The Prismatic Debussy – Festival 2012 – Eastman School of Music

Intimate Debussy

Intimate Debussy, chamber works in transcription
Saturday, 20 October, 7 pm and 9 pm, Hatch Recital Hall

A Prism chamber concert – one hour of nonstop performances of transcriptions of some of Debussy’s best-known piano music and songs, arranged for different mediums and performed by Eastman faculty members and students.

Jamal Rossi, producer
Marie Rolf, musical advisor

Many of Debussy’s compositions have been transcribed, or arranged, for instruments other than those for which he initially intended.  The transcriptions presented on this concert feature chamber ensembles playing in uninterrupted succession from different locations within Kilbourn Hall—hence our title, “Intimate Debussy.”

Historically, transcriptions have served multiple purposes.  Before the advent of recording technology, the public could familiarize itself with new orchestral works by playing them in arrangements, usually for piano and most often in one’s own home, thus bringing great music into spaces even more intimate than Kilbourn Hall.  In addition, compositions would reach a broader audience when performable by different instrumental combinations.  Just as painters learned from copying the canvases of the masters, so did budding composers learn the craft of orchestration through the process of transcription.  Debussy was no exception, transcribing works by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Wagner, Schumann, Rameau, and Satie, among others.  He was especially motivated to perform this utilitarian exercise because it provided him with much-needed income from their publication.

Debussy characteristically transcribed a number of his own works as well.  As a young student at the Paris Conservatoire who competed for the coveted Prix de Rome on three occasions, he was required to prepare, based on a given set of parameters and written within a strictly limited time period, a newly composed work for large ensemble as well as a reduction of it for piano, four hands.  Even as a mature and established composer, Debussy made transcriptions of his works, such as his orchestral masterpiece La Mer, for piano duet to enhance their dissemination.  And of course, compositions for orchestral forces that involved the stage, such as his opera Pelléas et Mélisande or his ballet Jeux, necessitated piano reductions for preliminary rehearsals.

Debussy’s transcription of his piano prelude, “Minstrels,” emanates from slightly different circumstances.   In 1908 he met the American violinist Arthur Hartmann, who solicited and received permission from the composer to publish his transcription of Debussy’s song, “Il pleure dans mon cœur” (“It weeps in my heart”) for violin and piano.  Their association blossomed into a friendship after 1910, when Claude and Emma frequently socialized with Hartmann and his wife.  After Debussy gave Hartmann a copy of Book I of his recently published piano preludes, Hartmann adapted “La Fille aux cheveux de lin” (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) and “Minstrels” for violin and piano.  Inspired, the composer suggested that he accompany Hartmann in a recital that would include all three transcriptions, an event that took place on 5 February 1914, and Debussy made his own transcription for “Minstrels,” the manuscript of which was dedicated “pour piano et Hartmann” (“for piano and Hartmann”) and is now preserved in the Sibley Music Library.

Debussy’s transcription of “Minstrels” is just one of many adaptations that will be heard on this evening’s concert.  While the composer may have been castigated by the members of the academy jury for his vague, “impressionist” work that relied on coloristic effects at the expense of compositional form, the fact that these pieces not only withstand transcription but often are at least equally successful, if not even more idiomatic in other instrumentations, belies that judgment.  This concert celebrates the rich depth of Debussy’s musical creation as well as the rich artistry of the students and faculty of the Eastman School of Music.

[1] Hartmann taught at Eastman from 1918 to 1922, and he also played first violin in the Kilbourn Quartet, performing in George Eastman’s home on Sunday evenings.  The violinist’s correspondence with Debussy, edited by Samuel Hsu, Sidney Grolnic, and Mark Peters, has been published in Claude Debussy as I Knew Him, available in paperback from the University of Rochester Press.


“Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner [for solo piano]
excerpt from Eastman Audio Archive call no. ECD 1732

Performed by Kevin T. Chance in a Doctor of Musical Arts degree recital on June 11, 2012 in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music. Since January, 2010 Dr. Chance has served on the music faculty of the University of Alabama as Instructor of Piano.

[audio:|titles=Golliwog’s Cakewalk] Here more recordings on the Audio page.


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