Debussy: La Plus que lente

ACHILLE-CLAUDE DEBUSSY

BORN: August 22, 1862. Saint Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France

DIED: March 25, 1918. Paris, France

COMPOSED: August 1910

WORLD PREMIERE:  It is unclear when La Plus que lente was premiered in France, but it reached Britain on November 26, 1910, when an obscure pianist named Cernikoff played it in London’s Aeolian Hall

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1999. Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the composer’s own orchestration from 1912. MOST RECENT—September 2013, in performances captured for SFS Media. Tilson Thomas was again conductor

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, clarinet, cimbalom (here played by harp), piano, and strings

DURATION: About 6 mins

During a brief visit to Budapest in 1910 Debussy was impressed by the Gypsy-style cafe ensembles he encountered in the city. Of one Gypsy musician, Debussy wrote, “In an ordinary, commonplace cafĂ©, he gave one the impression of sitting in the depths of a forest; he arouses in the soul that characteristic feeling of melancholy in which we so seldom have an opportunity to indulge.”

That “characteristic feeling of melancholy” must have related in the composer’s mind to La Plus que lente (The Slower than Slow), a little piano waltz he had penned four months earlier. Lazy and atmospheric, it’s perhaps most effective as an exaggerated parody of the sentimental slow waltzes that were enjoying a fad just then, such as a now long forgotten popular song named “La Valse lente,” which seems to have been the direct inspiration for the one-upmanship of Debussy’s title. Debussy’s publisher, Jacques Durand, commissioned Paris arranger Henri Mouton to prepare an orchestration of the waltz. But Debussy, who supported the project in principle, was not pleased with the result. If you want something done right, of course, you must do it yourself; and so in 1912 Debussy interrupted his jam-packed schedule to prepare his own salon arrangement of La Plus que lente. Debussy’s group makes a magical sound, and the composer further enriched this seductive piece by adding the several introductory bars he felt Mouton’s version had needed.James M. Keller

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

(June 2019)