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Debussy and Rodrigo: Themes and variations

17 April 2018: Stratford ArtsHouse
18 April 2018: Town Hall, Birmingham

  • Claude Debussy – Children’s Corner, L.113
  • Joaquín Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez
  • Claude Debussy – Petite Suite, L.65
  • Georges Bizet – Symphony in C

Today’s concert features two orchestral arrangements, that, on hearing – like Grieg’s Holberg Suite, played earlier in the season – readily draw a very effective instrumental veil over their pianistic origins. As I wrote last November: “the effects [Grieg] conjures make it difficult to believe that this was originally composed for piano…! So reliant is the suite on the startling textures only strings can produce, that it feels utterly original.”

The difference, here, is that Debussy’s works were arranged by other musicians: each of whom, though, knew the composer, and his music, exceeding well. They therefore both succeed in exploring and exploiting the instrumental inferences the original compositions contain, whilst remaining sensitive to their quintessence: bringing further life and force to the stories held within. For instance, the mystical pipes and horns of the Petite Suite’s ‘Menuet’ are given wistful flesh by Henri Büsser, with his inspired utilization of the cor anglais; whilst ‘The little shepherd’ of Children’s Corner is blessed, by André Caplet, with his own sonorous flute (in the shape of an oboe…).

Büsser, by the way, was a quite remarkable man: living to the age of 101. In an interview given on his 100th birthday, in 1972, he recounted how he had approached his friend for permission to transcribe Petite Suite – “already having the orchestration in my head”. “Oh!” replied the composer, “you can’t know the joy you bring me; with my whole heart I authorize you to do this!” Indeed, Debussy conducted today’s arrangement many times: it being such a perfect example of the arranger’s skilful art.

Coincidentally, Petite Suite – like Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, which precedes it today – has also been arranged for brass band: in fact for the very same ensemble (the astounding Grimethorpe Colliery Band) that appears in the film Brassed Off – and that so helped contribute to its well-deserved fame. No less valid, the result is proof that fresh truth and beauty can frequently be found when music is dressed in such different, but befitting, clothes.

In writing my programme notes for Debussy’s ravishing music, I have therefore listened to (and sometimes played through passages from) the original pieces, before absorbing myself in the orchestral arrangements: hoping to discover and describe (if not always explain) some of the magic that has been worked upon them.

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