Monday, January 18, 2010

Claude Debussy's Quartet: Up Close & Personal with the Cypress Quartet

The Cypress Quartet will be playing in Harrisburg this Saturday evening at 8pm – not at the usual downtown locations for Market Square Concerts but at Temple Ohev Shalom in uptown Harrisburg at Seneca and Front Streets, a few blocks above Maclay Street and the Governor's Mansion.

The program will include two “only” string quartets – the only one written by Samuel Barber (the original home for his Adagio for Strings, better known in its version for full string orchestra) and the only one written by Claude Debussy.

In between, there's a more recent work written in 2003 specifically for the Cypress Quartet by Jennifer Higdon who will be present to talk about both her work and its relationship to Debussy's Quartet since she was called upon to write a “response” to it. Its movements are entitled "Bright Palette," "Quiet Art," "To the Point," and "Noted Canvas," all painterly terms (well, you get the impression...).

"Watch This Space" for an up-coming post about Jennifer Higdon and her string quartet, too.

This post is specifically about the Debussy Quartet, recycling an earlier post from Thoughts on a Train following a performance the Cypress Quartet gave at Lebanon Valley College in September of 2008.

Here they are, performing the first movement of Debussy's Quartet in G minor:


The Debussy Quartet was on their very first program twelve years ago, violinist Tom Stone had said in remarks before they played it. There was so much in the piece they discovered while first working on it – though he said jokingly, looking back at his colleagues, “that first performance was... uh, was kinda rough...” And ever since they’ve kept coming back to it and discovering more.

However many times they’ve played it in the years in between - and recorded it - this was the first time I’d heard them play it. It sounded to me like they were approaching it with the same excitement they’d have after having just discovered it for the first time. Except for one thing: they weren’t playing it like everybody else. They were bringing to this overly familiar war-horse something that often gets lost in the “yet-another-performance” syndrome that affects many performances and listeners – the “here-we-go-again,” “dig-out-the-tried-and-true” approach that, regardless of technical flawlessness, never manages to get beyond the surface of the music.

It’s not one of those things you can easily put a finger on, much less describe in words (not that that’s going to stop me). Without a score in front of me, could I say they were doing it correctly when others were not? Or were they adding things not in the composer’s written-down intentions that other groups hadn’t thought of? How much of this was their own interpretation – and how much “interpretation” is beyond what the composer called for or, at least, implied?

Ever since I was a kid learning to play the piano, I’ve heard the expression “the music lies between the notes.” It’s not just getting your fingers in the right places at the right times, playing the right notes in the right rhythms. Learning how to make music out of all that, finding what’s between those notes, is the performer’s real challenge, and then completing the equation by communicating that to the listener.

Rather than examine the score (the printed music, what the composer wrote), too many performers today listen to recordings (how what the composer wrote is interpreted) and then pick and choose what they feel best suits them. Imitating a performance might let a student know how it could go – since there’s really no single way it SHOULD go – but it doesn’t help a student figure out WHY it could go that way.

That’s what I liked about what I heard the Cypress Quartet doing with the Debussy.

Too many performances and recordings I’d heard play the piece as a lushly romantic wash of pretty sounds: Debussy, after all, was an Impressionist, a pigeon-hole he never liked but since it reminded people of those Impressionist painters of the day, there was no way to avoid it.

Debussy (see right, a photograph taken in 1893, with the composer at the piano, the year he wrote his Quartet) was also a slow, painstaking composer who agonized a long time over whether to use this chord or that chord. It’s got to be more than he was just unwilling to make a commitment: he was probably looking for the best sonority for that moment, not just slap-dashing notes down on the page because “oh, that sounds nice!”

Debussy has never been an easy composer for me to love: certainly, I like a lot of his music but it never really spoke to me. Part of this may be because he is, despite his dislike of the painterly term, most often inspired by the visual element and I am not. Most of his pieces have titles that suggest or prompt certain images in the listener’s mind, whether it’s a garden in the rain or a child’s toy. I am not a visually oriented person so it’s quite possible that’s why much of his music eludes me. As a like-minded friend of mine once put it, “I like La Mer: every time I hear it, it’s like hearing it for the first time,” but in the context and tone of voice implying it is also immensely forgettable.

But his only String Quartet, written in 1893 (the same year Brahms was writing his last piano pieces, Op. 118 and Op. 119, by the way) is simply that – an abstract string quartet where the movements are indicated by tempos like Animé et très décidé, not “Reflections of Moonlight on the Steps of the Temple.” But then, this is considered “Early Debussy” despite the fact he was 30 – making, I guess, derivative juvenalia like his Piano Trio written at 17 “Pre-Early” – yet all that is fairly relative when you consider when he wrote two of his more famous pieces: the piano piece Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque predates the quartet by four years; the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written the following year. Between these picturesque pieces, a string quartet, considered a German form in late-19th Century France, could seem the Odd-Piece-Out.

