Loving and Learning Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet

The Debussy Premiere Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano (or orchestra) has been in my repertoire since I was 16 years old. I won two concerto competitions in High School with it, and performed it with the National Symphony and Baltimore Symphony.

I have also performed the Rhapsodie with the Columbus Symphony, and am a featured artist playing the it on the CD "CSO Showcase".

Yet the music, however deeply ingrained in my psyche and body, still thrills and challenges. A friend of mine in the Columbus Symphony said to me after playing it, "Wow, it's a wonderful piece of music. I was reminded of "Afternoon of a Faun".

I have had several chances to play it the past few weeks, and will have two more in the next week. (4 total) It's quite a luxury to have so many live performances of a solo piece, especially for an orchestral musician.

And it's also a luxury to play it with good pianists. The piano part is notoriously difficult. "It's all flats!" one pianist exclaimed.

Written in 1910 as a competition test piece for clarinetists seeking to graduate from the Paris Conservatory, Debussy composed the piece with piano first, and orchestrated it a year later.

Though the full "Boehm" inspired key system had been around for decades when Debussy composed this piece, I am still impressed at Debussy's facility in writing to the edge of the instrument's technical abilities.

Much of the piece requires great facility "over the break" meaning where the clarinet moves from one register to another. Fingerings in this area can be awkward.

Also, near the end of the piece, the composers writes a passage which uses all seven key choices for the pinky fingers of both hands. It's sort of a finger "tongue twister". Here is that passage:

technical flourish using all pinky keys

French culture emphasizes and expresses subtlety more than most cultures, and it's not surprising that Debussy aimed to test more than just the technical note possibilities. He writes numerous extremely soft and high notes in liquid lines, demanding absolute breath and tone control. In order to really play the dynamics he notates, the player must have all his technical and tonal facilities at full steam.

Beyond the notes, the Debussy Rhapsodie is deceptively challenging. To achieve the vast variety of colors, musical characters and development, the player must astutely pace the music so that it builds in layers to its final bluesy climax.

In about 9 minutes, Debussy presents several thematic "nuggets" and develops them rhapsodically (freely) toward a vastly different modd in the end.

The opening bars create a floating, enigmatic mood, with the clarinet stating a 3 note idea, which then leaves the listener hanging. The next few bars allow this little idea to continue into something only slightly more substantial.

3 note idea used throughout

3 note theme w chromatic tail, developed later

Seeing the beginning in images, I imaging a little wood sprite poking up her head from the lilting softness of a fern forest. Then she retreats. Again, she emerges, showing more of herself. Next she prances out and does her little dance.

3 note idea w chrom tail, playfully repeated

Then the scene transitions and opens up into the next theme, which is built on the exact same first three notes, but playing in reverse, and much slower. This theme becomes the main lyrical melody of the piece, and it appears in several different guises, eventually returning in the coda to lead the listener beyond and into the final exciting dance.

Main theme, and Soaring theme at key change

The music begins to rise rhapsodically toward yet another theme, one with great skips in it, reaching low and then soaring high in its arching shape. This theme becomes the piece's favorite, and also creates the most challenging sections for tone and breath control. By transposing the theme ever higher each time it appears, the player must rise to control it ever more, maintaining the effortless fluidity it demands to be musically effective.

The next section speeds up the pace a bit, using a slightly altered version of the first three note theme. Here Debussy expertly creates subtle variation using specific and varied articulations. The impish mood quickly returns to the second theme, an octave higher, and greater challenge, before moving to the next section, a mini "storm" of only a few bars and lots of notes, before returning again to yet another version of the first three note theme.

3 note idea impishly developed

Again, this music organically evolves into a development section, advancing the little "themelet" to express outward joy and exuberance. I see the little wood sprite dancing in a sunlit open field.

Middle section developing 3 note theme playfully

Only a few bars later, this miniaturized tone poem moves to yet another familiar scene, the soaring theme with great skips across the instrument. This time it's at the high end of the clarinet's "altissimo" range. Marked pianissimo, this is the rhapsodic peak of this first half of the piece. The music continues beyond the arching theme to extend the magical floating mood even further. Debussy suggests "Plus retenu" "even slower". Time seems to stop.

Soaring theme in upper register, pianissimo

The transition to the next "impish" section and theme is accomplished by yet again playing with the very first three note shape.

This next section, impish in character, asks the player to demonstrate a perky and light staccato, and to be able to control that articulation in the high register. The theme itself, I believe, is an extension of the first wood sprite's theme, the short chromatic descent seen in the 4th bar of the piece.

Scherzo theme based on 3 note chromatic tail

Debussy continues to develop this idea for another 20 bars, before returning briefly to the soaring theme. Then the whole scene comes unraveled as the music returns to the first theme, ultra placid, especially after all the excitement of the intervening music. However the music takes yet another turn, building with great dynamic and harmonic tension (and the most difficult part for the pianist) to another virtuosic flourish of riffs for the clarinet before entering the final impish dance which builds with bacchanalian fervor to a final "bluesy" statement of the very first three note theme before coming to a crashing close.

Return to main theme w buildup to ending

Technical flourishes transitioning to ending dance

Bluesy ending using 3 note idea

All in all, a miniature music masterpiece, well written to challenge any clarinetist's technique. Gotta love it.

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