Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
Debussy published his String Quartet in 1894 with the words “1er Quatuor”(First Quartet) on the cover, a false promise since he never wrote another. He also designated it Op. 10, also misleading, since he had not actually published nine previous compositions (and soon abandoned the practice of assigning opus numbers entirely). The number was probably chosen to make the fledgling 32-year-old composer seem more accomplished than he really was.
Today, of course, neither Debussy nor his quartet needs such bolstering—and its uniqueness in Debussy’s output adds to its aura. The Debussy Quartet. Unlike so many other composers who spent years working over the genre, Debussy had his first and last word in one go. But still a sense of working over pervades the piece from start to finish—a process of trying out, developing, and modifying across just four movements.
The first movement’s opening idea underpins the entire work: a sturdy, two-measure motive spun out into a taught, 12-bar phrase. From there, a second theme introduces a particularly Debussian effect: a long, quiet melody floated over a quick, busy texture. The movement is constructed as a procession of linked sections, all related to varying degrees to the opening material.
The second movement strums with string pizzicato—often three players plucking against one alone playing with the bow. Though the color palette has changed, the first movement’s ideas are still present: the four opening plucked chords could be a simplification of the first movement opening, and the viola’s answering theme, with its triplet turn, is not far afield from what was before.
Another color shift marks the slow movement: the players put on mutes. The second violin begins with a hesitant fragment, answered by cello pizzicato (perhaps a carryover from the second movement). The viola repeats the fragment, and then first violin completes it as a hushed and tender lullaby. The movement hinges on warmth and then withdrawal of warmth—harmonies disappear, and then echo again as atmospheric touches like a distant organ. A second melody, again with the triplet turn from the first and second movements, broadens and grows large and expressive. But again, it retracts and the lullaby returns.
Though played with a pause in between, the finale seems to drift right out of the slow movement. The cello twines around, then the three other players join and wobble together in queasy chromatics. They gain momentum and familiar themes reemerge—a transformation of the first movement opening, splashes of the second movement’s guitar, and an ending flourish.
The Ysaÿe Quartet (named for its leader, violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe) premiered Debussy’s Quartet on December 29, 1893, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris for the Société Nationale de Musique. The reaction at first was somewhat mixed, with the composer Ernest Chausson, its originally intended dedicatee, doubting its unconventional form (Debussy promised him a second, more agreeable quartet, never to be written). Ysaÿe, however, believed in it and took it on tour, and the publisher A. Durand & Fils offered a contract. Soon the quartet became a modest success, and when Debussy’s later works drew attention, it was revisited by players and found a central place in the modern repertoire.