Claude Debussy released his String Quartet in 1894 with the designation Op. 10 and the words “1er Quatuor” (first quartet) on the cover. Both labels are misleading, since he hadn’t actually published nine previous compositions and never wrote a second quartet. At age 32, he probably wanted to appear more accomplished than he really was and hint at big things for the future.
The Ysaÿe Quartet (named for its leader, the violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe) premiered the piece on December 29, 1893, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris for the Société Nationale de Musique. The reaction was somewhat mixed, with the composer Ernest Chausson, its intended dedicatee, questioning its structural coherence. Ysaÿe, however, believed in it enough to take it on tour, and the company Durand offered Debussy a publishing contract.
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 busy texture. The movement is built as a procession of linked sections, all related to varying degrees to the opening material.
The second movement is in pizzicato—often three players plucking against one with the bow. Though the color palette has changed, the first movement’s ideas are still present: the opening strummed chords are a transformation of the first movement opening, and the viola’s answering theme, with its triplet turn, is not far afield from what came before.
For the slow movement, the players are muted; the second violin begins with a hesitant fragment, answered by cello pizzicato (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 its withdrawal—harmonies disappear, then echo like a distant organ. A second melody, again with the triplet turn from the first and second movements, broadens and grows more expressive. But again, it pulls back and the lullaby returns.
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—another transformation of the first-movement opening, splashes of the second movement’s guitar, and an ending flourish.