Debussy’s nod to the past and to the near future

One way I like to think of Debussy, one of my favorite composers, is as a nostalgic composer. Trying to resist his natural temptation towards Wagner, which led to a bitter and later nationalistic resentment of the composer and the Germanic tradition out of which he came, Debussy longed and searched for a pure “French” style. Thus, he was naturally guided to the baroque era. The directness, grandeur and ornateness of Rameau and Couperin find their way into almost every cycle of Debussy’s piano music. The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, for example, in its rhythmic clarity, is most obviously influenced by baroque music, even though the title doesn’t necessarily imply that. Hommage à Rameau, from the first book of Images, is a more certain musical atavism. 

In this entry I discuss the Sarabande from Pour le piano, the second movement in a triptych dating from 1901, shortly before the great piano cycles Estampes, Images, and the two volumes each of preludes and etudes. Being at the heart of the work, and being so named, we can expect to hear influence of the baroque tradition and an air of nobility throughout the movement. Do we get it, though? Yes and no. 

Baroque sarabandes tend to vary greatly from period to period and from country to country. Even within the output of one composer (Bach, for example), they are markedly different from one another. Not to mention that expecting a work written in 1901 to literally follow the patterns of a baroque sarabande would be, well, silly. But nonetheless, strong rhetorical statements are usually to be heard at the beginning, followed by “commentary” thereupon. In addition, we often find that the first two bars of the sarabande are more static and stately, and that the music moves in the third bar. (A prime example of that is the sarabande from Bach’s D major partita: in Rachmaninoff’s splendid recording of it, his only one of Bach, the first two bars are played slowly and majestically, and in bar 3, Rachmaninoff takes off in the rapid tempo of a fast dance.) Another important characteristic of this dance is that out of the three beats, it is the second one that is the weightiest. All movement goes to and comes from the middle beat. 

Debussy keeps only one of those two conventions. On one hand, the second beat is emphasized, but mostly by his markings and not by the rhythm itself. On the other hand, the movement most definitely does not pick up in the third bar. In fact, the sense of near-stasis remains for much of the sarabande, save for some developmental material in the middle. That deprives us of some ornateness that we hear in most baroque sarabandes, but at the same time gives the music an even greater sense of nobility and serenity. By the end of the movement, we feel like the music definitely “comes full circle” back to where it started, yet we didn’t venture too far out. The rhythmic uniformity contributes to this sense of closure we get toward the end. 

This sarabande is both a nod to an old tradition and a break from it, something that applies to a lot of Debussy’s output. But the sense of having returned after not having gone too far is a unique mirage he explored in the later piano works he wrote shortly after Pour le piano. The second movement of the second volume of Images (And the Moon Descends on the Temple that Was)is a prime example of that. There, we don’t have a sense of near-stasis, but of actual stasis. From the very first note, we sense that the music is brought to a halt, and yet, by the end, we feel an enormous sense of relief. Something similar can be said of Steps in the Snow from the first book of Preludes and of a few other movements. Hence, I think that by harking back to the past in this sarabande, whether he knew it or not, Debussy was foretelling an important part of his future piano oeuvre. 

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