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Salut Printemps: Debussy’s Music of Spring

I would like to paint the way a bird sings.

-Claude Monet

Nature’s colorful reawakening in springtime was a significant influence for French impressionist painter Claude Monet. (Monet’s 1886 Springtime is pictured above). Claude Debussy (1862-1918) may be the composer who mirrors most clearly the atmosphere of Monet’s paintings. In fact, the descriptive titles of Debussy’s pieces often are suggestive of titles you might associate with works of visual art. Debussy’s piano student Madame Gérard de Romilly recalled that

Debussy was greatly attracted to painting.  He loved to visit museums and exhibitions of paintings, and he had a special predilection for the landscapes of the Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow and for Claude Monet.  Debussy always regretted not having pursued painting instead of music.

Today, as we mark the first day of Spring, here are three Debussy works which evoke the season:

Rondes de printemps

If any music captures the fresh, glistening vibrance of Spring, it’s Debussy’s Rondes de printemps from the three-movement Images pour orchestre, completed in 1912. The title page bears an inscription from a 15th-century Italian song: Vive le Mai, bienvenu soit le Mai/Avec son gonfalon sauvage: “Cheers for May, welcome to May with its wild banner.” Debussy quotes two French folk melodies: Nous n’irons plus au bois and Do, do l’enfant do. The first song emerges in other pieces by Debussy, including Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes (1903).

Listen to the rich tapestry of orchestral color which takes shape as this piece floats along from one short, effervescent episode to the next. This is music which is filled with conversing solo voices. It’s a short, fun ride which seems to reach a dizzying climax with this spirited passage towards the end.

Here is Michael Tilson Thomas’ 2016 recording with the San Francisco Symphony (profiled in this previous Listeners’ Club post):

Salut Printemps

Debussy was 20 years old when he wrote this piece for women’s choir and orchestra. This version features Marius Francois Gaillard’s piano reduction:

Printemps

Here is another early work by Debussy, written in 1885 during the composer’s time in Rome. (He won the Prix de Rome the year before). There are echoes of Wagner. Debussy’s later Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune references Wagner’s famous “Tristan” Chord and then moves into the dreamy territory beyond its long-delayed resolution.

In February, 1887 Debussy offered this description of Printemps:

The idea I had was to compose a work in a very special color which should cover a great range of feelings. It is to be called Printemps, not a descriptive Printemps, but a human one…I should like to express the slow and labored birth of beings and things in nature, their gradual blossoming, and finally the joy of being born into some new life. All this is without a program, for I despise all music that has to follow some literary text that one happens to have got hold of. So you will understand how very suggestive the music will have to be – I am doubtful if I shall be able to do it as I wish.

The original score for orchestra and wordless chorus was lost, with only a piano reduction surviving. This two-movement suite was orchestrated by Henri Büsser in 1912 with Debussy’s assistance. It’s far from the composer’s “mature” work, but fascinating, nonetheless.

Recordings

  • Debussy: Images, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas iTunes
  • Debussy: Salut printemps, Music for the Prix de Rome iTunes
  • Debussy: Printemps, Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez iTunes

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