Debussy’s Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone Revisited

Debussy’s Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone Revisited

Nearly two years behind schedule and working late into the summer nights of 1903, Claude Debussy had only the oppressive heat to keep him company as Elise Hall, the “saxophone lady” from Boston, anxiously inquired about the status of her commission for “orchestre et saxophone obligé”; all the while his first wife, Lilly, waited for him to join her for vacation in the countryside of Bichain. These circumstances, initially irksome and exasperating, became the perfect catalyst for a struggling composer who hadn’t written a note of music in nearly a year. By August, the orchestral sketch of “Rapsodie arabe,” one of Debussy’s most exotic and adventurous compositions, was complete. However, despite having been paid his fee on the commission from Hall in 1901 and from publisher Jacques Durand in 1903, Debussy inexplicably chose to retain the score of Rapsodie until his death in March 1918.

After the composer’s death, Debussy’s second wife, Emma (nèe Bardac), entrusted this manuscript, now entitled “Esquisse d’une ‘Rhapsodie Mauresque’ pour orchestre et saxophone principal,” to the composer’s close friend, Jean Roger-Ducasse, an experienced orchestrator and music editor who worked during the spring and summer months of 1918 to extract a solo saxophone part, a piano reduction, and a full orchestral score. Debussy’s original and specific orchestration is the basis for this realization, with slight modifications made in strict accordance with his compositional techniques. After Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone was published by Durand and premiered in Paris in 1919, the holograph sketch was finally sent to Elise Hall. The following investigation is a detailed account of this greatly misunderstood chapter of Debussy’s life.

Genesis of the Rapsodie

As the Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone remained unpublished and unperformed during Debussy’s lifetime, little was known about the nature of the work. The program of the first performance on 14 May 1919, with André Caplet conducting, lists the names of soloists on violin, voice, and piano, but not saxophone.1 Commenting on the premiere in Le courrier musicale, Albert Bestelin concludes: The Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone by the regretted Claude Debussy, does not, as you might imagine, take on the character of a concerted work. It appears, rather as an orchestral tableau in which the singular character of the principal instrument’s timbre is chiefly displayed, unlike virtuoso writing, which does not show off this aspect. By the importance of its proportions, the richness of its colors, the rare zest of its musical quality, this work, which allies itself to the best which has been written by its author, is worthy of the Nocturnes and Images.2A reviewer from Le monde musicale identifies the saxophonist as [Yves] Mayeur and states, “This posthumous page is somewhat in contrast with the rest of his work: with its less inward and much more outward character, with its lines and instrumentation more clearly visible, [Rapsodie] is the work in which Debussy sounds the least like himself.”3 According to a critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who commented on the first performance of Rapsodie in the United States in 1927, “[the] saxophone was [often] indistinguishable as a solo instrument. [Rapsodie] is an astonishingly forthright piece of music for Debussy.”4 One account of the first performance of Rapsodie in Winterthur, Switzerland, states that the score was “specifically composed to showcase the solo instrument [timbre], instead of the instrument and its technique serving the work of art.” Thus, the work is described not as a concerto, but as a “colorful sound impression with a single great melodic span, where connections with Afternoon of a Faun are still shimmeringly audible, and whose figuration, harmony and orchestration already offer a glimpse of the later works La mer and Iberia.”5

Léon Vallas provided the first anecdotes concerning Elise Hall and Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone in his Claude Debussy et son temps, published in 1932. According to Vallas, the commission was a “disagreeable task” for a “ridiculous” lady amounting to “nothing more than a rough draft … completed by Roger-Ducasse.” Regrettably, subsequent biographers Oscar Thompson (1937), Maurice Dumesnil (1940), Edward Lockspeiser (1949), and Victor Seroff (1956) never verified this unflattering version of events.6 Instead, they used these words, often verbatim, and added further interpolations. For example, Vallas’s “disagreeable task,” became Thompson’s “abandoning the task in despair,” which in turn became “he just could not force himself to the task” according to Seroff. However, far from remaining static, Debussy’s state of mind underwent a marked transformation as he composed Hall’s commission: from “indescribable irritation” at the outset of the project, to “I have been working as hard as in the good old days of Pelléas” as he progressed, to “taking enjoyment a bit too far” as he neared completion.7

