Remembering Carol Webber

The American soprano and teacher Carol Webber passed away earlier this month. For 24 years, Webber performed with the Metropolitan Opera and numerous regional opera companies throughout North America. Her concert appearances included the opening of the fiftieth anniversary season of Tanglewood. A respected teacher, Webber served on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory, her alma mater,  from 1986 to 1991. Her long-running tenure as a professor at the Eastman School of Music …

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Debussy’s “La plus que lente”: A Sultry Homage to the Café Waltz

Claude Debussy composed La plus que lente in 1910, shortly after the publication of his Préludes, Book I. The brief waltz for solo piano ventures into the sultry, atmospheric world of Parisian café music. Lazy and hauntingly melancholy, it is a dreamy evocation of the sounds of a Gypsy café ensemble. Additionally, at moments, the music anticipates the bluesy strains of jazz. The same year, Debussy visited Budapest and, in a letter, commented on …

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Adventures in Fourths: Music of Debussy, Bartók, and Gershwin

The Greek name for the interval of the perfect fourth was diatessaron. Translating as “across four,” it is a word which brings to mind Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Wide open sonorities that suggest neither major nor minor, perfect fourths and fifths became prevalent in the early medieval polyphony of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin. In the piano pieces below, we hear twentieth century composers exploiting the perfect fourth for purely expressive reasons. Here are three …

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Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea

The French word, “Voiles” translates as either “veils” or “sails.” This is the atmospheric title that Claude Debussy provided for the second of his twelve piano Préludes, published in 1910. Harmonically, Voiles is rooted in the whole-tone scale, in which each pitch is separated by the intervallic distance of a whole step. As a result, the hierarchy and tonal pull of the traditional major or minor scales is gone. Unmoored, the music drifts into …

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Debussy’s “Bruyères” from Préludes, Book 2: Krystian Zimerman

Composed between 1909 and 1913, Claude Debussy’s twenty four solo piano Préludes are divided into two books. Unlike the Preludes of Chopin or J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, they do not form a sequential harmonic procession. Instead, they float ephemerally between traditional tonality and modal harmony, and the pentatonic and whole tone scales. They emerge as dreamy, atmospheric vignettes. Bruyères is the fifth Prélude from Book II. Translating as “heather,” it “evokes pastoral bliss, an Arcadian …

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Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse,” Pascal Rogé

The 1717 painting L’embarquement pour Cythère by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicts a merry party of lovers arriving on (or departing from) the Mediterranean island of Cythère. In ancient mythology, Cythère was known as the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of erotic love. The version of the painting which hangs in the Louvre shows the revelers flanked by bright dancing cupids and a serenely gazing statue of Venus. Watteau’s painting served as an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s …

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Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality

On Wednesday, we explored Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece which ends, unresolved, in two radically unrelated keys (C and B). When the brash, outspoken Claude Debussy heard another Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, he compared it to “an hour of original music in a lunatic asylum.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Debussy pushed the dense chromaticism of Strauss and Wagner into even more adventurous harmonic territory. We …

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