Debussy: Petite Suite

Achille-Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862, in St. Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris, France and died March 25, 1918, in Paris. He composed his Petite Suite for piano four-hands from 1886 through early 1889, and it received its first performance on March 1, 1889, at a private salon in Paris, played by the composer and Jacques Durand. The orchestration presented here was created in 1907 by Henri Büsser (born January 16, 1872, in Toulouse, France; died December 30, 1973, in Paris). It was first performed on November 4, 1907, in Paris, with Camille Chevillard conducting. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the work in January 1920 with Alfred Hertz conducting. The most recent performances at our regular concerts were given in February 1965 under the direction of Paul Paray. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, harp, and strings. Performance time: about fourteen minutes.

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 Conservatoire, the only school he ever attended. When it became apparent that he was not going 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.

Guiraud’s composition studio was a crossroads for many students who would go on to play notable roles in French music. It was there that Debussy forged lifelong friendships with Paul Dukas, soon to be an eminent composer and teacher, and Jacques Durand, scion of the music-publishing firm that would become Debussy’s exclusive publisher beginning in 1905.

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 ape, the train of her dress carried by a helper; the ape and the attendant both sneak peeks beneath her dress, but she ignores their lustful looks. Debussy’s instrumental reaction is at once energized and insouciant, its melody perhaps suggesting the ape 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. Throughout his long life of 101 years, Büsser (who pronounced his name “buss-AIR” and not “buss-AY”) 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. He was serving as chorus-master at the Opéra-Comique when Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande received its premiere there, in 1902. André Messager, the company’s music director, led the rehearsals and the first three performances, after which he had to leave for commitments at Covent Garden in London. From the fourth performance on, Büsser accordingly presided over Debussy’s groundbreaking opera, a bit unsteadily at first (according to the composer) but more adeptly as time went on. In 1905 he was named chief conductor of the Paris Opéra, and in 1939 he became director of the Opéra-Comique, though he was dismissed two years later when a newspaper published some anti-Wagner remarks they attributed to him—a politically suicidal development during the German occupation. Büsser conducted the first complete recording of Massenet’s Manon (in 1923) and the first in French of Gounod’s Faust (in 1930). 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.

Büsser would go on to create the standard orchestration of another early Debussy work, Printemps (in 1913), and in 1917 he made the first orchestral transcription of La Cathédrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral, from Debussy’s Preludes, Book One). He also revisited the Petite Suite on two further occasions, producing (for publication by Durand) versions for two pianos four-hands in 1908 (not so very different from Debussy’s original) and for two pianos eight-hands (!) in 1910.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the Ulster Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Jean Martinon conducting the Orchestre National de l’ORTF (EMI Classics or Brilliant Classics)  |  Paul Paray conducting the  Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Mercury Living Presence)  |  Jun Märkl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon (Naxos)

Reading: Debussy Remembered, edited by Roger Nichols (Amadeus)  |  Debussy: His Life and Mind, by Edward Lockspeiser, two volumes (Cambridge University Press)  |  A Portrait of Claude Debussy, by Marcel Dietschy (Oxford University Press)  |  Debussy Piano Music, by Frank Dawes (BBC Music Guides)  |  Debussy Orchestral Music, by David Cox (BBC Music Guides)  |  Claude Debussy: His Life and Works, by Léon Vallas (Dover)  |  Debussy’s Letters, selected and edited by François Lesure and Roger Nichols (Faber and Faber)