DEBUSSY Claude, Première Rapsodie for Clarinet and Piano
The test pieces specially composed for the final exams at the Paris Conservatoire have something of a bad reputation. Many of them are routine competition showpieces but sometimes a work of much more lasting importance was written for these occasions. Such is the case with Debussy’s Première Rapsodie, completed in January 1910 for the clarinet concours at the Conservatoire that summer (Debussy also dashed off a sight-reading test for the same competition, published as his Petite pièce for clarinet and piano). Debussy himself was a member of the jury and he found most of the players unsatisfactory in the Rapsodie. However, the eventual winner, Vandercruyssen, impressed him. Debussy wrote to his friend and publisher Jacques Durand that Vandercruyssen ‘played by heart, and like a great musician’. A year later, Debussy prepared the better-known version of the piece for clarinet and orchestra, but the original with piano is superbly written for both instruments. The clarinettist David Pino has claimed, with justification, that the Première rapsodie was ‘the first major work for solo clarinet written in the twentieth century’.
It opens in a mood of stillness (marked ‘Rêveusement lent’ – ‘dreamily slow’), with the piano adding gentle momentum in the accompaniment after a few bars, and the clarinet – instructed to play pianissimo but also ‘sweetly’ and ‘penetrating’ – introducing a languorous theme that gradually becomes more animated. A sudden speeding up introduces a more capricious idea that is briefly stopped in its tracks by a series of trills and a return to earlier music. But the faster speed soon returns, starting with rumbling low notes on the piano and a series of upward flourishes on the clarinet. This gives way to a new section marked ‘Modérément animé (‘Moderately animated) and ‘playful’, a passage that quite brilliantly exploits the possibilities of the clarinet, especially its ability to play rapid figurations and lyrical lines. A return to the slower music gives way, finally, to a thrilling conclusion.
What makes this such an outstanding work is that Debussy combines extremely idiomatic writing – appropriate for a piece that was intended to demonstrate a player’s technical command – with musical ideas that have memorable substance. On 16 January 1911 the clarinettist Paul Mimart (to whom the work was dedicated) gave the first performance in a concert, at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, in one of the concerts promoted by the Société musicale indépendante. According to Debussy’s biographer Léon Valas, another performance took place at the end of 1911 in Russia, and it was greeted by the audience with confusion. A baffled Debussy wrote to a friend: ‘Surely this piece is one of the most immediately pleasing I have ever written!’
© Nigel Simeone