The Overture to the Theatre Pension Fund

Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas is about a slave who falls in love with the queen of Spain; the feeling is reciprocated, but the story – inevitably – ends in tragedy. Mendelssohn didn’t like the play; and, when the Leipzig Theatre attempted to commission music for a benefit performance (for the theatre pension fund) of the work, he turned […]

La Puerta del Vino

If you’re one of those people who’ve been lucky enough to visit Granada and explore the Alhambra Palace, you may well have come across the azulejo (painted tile) pictured above. It’s near the Wine Gate (Puerta del Vino) and acknowledges the piece in Debussy’s second book of Preludes that takes its title from that ancient […]

Sonate, que me veux-tu?

But what does it mean? Fontenelle’s famous outburst (literally Sonata, what do you want of me?) was aimed at the ‘pure’ music and abstract forms of baroque instrumental music. Essentially, the question is: how can something that has no ‘meaning’ mean so much? Abstract music was never Debussy’s ‘thing’; nearly all his works have some sort […]

The Japanese Wave

The original cover of Debussy’s score of La Mer (above) featured – at the composer’s request – a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave at Kanagawa; you can see the original below. A huge wave, reflecting and dwarfing the distant Mount Fuji, breaks over hapless fishermen in boats. The elemental power and danger […]

Light music

Debussy himself described his three orchestral Nocturnes thus: “The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. […]

Keeping up with the Haydns

There’s something frightening about the string quartet. It’s the tradition, I suppose – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all poured some of their best and most profound music into the medium, and that makes the standard for the young, aspiring composer pretty high(!!). So, when the thirty-or-so year old Debussy came to tackle a quartet, he […]