The most blatantly recycled and uncorroborated anecdote concerned a concert at Nouveau Théâtre in Paris on 17 May 1904, where Elise Hall gave the Parisian premiere of a work she had commissioned, Vincent d’Indy’s Chorale varié. Here, Vallas describes the “ridiculous” lady in a “pink frock” playing on an “ungainly instrument.” Thompson declares that “the instrument was ungainly and its use by a woman ridiculous.” This story then evolves into Dumesnil’s tale of “an impression of ridicule” of the lady in a “light-pink evening gown” playing the “ungraceful saxophone” (also referred to as a “queer looking instrument”) to which the audience responded with a “wave of discreet chuckles.” Lockspeiser quotes the Vallas account directly, and according to Seroff, Debussy thought a lady in a “pink frock” playing the saxophone was “incongruous.”

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The Commission: 1901–03

Born in Paris on 15 April 1853 and spending her early years in France, Elizabeth Boyer Coolidge was the daughter of a prominent Bostonian family. In 1879 she married Richard J. Hall, the first American surgeon to perform a successful appendectomy. In the mid-1890s, Mrs. Hall suffered an illness that left her hearing impaired, and at the advice of her husband she began saxophone lessons as a way to prevent further hearing loss. When Dr. Hall died in 1898, his widow returned to Boston where she continued saxophone lessons with principal oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Georges Longy.12 Seeking to create orchestral opportunities for amateur musicians of a “high level of proficiency and with social standing,” Hall helped to organize and finance the Boston Orchestral Club, whose first performance was on 2 February 1900, Longy conducting. Upon discovering a dearth of repertoire for orchestral saxophone, Elise Hall set out to commission new works. The first of these, Charles Martin Loeffler’s Divertissement espagnol pour orchestre et saxophone, was premiered on 29 January 1901, at Copley Hall. An enthusiastic review of a subsequent concert in April appeared in the Boston Journal, stating, “Mrs. Hall displayed a beautiful quality of tone and technical mastery. It is a pity that the literature of this peculiarly impressive instrument is not larger.”13

In the summer of 1901, Debussy was busily preparing Pelléas et Mélisande for its premiere at the Opéra-Comique when he accepted Elise Hall’s prepaid commission with Georges Longy acting as intermediary between saxophonist and composer. The composer certainly needed the money, as he was in the midst of a legal battle to repay debts owed to the heirs of his former publisher, Georges Hartmann. On 28 August 1901, Debussy wrote to the publisher handling his account at the time, Eugéne Fromont, requesting that he send “a copy of the Nocturnes to Mr. Longy.” While this gesture indicates Debussy’s acceptance of Hall’s commission, he soon lost sight of this obligation.14

The end of the first set of performances of Pelléas in June 1902 found the composer “suffering fatigue to the point of neurasthenia,” and on 8 September 1902, Debussy wrote to André Messager, “I have not written one note. … In order to do what I want I must go off in a completely new direction. To begin a new work appears to me like a perilous leap, and one risks breaking one’s back.” He further stated that, “for a long time I had been like a squeezed lemon, and my poor brain did not want to learn anything more.” Months passed during which he produced nothing more than a few articles of musical criticism.15

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, Debussy’s “poor brain” was forced into action. Writing to his first wife, Lilly, on 31 May 1903, he explains the immediate circumstances: It appears that Longy and the saxophone lady are in Paris!—Longy came to see me and although he was cordial I sensed that one must not keep them waiting too much longer; I am thus trying to finish this goddamn piece as quickly as possible. Naturally, the musical ideas take particular care to flee from me, like wry butterflies, and I spend hours of indescribable irritation. The fact that I would like to achieve something very good, in order to reward these people for their patience, only makes matters worse.16Having nothing to show for a commission long overdue, Debussy gave to Longy a copy of the published piano-vocal score of Pelléas et Mélisande with a hastily written dedication:

