Debussy's Luminous Piano Music Recast for Orchestra

Free Download: The 'Passepied' from Debussy's Suite Bergamasque

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Listening to the orchestration of a familiar work can be a little like watching a colorized "Casablanca" or “The Maltese Falcon.” The original chiaroscuro shadows are washed out in favor of unnatural, pasty hues. Obviousness replaces ambiguity. In some cases, a creator's intentions are trashed.

Yet Claude Debussy was more fortunate. The composer had a number of colleagues and later admirers who were intimately familiar with his style, and at their best, they were able to not only translate but transform his works for piano to orchestra. In the sixth volume of their highly regarded survey of Debussy orchestral works, Jun Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon present five diverse works originally written for solo and duo-piano in striking orchestrations.

Of particular interest is Debussy’s one and only attempt at writing a symphony, only the first movement of which he completed. American composer-arranger Tony Finno provides an inspired orchestration of this neglected gem of a piece. There’s Robin Holloway’s inspired 2004 rescoring of En blanc et noir, in which the arranger blended some orchestration ideas from Debussy's Jeux, while pointing to the work's Stravinsky tendencies.

Also on this collection are the Suite bergamasque, originally for piano, in orchestrations by Debussy contemporaries Gustave Cloez (three movements) and André Caplet (one: the ubiquitous Clair de lune) and Printemps, originally for wordless female chorus and orchestra, heard here in a Henri Büsser arrangement without chorus. Büsser also contributes a graceful realization of the Petite Suite (made under Debussy’s watchful eye). While some listeners may prefer the piano originals at the end of the day, Märkl and the Lyron Orchestra endeavor to make every piece sound like a treasured masterwork. 

Weigh in: What do you think of orchestrations? Are they vandalizing the originals, like poorly colorized films? Or are they breathing fresh life into familiar pieces?

Orchestre National de Lyon
Jun Märkl, conductor
Debussy Orchestral Works, Vol. 6 - Suite bergamasque / Petite suite / En blanc et noir
Available at

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Comments [5]

Michael Meltzer

Perhaps at the nub of this whole discussion is the mistaken perception that a piano composition is a skeleton, a sketch or otherwise incomplete entity, and that only in orchestration is it full and complete.
That logical construct is a rational conclusion to be arrived at by either the musically deaf, or by a person with a sincere dislike for the sound of the piano. Neither has any place in programming for a music station.
It is not possible for anyone with an ear to listen to the blood-and-thunder recordings of the Mussorgsky "Pictures at an Exhibition" by either Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatislav Richter, and call either one a "skeleton " of anything, the Ravel orchestration notwithstanding.

Sep. 30 2011 07:55 AM
Wanda from NYC

I can express exactly what Mr. Meltzer said (about this orchestral rendition of Passepied) in just two words: IT STINKS

Sep. 29 2011 02:36 PM
Michael Meltzer

One of the reasons that orchestration of piano music must "miss the mark" is grounded in the actual physics of the modern piano (1870's through today). The total string tension of a 9-foot Steinway is officially measured at 45,000 pounds. For reasons of compensation for softwood rim construction, the tension in Far Eastern pianos is even higher.
Most of this high tension is concentrated in the upper half of the scale, and results in an effect known as "enharmonicity," a distortion of the overtone structure into a slight upward drift. The first overtone or subdivision of A-440 in a violin or other instrument of normal tension is A-880, exactly an octave higher. On the piano, the first overtone is A-881 or 882. Octaves in the upper register in the orchestra are "true" and beatless, on the piano they are already charged with a slight dissonance. Compare the octaves in Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #6 on the piano with the orchestration, you immediately notice the energy in the former, and the lack of it in the latter!
As you go up the scale, the phenomenon intensifies, as you add more complex chord tones, the differences compound themselves. Sonorities so carefully arrived at by Debussy, partly by trial-and-error at the keyboard, are actually nowhere to be found in the orchestrated versions. This is so very clear in a slow piece, like the Sunken Cathedral!
Conductors are supposed to be gifted with superior hearing. It is almost shameful that they undertake these arrangements, and one has to wonder about their artistic goals.
It is also why the analogy of "colorization" of an old film is a false analogy. In most cases, "color" is actually being subtracted, not added!

Sep. 26 2011 05:46 PM
Neil Schnall

Mr. Meltzer is, as ever, most insightful.

Sep. 26 2011 12:22 PM
MIchael Meltzer

The case for piano originals is very strong but at the same time, tough to defend, because most people reading this have probably heard wonderful orchestras, but most have not heard the very best pianos, maintained in their best condition and played by the most capable piano colorists.
Mass production has created, at every level, a proliferation of serviceable and presentable pianos, but ones usually not capable of executing the best intentions of Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and other masters of sonority.
The perception of what really fine piano sound actually is, is therefore very different from listener to listener, and I also believe that the very best playing also sounds a bit odd to most recording engineers and they tend to water it down.
Nevertheless, any Debussy under the fingers of a Ciccolini, a Kocsis or an Aimard, and the pianos they would choose, should amaze and enchant, far more than any orchestral transcription can possibly be expected to.
It also should be understood that many transcriptions of Debussy piano works done during his lifetime were undertaken only because of the insistence of Debussy's publisher, Durand et Fils. This was also true initially of Ravel (same publisher), but Ravel was delighted with the task, dove in wholeheartedly and literally created an art form.

Sep. 26 2011 05:16 AM

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