viñes performing in a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique at the Salle Érard in Paris. Debussy’s Danse had been composed ca. 1890 and premiered March 10, 1900, by pianist Lucien Wurmser, at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. He revised it in 1903

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—For the Sarabande and Danse: February 1928. The composer conducted. MOST RECENT—For the Sarabande: March 1946. Pierre Monteux conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: For Ravel’s arrangement of the Sarabande—2 flutes, oboe and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, cymbals, tam-tam, harp, and strings. For the Danse—2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, crotales, harp, and strings

DURATION: For the Sarabande and Danse, about 10 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Claude Debussy was only thirteen years older than Ravel, but he had gained considerable attention as an avant-garde force by the time Ravel began making a mark as a composer. When Ravel was a student, he idolized Debussy and, to some degree, turned to him as a model. Reviewing Ravel’s String Quartet, which followed Debussy’s by a decade, the respected critic Pierre Lalo wrote, “In its harmonies and successions of chords, in its sonority and form . . . and in all the sensations which it evokes, it offers an incredible resemblance with the music of M. Debussy.”

The two were linked in the public’s mind as “musical Impressionists,” to their joint distress. They did not bear hostility toward one another, but neither did they cultivate a personal friendship. Each perceived his own art as personal, unique, and not parallel to the other’s. The conductor Manuel Rosenthal once asked Ravel what music he would like to have played at his funeral, and Ravel responded with a selection by Debussy. “L’Après-midi d’un faune,” Ravel replied, “because it’s the only score ever written that is absolutely perfect.” On the other hand, in a 1922 interview he declared himself to be an “anti-Debussyist” even while insisting that Debussy was “the great creative influence in modern French music.” He felt that form was Debussy’s weak suit; and, indeed, Debussy does seem on the whole drawn to rhapsodic structures compared to Ravel, who favored tightly enmeshed Classicism. “I started the reaction against him [Debussy] in favor of the classics because I craved more will and intellect than his music contained,” stated Ravel in a 1929 article in the Musical Digest titled “Take Jazz Seriously!” Ravel dedicated his Sonata for Violin and Cello to the memory of the recently departed Debussy—an obvious gesture of admiration but perhaps also the last volley in an intellectual argument about the relative merits of the rhapsody vs. formalism, since Ravel’s Sonata is notably terse in its means and expression.

Ravel enjoyed the process of orchestration. In addition to creating symphonic versions of many of his own piano compositions, he also orchestrated pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Schumann, and Chabrier. In June 1922, the publisher Jean Jobert asked him to orchestrate two unrelated piano movements by Debussy—a Sarabande and a Danse. Ravel happily embarked on the project after obtaining permission from Debussy’s widow.

THE MUSIC  The Sarabande was originally conceived as part of a set of three movements called Images. (The name Images would resurface later in Debussy’s oeuvre. This particular set of Images was not published until 1977, when it appeared under the name Images oubliées.) In 1902, Debussy plucked the Sarabande movement from its spot in the early Images and incorporated it, practically unaltered, into his beloved piano suite Pour le Piano. When it was premiered, Pour le Piano was widely hailed as revolutionary in its approach to piano writing. Ravel protested. He wrote to Pierre Lalo: “Sir, you go on at some length about a rather individual style of writing which you claim was discovered by Debussy.  Now, my Jeux d’eau appeared at the beginning of 1902. . . . I need hardly say to you that [Pour le piano] is a work for which I have a fervent admiration, but from the pianistic standpoint it says nothing really new.”

The Danse had been launched in 1890 under the name Tarantelle styrienne, a tarantella being a lively folk number presumably danced by Italian (or here Austrian/Slovenian) peasants in order to work venom from a tarantula bite out of their systems. For a while, Debussy paired his Tarantelle styrienne with a Ballade slave, but that dyad fell by the wayside. Today, this lively Allegretto is occasionally heard in its original piano setting, but mostly it lives on through Ravel’s orchestration, paired with the stately Sarabande, a combination that Debussy himself never seems to have considered.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.

Recordings: Sarabande from Pour le Piano Leonard Slatkin conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon (Naxos)

Danse: Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Leonard Slatkin conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon (Naxos)   |  Riccardo Chailly conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)

ReadingDebussy: His Life and Mind, by Edward Lockspeiser (Cambridge)  |  Orientations, which includes Pierre Boulez's short appreciation of the orchestral works (Harvard, translated by Martin Cooper)  |  Debussy on Music, which gives us Debussy in his own words (Knopf, edited by François Lesure and translated by Richard Langham Smith)

(April 2018)

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