á Madame Rich. J. Hall

Hommage de reconnaissance

Sincère et profonde

Claude Debussy


Writing again to Lilly, the composer speaks of his desire to be with her in Bichain, but that his “obligation to finish” Hall’s commission was keeping them apart. By 4 June the composer became animated and annoyed in his correspondence with his wife: I do not know why “the Saxophone Lady” appears to me as the Statue of the commandatore appeared to poor Don Juan!—She will never suspect how much she bored me. Does it not appear indecent to you, a woman in love with a saxophone, whose lips suck at the wooden mouthpiece of this ridiculous instrument?—That must surely be an old bat who dresses like an umbrella.But, he remained outwardly cordial to Longy, and further delayed an impending rendezvous with Hall, in hopes that the autographed score of Pelléas might placate her: It would be my great pleasure to meet Mrs Hall, but it would be even better if I had something finished to show her. I still have about fifty measures to find.—I can tell this to You … ! But for her this would seem insufficient. Can she not delay her departure for a few days; in sum, I can finish these fifty measures at any moment now … I would really like to make her happy! At last, if this is impossible, I will try to get it done. As for the score of Pélléas, it’s understood. Don’t worry at all. It’s my pleasure.While Debussy was drafting this pretext, Longy paid another surprise visit. (In the confusion of the moment, the discomfited composer nearly made a disastrous transposition of his wife’s letter … with Longy’s telegram!) With the excuse of “fifty measures to find,” a meeting with Hall was put off until later that summer.18

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An Unresolved Matter: 1904–11

As the newly appointed president of the Boston Orchestral Club, Elise Hall now had a busy career presenting the new scores which she had commissioned. Her schedule included numerous dates in Boston as well as the now notorious concert at the Nouveau Théâtre in 1904. As mentioned above, all surviving first-hand accounts of Hall’s Parisian performance allude to a successful, indeed triumphant, concert, but Debussy’s biographers searched for reasons to explain Debussy’s reluctance to finish Hall’s commission. Even Debussy’s good friend, Pierre Louÿs, through an obscure play on words seems to imply that the composer would not deliver on his promise: “articulez bien gramophone, parce que s’il [Debussy] entend saxophone nous n’en avons pas fini.”22 The unrevealed secret was that Rapsodie was, for all intents and purposes, virtually complete. Meanwhile, the composer obviously had other things on his mind, deciding that June to leave his first wife and elope with Emma Bardac to England; the lovers took flight in July. Lilly Debussy’s failed suicide attempt in October and subsequent lawsuit against her husband became a widely reported scandal.

In the spring of 1905, Hall performed for a second time in Paris. The concert at Salle Pleyel included newly composed works by André Caplet, Georges Longy, Charles Martin Loeffler, and Vincent d’Indy. According to Auguste Mercadier, reporting for Le monde musical, Hall played “unflinchingly, with a pleasant sonority and a distinguished artistic sense.” In spite of being a woman saxophonist in an era of limited opportunities for female woodwind players, Hall received favorable reviews throughout her twenty-year career. To be sure, she encountered numerous “obstacles that would have deterred any ordinary patron of music,” but Elise Hall was a beneficent patron of the arts whose visionary legacy endures through twenty-two commissioned pieces for saxophone, the most famous of these by Claude Debussy.23

In September 1905, one month before the premiere of La mer, and over four years since Hall’s commission, Debussy apparently had second thoughts about his behavior and sought an amicable resolution. He writes to Durand, “Madame E. Hall, the ‘saxophone-lady,’ is politely asking me for her fantasy; I’d like to oblige her, because she’s been as patient as a Red Indian and deserves some reward.”24 Having secured the rights to all of Debussy’s future output in August 1905 and having already paid for Rapsodie in 1903, it appears Durand was not inclined to honor the composer’s earlier agreement with Hall. Faced with this dilemma, the composer retained the manuscript, to which he later added:

Esquisse d’une ‘Rhapsodie Mauresque’

pour Orchestre et Saxophone Principal.

à Madame E. Hall.

avec l’hommage respectueux de

Claude Debussy

(1901 = 1908.)

