Dances sacrée et profane, L. 113

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          While others, notably Franz Liszt, were on the forefront of stylistic change during the nineteenth century, it is surely Claude Debussy who forever established entirely new ways of thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture. More than anyone, he truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century. And, along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative, and dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire. His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,” but that doesn’t really specifically tell you much. What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that really dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially “developing” musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw other ways of creating and working with musical ideas. His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of the German-speaking composers (all names we know so well!) that had dominated concert halls for a couple of centuries. There was opera, to be sure, and Italians had always held sway there, but in abstract music (no words) the Germans were generally king. Along comes Debussy with a refreshing alternative æsthetic.

          In a nutshell, Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part—large or small—had a rational, expected, and traditional relationships to every other part. Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways—considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block. He opened up new ways of composing and listening, and the musical world was changed forever.

          In keeping with Debussy’s orientation as a composer, he really never wrote any solo concertos (or symphonies, for that matter) in the traditional sense. But of course, he was a master of the orchestra, and did leave us with a half dozen works that may be designated “concertante,” that is, for orchestra and featuring a solo instrument. The Première Rhapsodie for orchestra and clarinet may be familiar. Dances sacrée et profane with harp soloist is an important example, as well.

          Over the centuries occasionally works come about from a desire to showcase an innovative or new instrument—certainly, Haydn’s trumpet concerto, written for the new, keyed trumpet comes to mind. And, as is often the case, deficiencies in the new design may ultimately consign the “innovations” to the dustbin of musical history. And so it is with the new kind of harp for which Debussy wrote the Dances. The harp—traditionally, associated with France than any other country—had been a diatonic (incapable of playing the sharps and flats) instrument. Thus, its practical employment in the orchestra did pose challenges. Which is why, among several reasons, that one doesn’t hear much use of the harp in orchestras of the eighteenth century. But, the advent of the double action pedal—or concert—harp in the early nineteenth century facilitated its accelerated employment. However, the increase in chromaticism in music of the late nineteen century led to the introduction in France of the “cross-strung,” or chromatic double harp to facilitate ease of playing all chromatic passages. It was a mixed success. The double row of strings poses additional challenges of its own, and though the design still is used in some cases, the traditional pedal harp is now predominant. Debussy, himself, indicated that the Dances sacrée et profane could be played on either kind of harp, or even on the piano.

          Composed in 1904, the two dances are in contrasting styles—the “sacred” dance is couched in somber melodies that evoke ecclesiastical chant, while the “profane” (in French meaning simply secular, not anything blasphemous) evokes the gentle sway of a rather droll secular dance, perhaps a waltz. Throughout, one hears many of Debussy’s signature musical characteristics: modal melodies, parallel harmonies, non-functional harmonies (think of harmonies that don't drive to cadence, but just “sound pleasant”), and of course, his marvelous mastery of orchestra color in the best French tradition. A subtlety that may be missed if you’re not a harpist are the many passages chockfull of chromaticism. Easy in many instrumental contexts, but a kind of tour de force for harpists! Debussy makes it all seem so facile.

--Wm . E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan