Thursday, May 21, 2009

S.Q. Daily #9: Debussy String Quartet

S.Q. Daily: A Composer's Listening Journal

Day #9: Claude Debussy
String Quartet, Op. 10

Back to composers without diacritical marks in their names.

Today we'll take a look at a giant in this (and just about every) genre: Claude Debussy. His Wiki article is a good place to start for a summary of his works and his rather turbulent life.

Debussy is a monumental figure in music history. His contributions to color/timbre and harmony were groundbreaking and remain hugely influential to this day.

Listening to his quartet today, I can't help but regret my recent comment dismissing the majority of melodies as interchangeable and of less importance than other factors. Debussy's melodic material here, as in his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faun (Youtube), is at once simple and captivating, almost like folk music from an unknown corner of the world. Not that whole tone or pentatonic scales are anything new to contemporary ears, but the effect remains just the same.

Despite the frequent return of single melodic lines alongside a single accompaniment or background idea, every moment of this work is engaging. The fluid "Impressionistic" (not Debussy's description) gestures certainly help this. Rarely has music with so many notes on the page sounded so effortless and un-fussy. (Compare to Carter, Boulez, etc.)

Debussy also makes ample use of the extreme registers of the individual instruments, particularly at the openings of movements and in exposed solo sections.

While every page provides something to admire, I'll single out the third movement as my strongest recommendation. Its crystal clear motives (at least one of which is derived from the first movement) are couched in a wide variety of supporting textures, from sustained chords to more active lines. At this very slow tempo, though, Debussy can not fall back on the watery "magic tricks" of 32nd notes in more moderate tempi. These undulating figures are of course integral to the charm of some of his music, but it's nice to see this contrasting setting that also gets the job done.

The return to A at Rehearsal #14 is especially gorgeous, with a soaring violin line and full double stops.

And just when I'm ready to end my post, I realize that I've got to put in a word for Movement II as well. The 16th note background material makes a perfect "sonic floor" for the material it supports, even in the absence of a fuller symphonic setting. Plus the rhythmic activity and pizzicato sections are flat out fun to listen to.

So go do that. Another one-hit-wonder of the genre, Debussy's String Quartet is definitely one you should know.

P.S. - You can get the score ($7.50) and CD ($6) of this work paired with tomorrow's entry, Ravel, who rounds out French week here on S.Q. Daily.

No comments:

Post a Comment