In these superfluous polarities that we set up, I can’t help favouring Mozart over Haydn, and Mahler over Bruckner/Richard Strauss. Similarly, I’m so enthralled by Ravel that encounters with Debussy make a more occasional pleasure for me.
One of Debussy’s most alluring works is the late Trio for flute, viola, and harp (1915; see e.g. this introduction). Having heard it a lot in my 20s, I’m just as enchanted now.
The instrumentation is one of those magical combos that was just waiting to be invented, like the shengguan ensemble of north Chinese ritual groups (e.g. sidebar Playlist #8), the classic bebop line-up with sax and trumpet, or the banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich.
Lily Laskine (left) and Marcel Moyse recorded it with Eugène Ginot in 1927 (first movement here); in this 1938 recording the viola player was Alice Merckel:
I still wonder if Noor Inayat Khan played it during her student years in Paris.
Evanescent, melancholy, and whimsical, fleeting vistas emerge and dissolve like Rouen cathedral in the mist. I relish the fleeting chinoiserie, and hints of Mahler’s Abschied at the end of the first movement, with a 7th on flute and harp hanging in the air over the harp’s major triad. And at the very end of the piece, the quirky extra chord never fails to delight me—it’s as if having spent so long gliding around in a sensuous, elusive sea of chromaticism, the performers are so surprised to find themselves actually landing on a chirpy conclusive cadence that they think they might as well confirm it for us with a final flourish.
The very end of the first and last movements.
I like this in-the-round performance at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, with Emmanuel Pahud, Yulia Deyneka, and Aline Khouri, from 2018:
And talking of Boulez, for the influence of this instrumentation on his sound-world, listen to Le marteau sans maître.
The Debussy Trio is a star exhibit in the chamber repertoire for harp, along with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (under my main Ravel page) and Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death. For more Debussy, Clair de lune is worth experiencing anew. For more Ravel chamber music, apart from the piano trio (also under Ravel), see Méfiez vous des blancs.
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A BTL comment somewhere there led me to this mysterious quotation from Goethe (cf. Cite not Faust):
Blasen ist nicht floten, ihr musst die Finger bewegen
To blow is not to play on the flute; you must move the fingers
—or he might just as well have said
To move the fingers is not to play on the flute; you must blow.
Either way, it’s small wonder that Goethe wasn’t in great demand as a music teacher (cf. Stewart Lee on the British Book Cover Awards; for another post dragging a German icon to the trash, see Beethoven’s melodic gift, yeah right). A more radical maxim would have been
Don’t just do something, stand there
(which I still think should have been coined by Miles Davis), or a Zen koan on the silent shakuhachi in an empty forest.
2 thoughts on “Debussy: flute, viola, harp”
Talking of talented musicians and brave people like Noor Inayat Khan, let’s hope Liberté on Sky History is as beguiling & beautifully staged as the play about Noor Inayat Khan GC at the #SouthwarkPlayhouse was. Noor was a pacifist & WW2 spy. Also, if you like wartime stories of female spies don’t miss Sara Burlington in #TheBurlingtonFiles series. See https://theburlingtonfiles.org.
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Thanks for these references!