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Preparation for Printing: 1918–19

Prior to his work on Debussy’s Rapsodie, Roger-Ducasse had collaborated on two major scoring projects with Gabriel Fauré. In the late 1890s, as a favored pupil, he was given the original manuscript of the Requiem and asked by the composer to create a reduction for choir and piano, which was published in 1900. It is also believed, although evidence is inconclusive, that Roger-Ducasse created a revised “symphonic” version for performances in large concert halls with large choirs, which was published in 1901. Between 1914 and 1916 Fauré once again called on Roger- Ducasse, this time to create a “symphonic” version of Prométhée by scaling back the original epic proportions of 450 instrumentalists. This version was first performed in 1917.34

Roger-Ducasse immediately began work on Rapsodie in late April 1918 and had made considerable progress within a few weeks. Writing to Lambinet, he states: I have just completed (I repeat myself?) a transcription and an arrangement of a Rapsodie for alto saxophone = there is a whole large page, quite charming, with a melody line which recalls the adagio from his String Quartet; a style that he too often disused. … I will orchestrate during my vacation, if I have a vacation, and it gives me pleasure to immerse myself in his way of treating the instruments, a way that will surely never be mine: he saw paths, I see main roads, one gets lost in them more easily.35The “transcription” mentioned is the saxophone manuscript [MS 1001bis located at La Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris], copied directly from Debussy’s sketch, written as a solo part, and copyrighted by Durand in 1918. The music has been transposed for alto saxophone (up a major sixth), with multi-measure rests and piano cues indicated. The pitches on this manuscript conform exactly to Debussy’s sketch, and although not specifically indicated, Roger-Ducasse included the saxophone with the tutti section between mm. 344 and 364. Only a few changes were made to dynamics, articulations, and rhythms.36

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Further Along Debussy’s Path

Beyond orchestration, specific structural alterations made to Rapsodie indicate that Roger-Ducasse was intimately acquainted with Debussy’s mathematical methods of composition. These techniques, some of which are outlined below, are discussed in detail in Roy Howat’s Debussy in Proportion.44 Evidence pointing to Roger-Ducasse’s knowledge in this area comes from his deliberate reduction in the number of measures in Rapsodie. While the Hall manuscript has a total of 386 measures, the orchestral realization [MS 1001] used to engrave the Durand edition, contains a total of 384 measures. These revisions were not the result of carelessness, but of carefully fulfilling Debussy’s original plan.45

The mathematical formula used to arrive at the number of measures in Rapsodie follows the definition of Golden Section proportions: the smaller is to the larger as the larger is to the whole. Here, we see the “smaller” as the introduction, in which the summation series (1, 6, 7, 13, 20) and opening musical events can be seen as a microcosm of the “larger” body, where the original series begins again and continues (1, 6, 7, 13, 20, 33, 53, 86, 139, 225, 364), and is linked to important structural events.46 Adding the introduction to the rest of the piece results in a total of 384 measures (Figure 1). The Hall manuscript, at 386 measures, and the original saxophone transcription and piano-score arrangement, both at 385, are inconsistent with this formula. While it is well known that André Caplet, described by Debussy as “the guardian angel of corrections” and “jolly good at counting,” would have understood how to exact the proportions, there is now circumstantial evidence to suggest Roger-Ducasse also knew of such methods. Caplet, as conductor (and as one who received two commissions from Hall), and Roger-Ducasse as score preparer, were both responsible for an authoritative first performance of Rapsodie, so it is reasonable to conclude they consulted each other regarding such specific details.47

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Golden Section proportions of Rapsodie.

Examples of Debussy “re-measuring” his own music are found in Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, and “Jardins sous la pluie” from Estampes, where, in both cases, the mathematical proportions were “made exact by repeating a bar.” The most famous example of re-measuring occurred in La mer, where Caplet “discovered” an “extra bar” in “De l’aube à midi sur la mer.” The published orchestral score from 1905 consists of 142 measures, while Debussy’s revisions of 1909 total 141 measures. For this revision, the original rhythmic values of two measures were simply halved.48 With Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone, the deleted measures duplicate music in the subsequent bar—again, as with La mer, only length was lost.

The Rapsodie manuscripts also indicate that Roger-Ducasse had a deep understanding of Debussy’s techniques of orchestration from around 1903 to 1905, the years of La mer. Roy Howat’s discovery of a musical “spiral” in the introduction of “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” reveals the composer’s clever use of instrumentation as metaphor. Here, at the center of a fifty-five-measure spiral, the tuba (the deepest coil of the brass section) is restored to the score, having been absent in “Jeux de vagues.” The same technique is used in a sixty-three-measure spiral beginning at the sinister and swirling “Plus Vite” (m. 246) in Rapsodie. Here, the tuba is introduced into the score for the first time at the center of the spiral in m. 273 (Figure 2).49

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Golden Section spiral of Rapsodie, mm. 246–309.

