YouTube Pre-concert Talk on Debussy Rhapsodie

Here is my live pre-concert analysis of the Debussy Rhapsodie on YouTube. I got lots of positive feedback from the audience after the concert. I kept the program short, to allow time to speak. I spoke about 10 minutes before the Debussy and 15 minutes before the Stravinsky L'Histoire du Soldat. (which I will post in a few days)

In this personal analysis of the Debussy Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano, I show how the composer builds the entire piece on the first three note "fragment" of a theme. Of the 6 or 7 theme "variations", all but one are directly related to these first three notes of the piece. That unrelated theme is what I call the "soaring" theme, because it skips over large leaps to soar in the high register of the instrument.

Below, I describe these theme developments and include images from the music. (quoted from a previous post on the Debussy)

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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