Chamber Music

William Turner: Chamber music (1835)

Claude Debussy's instrumental chamber music is limited to a comparatively small number of masterpieces whose dates of origin span virtually his entire artistic career. After an early piano trio (ca. 1879) and other lesser juvenilia he produced his String Quartet in G minor (op. 10) in 1893. It demonstrated that he was capable of drawing on the tradition canonised in the Viennese classics, and cultivated by his teacher César Franck, while transcending it with a style all his own.

After a hiatus of two decades, he returned in 1915 to the more intimate expressive potential of chamber music. Already marked by severe illness, and influenced by the horrors of the First World War, he embarked on a set of six sonatas reflecting French classicism of the early 18th century. His object, as he wrote to his publisher Jacques Durand on 5 August 1915, was ‘to prove that not even 30 million boches can destroy French thought’. In the end he was only able to complete three of them: the Sonata for Cello and Piano, the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (both 1915) and his final work altogether, the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1915–16).

Rounding off his chamber music are three pieces composed for particular purposes: the atmospheric gem “Syrinx” for unaccompanied flute, written in 1913 as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey's play “Psyché”; an incomplete “Rhapsody” for alto saxophone and piano, commissioned by the saxophonist Elise Hall (1901-03); and an examination piece for final-year students at the Paris Conservatoire, the “Première Rhapsodie” for clarinet and piano (1909–10).

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