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On Debussy by Michael Tilson Thomas

April 22, 2019

This month, the San Francisco Symphony and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas perform the music of Debussy in a robust program featuring Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Nocturnes (with the women of the SFS Chorus), and the sprawling tone poem La Mer (May 9-11). MTT and the Orchestra have explored Debussy’s music on numerous occasions, most notably in a Grammy-nominated recording for SFS Media. In this excerpt from the recording’s comprehensive liner notes, Michael Tilson Thomas discusses the magnetic pull of Debussy’s music.

Right from the start of my musical life, Debussy’s music captivated me. It had a sensual quality that was like no other. There was a sparkle I felt as the cascades of notes in the First Arabesque tumbled from my fingers and a haunted melancholy that seemed to hover in the room as I played the tune in the The Girl With the Flaxen Hair. His pieces seemed to explore quite a different world from other pieces I was studying. As I played more of his music I discovered just how vast and intense the nature of his exploration was.

At the piano Debussy pushed past all possible frontiers of the instrument and the performer. There are ever wilder, more gestural, and texturally complex challenges to be faced. It can be intensely physical. There are moments, as in his prelude, What The West Wind Saw, when the playing feels like swimming a challenging stroke, such as the butterfly.

The music's increasing physical challenges are a reflection of where Debussy's mind was going. His earliest music is much like the salon music of the time. Little suggestions of the folkloric, exotic, and antique resemble compositions of other composers of this genre—Grieg or Rimsky-Korsakov. But Debussy steadily searched for an ever more complex and abstract language. The titles of his pieces suggesting water, reflections or clouds become launching points for his courageous explorations of the turnings of sensation and emotion within the human spirit.

When it came to writing for orchestra his pallete of unusual sonority was even more expanded. He had a genius for sensing the essential quality of a particular instrument’s voice and creating for it evocative solos that have become emblematic. His sense of unusual blends of different instruments was also original and highly demanding. In fact, his orchestral music, especially the later orchestral works like those on our album, presents some of the greatest challenges in the whole repertory for both conductor and instrumentalists.

Jeux, for example, is an intricate and luscious bandying back and forth of tiny gestures of tambourines, viola, xylophone, etc. The music seems to be in streams of sound coalescing, dissolving, transforming. The orchestra, especially the strings, is divided into many independent lines each of which requires great virtuosity and subtlety to play. The effect of the music depends on the hypersensitivity of each player and his ability to be instantaneously in touch with both colleagues and the conductor. Almost all the music is in three-quarter time and I often think of it as a kind of X-rated waltz.

The three pieces in Images present Debussy's impressions of three different countries. The first, Gigues, uses the dance form to evoke Scotland. It is a sad and chilly Scotland that the composer is imagining. The theme itself is played by an unusual instrument, the oboe d'amour. One can imagine this theme played on some kind of bagpipe. But here the effect is misty and far away in both time and place.

IbĂ©ria is the largest and most ambitious of Debussy's many portraits of Spain. The orchestration uses traditional instruments like castanets but it also creates the sound of guitar and flamenco singing and footwork from unusual combinations of the orchestral instruments themselves. Once again the music is often in independent streams—some capricious, some haunting, some reckless. Allowing each one of these streams to have its own special swing and feeling and, at the same time, coordinate with the rest of the orchestra, is a great challenge. The second movement, Les parfums de la nuit, is one of the most difficult of all.

Rondes de printemps is a picture of the French countryside. It uses folk-like themes and drums to create a rustic quality. But its shape and shifting textures suggest flickers of light in Monet paintings or early films.

Las plus que lente was originally a piano piece—very much a salon piece in fact. It is a waltz in the shadow of Chopin, but going much further into dark, moody, and amorous territory. Debussy orchestrated it for a kind of cafe orchestra including the Gypsy instrument cimbalom, which adds to the alternatively brooding and ecstatic mood.

It has been a pleasure to perform this music with the San Francisco Symphony whose members possess all the artistry and are more than willing to take the risks that this music demands.