The Sonata Form was also essentially a German Form. And French composers felt, perhaps out of patriotism as much as anything, that it needed to be adapted their own way. French taste shied away from such Germanic things as fugal counterpoint (what Satie called “sauerkraut”) and the obsessive development one finds in so much German music: they preferred melody and color, perhaps, over rigidity of form and harmony.

But this is also part of the French Personality, more laid back and laissez-faire compared to the German (and specifically Prussian) attitude toward detail, exactness and promptness (a friend of mine from Berlin would be pointing excitedly at his watch because we were now two minutes late) . Ned Rorem would break everything down to be either French or German along similar guidelines, even other national stereotypes: the Japanese, to him, are German and the Chinese, French! (Think about it...)

So the French took their Sonata Form and put less emphasis on the development section and crafted memorable melodies that would come back in other movements – forgetting that Beethoven had done the same thing in a few key works like his 5th and 9th Symphonies – something they called “cyclical form,” even though it’s not really a form but a structural device to unite a multi-movement work. Part of the problems Germanic listeners have with this technique is that “it’s just the same tune!” They expected something to have “happened” to the theme by then, becoming transformed – you know, the way Mahler does in his symphonies (“good German symphonies, Mahler,” you could almost hear them adding).

So it’s surprising to realize that Debussy builds almost everything in this four movement work out of four basic pitches – G -F - D- F# – a motive which lies behinds the themes rather than being the theme itself. Consciously or not, these various themes will all sound different but still connected. There’s a subtly here that manages to create a great deal of variety while using the same material – things keep coming back in slightly different ways but it all sounds like something cut from the same cloth.

Debussy was famous for having flunked his harmony class at the Conservatoire – giving generations of students, including mine, the courage to say “if Debussy could do it...” What these same students forget is that his teacher, after marking up his papers with tons of corrections and comments, could still admit “everything is wrong but he is talented, there can be no doubt about that,” a qualification that could not always be made about my students who also forgot that at the time Debussy was 12. He had, certainly, even then, his own ideas about things, but that doesn’t mean he discarded the use of Rules completely, just Those Rules.

People sometime object, consciously or not, to the “impressionistic” music of Debussy because it doesn’t sound like the music they’re more familiar with, not that it’s “ugly and dissonant,” just “unsettling.” Dissonant, perhaps, but in the sense that chords that (according to the old rules) need to resolve in certain expected ways do not. When you are using a scale that is not the same as the traditional major or minor scale, you create harmony that does not move in the same expected ways: if it’s the whole-tone scale which doesn’t include that interval, the perfect fifth, which is at the root of all Classical Harmony, you create chords that don’t even sound like they need to go ANYwhere. And so performers create a sound that becomes static and directionless, as if “forward motion” in music could not be accomplished in other ways.

What the Cypress Quartet does, examining the printed music in front of them, is find the ways that Debussy replaces these traditional “classical” expectations with his own, how he moves the harmony forward by creating certain consistencies (whether or not he’d think of them as “rules”) and how he builds toward climactic points, using rhythm, tempo, texture, even the register the instruments are playing in and of course elements of contrast. Suddenly I’m hearing “structure” where before it was just pretty shapes and images, as if this “skin” were not holding together muscles and bones.

And I’m sitting there thinking, “huh, Debussy with structure! Who knew?!” This is the first time I’ve heard the piece where I thought it was worth listening to. (But then, there may have been some “French” listeners in the hall who were squeamish because to them it was too pedantic, too... German!)

It’s not like this is a revolutionary way of looking at music. “Analyzing” is a term I dislike because it implies the psychological obsession with detail (as in “he’s so totally anal”) that so often loses the overall picture to focus on the minuscule. It’s not like other groups don’t do this: they just find something different or maybe, if they find nothing compelling, they just play it the way they’ve heard other people play it.

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You can hear them perform the Debussy Quartet along with Jennifer Higdon's “Impressions” and Samuel Barber's Quartet on Saturday, Jan. 23rd, at 8pm at Temple Ohev Shalom in uptown Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts.


- Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. Don Jose from Far Rockaway, the man no woman could resistFebruary 12, 2010 at 6:17 PM

    My favorite musician was Jennifer Kloetzel.... These 4 players were so delightful with their playing, and also as human beings.... Thanks so much Dick for being there.... And also for letting me say hi to the players and composer Jennifer(Higdon that is)....

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