Additional evidence even suggests Roger-Ducasse understood that the composer himself intended that the ratio of saxophone (smaller) to orchestra-without-saxophone (larger) would follow Golden Section proportions. This may well reveal the meaning of the syntax of the title and renders all subsequent re-orchestrations of the work inauthentic.50 Roger-Ducasse followed closely Debussy’s path of orchestration, proportions, and musical imagery through his meticulous realization of Debussy’s short score. Entrusted to his careful supervision, the integrity of Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone, as published by Durand, has remained intact. It is a complete and authentic opus, labeled “L98” in François Lesure’s Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Claude Debussy.51

The original titles of the Roger-Ducasse manuscripts were: Rapsodie Mauresque pour orchestre et saxophone [MS 1001bis] (dedicated “à Madame Élise HALL, Présidente de l’Orchestral Club de Boston”) and Rapsodie Mauresque pour orchestre et saxophone obligé [MS 1001], with the date “(1903)” under Debussy’s name. These were sent (in June) to Durand’s chief proofreader, Lucien Garban, who obviously used Debussy’s holograph [Hall manuscript] to authenticate the accuracy of the Roger-Ducasse scores. Upon receiving Garban’s comments, Durand replied on 26 July 1918 with exciting news: “I thus learned through your letter about the necessary final corrections which need to be made in the Rapsodie pour [orchestre et] saxophone. It appears this instrument is once again fashionable—Fl.[orent] Schmitt is announcing to me the birth of a new work for saxophone and orchestra!!”52 Ironically, as one of Hall’s earliest commissions was now all but finished, her penultimate commission, Schmitt’s Légende, had just begun to be written. The orchestral score manuscript of Rapsodie [MS 1001], the piano reduction with saxophone solo [MS 1001bis] (and alternate English horn solo), Garban’s transcription for piano four-hands, and a set of orchestral parts were engraved in the fall of 1918.

With work on Rapsodie completed, Roger-Ducasse, writing to Emma Debussy on 28 October 1918, indicates the possibility of a premiere: “The older I get, the more I enjoy getting away from mankind especially musicians! Ah! Villain! Samazeuilh, liaison officer, has just bothered me to offer my [Spring] Night at ‘La Nationale’—beautiful concert at the old Champs-Elysée Theater. … Finally, if I agree, since I orchestrated it, Rapsody of Debussy: first performance.”53 In light of this claim, it is important to reiterate unequivocally that Roger-Ducasse did not “orchestrate” Rapsodie, but rather “created the orchestral score” using information contained on the Hall manuscript. While he did include instruments and revisions not indicated on Debussy’s sketch, all of his decisions were based on a thorough investigation of Debussy’s methods. This was a laborious and painstaking process, which involved hundreds of small decisions in order to create complete parts for every instrument. (As indicated, it cannot be discounted that Roger-Ducasse may well have consulted Caplet.) Thus, while Roger-Ducasse was not the true orchestrator of Rapsodie, he most certainly prepared the score with care and discretion, which is to say he was not merely a copyist.

Furthermore, his letter to Emma Debussy discloses that Roger-Ducasse’s position on withholding his Nocturne printemps and Debussy’s Rapsodie from the upcoming performance stems from his distaste for the perceived pretentiousness of those who organize such concerts (“the Society … a caste that I ignore”), and not from any perceived ownership of Debussy’s creation or denigration of his own work on this score.54 Ultimately, Durand published the work under the title Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone in January 1919.55 The Société nationale concert went ahead as originally planned on 14 May and remaining true to his word, Roger-Ducasse withheld his Nocturne printemps. However, Debussy’s posthumous contribution was finally given to the public, and the original manuscript finally delivered to Hall (by Caplet, perhaps?), some eighteen years after it had been commissioned. Elise Hall’s last known performance, in a condition of near total deafness, came on 28 January 1920, and featured André Caplet’s second commission (first performed in 1906) Impression d’automne, Elegie pour saxophone. She would never perform nor hear the Rapsodie.56

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