Tag Archives: Debussy

Cat and Mouse: imagining Debussy’s Serenade of the Doll

It’s amazing what strange but illuminating thought-processes occur when you’re rehearsing…

The Scholars’ Lunchtime Concert in March will be commemorating the centenary of the death of Debussy in a programme of chamber works combined with images from the Impressionist era; one of the works is ‘Serenade of the Doll,’ from Children’s Corner, a suite of piano pieces dedicated to Debussy’s then three-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (known as Chou-Chou), in an arrangement for violin and piano.

Lydia Cheng

‘Serenade of the Doll’ is a surprisingly moving jewel-like miniature, using the pentatonic scale to evoke the porcelain doll in a sprightly triple-metre. Working in rehearsal with third-year Music Scholar and violinist, Lydia Cheng, we were looking at ways to bring the contrasts to the fore, to explore the lilting waltz-like feel and the delicate staccato passages that give the piece its character. The contrasting textures follow each other quite quickly, and we were examining how much depth of tone was suited to the central section.

At one point, we’d been talking about the way the melodic line seems to nudge itself along, followed by a rising minor third and a sudden octave leap; it’s skittish, ungainly, as though something in the child’s nursery has fallen over.’It’s like a cartoon,’ Lydia observed at one point, ‘you know, where the characters tip-toe down a staircase. It’s a bit like Tom and Jerry!’

So, with this in mind, we played through the entire piece again – and suddenly, it came to life. We realised that the music isn’t always about a rose-tinted recollection of childhood, of a panoply of perfect toys tidily on display in a nursery; sometimes, it can be about the trips and tumbles too, the knocks and tiny accidents, the cheerful blunders that are a part of finding your feet as a toddler. This is reflected both rhythmically as well as in the harmonic language, as it trips lightly from parallel ninths through chromaticism and touches of whole-tonality; it’s finding its own harmonic feet too.

Here’s Debussy himself playing on a piano-roll:

I don’t think anyone has channeled Tom and Jerry in performing Debussy before, but it certainly works. Come along to the performance on Weds 28 March to hear it for yourself…

This floating, fleeting world: in rehearsal

As a curtain-raiser to the performance of Tokaido Road, which comes to the Gulbenkian Theatre on 23 May, the lunchtime concert the day before is an exploration of the meeting-point between poetry and music for two pianos, set against a backdrop of some of the Hiroshige prints which inspired both poetry and opera.

Pianists Matthew King and myself, together with poet Nancy Gaffield, part of the Creative Writing team in the School of English and author of the original Tokaido Road cycle of poems, spent yesterday exploring the programme which we have put together, which intersperses music by Debussy, Ravel and Matthew himself with poems from the cycle, which Nancy will be reading. There is some wonderful connectedness between the words and the music – a phrase in a poem is echoed by a rising melodic shape; the opening arc of a poem emerges out of a slowly-dying piano chord; a cluster-sonority echoes the tone of one of the Hiroshige prints which is projected above the performers. We spent several hours immersed in floating words and chords in the darkened concert-hall, playing with moving between music and poem.

The concert will take place on Friday 22 May at 1.10pm, admission is free, more details here: come and immerse yourself in time-out-of-place with music, poetry and print.

The Minstrel Effect: music and acoustic space

I was struck the other day, whilst reading Donald Mitchell’s excellent book Cradles of the New, by a passage in which he describes Debussy’s Fêtes as ‘one of the earliest explorations of acoustic space.’ There is a section in the work, the middle movement of his orchestral Nocturnes, in which a march-theme appears in the orchestra, grows louder and then recedes. Mitchell suggests Debussy is creating the sense of a marching band appearing and receding into the distance, and the work is re-creating the effect of music moving through space.

This practice of moving sound around, it seems to me, becomes an increasingly significant aspect of composition in twentieth- and twenty-first century music: think of the lone trumpeter in Ives’ The Unanswered Question or the structural arrangement of the score in Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum which reflects the layout in St. Mark’s, Venice; the off-stage ensemble in Mahler’s Resurrection symphony; or Turnage’s About Time, for modern ensemble and the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where the initial brass chorale is played by instruments arrayed around the tower of Ely Cathedral.

The movement of sound around the performance venue (I’m having to avoid the phrase ‘concert hall,’ given the nature of the Turnage piece!) has become a very real phenomenon with the advent of amplification in performance, in particular with electro-acoustic music: rather than move the performers around the space, the sound itself can be transported around the environment. Think of Stockhausen, or Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos: no longer is the sound static, in the sense that it is being created in one place in relation to the listener: now, the actual sonic space in which the listener is immersed can be altered and moved – the distribution of sound itself becomes as much a part of the compositional process, and the listening experience, as is the choice of instrumentation or harmonic modulation.

Medieval minstrels performed in the city streets, at festivals and mystery plays, playing as they moved, often in order to advertise their playing and draw listeners towards the eventual site of the performance. The sonorous music of Gabrieli in the Renaissance period was working with its acoustic environment, exploring textures and effects dictated by the intended performance space. Modern concert audiences can have a similar experience without leaving the comfort of their seats: the music is moving, receding, diminishing, or growing louder all around them.

Listening to music is no longer about being a fixed point in a static sonic environment: we can be moved by sound, in more ways than one.