Composed: 1887; rev. 1912
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (cymbals, snare drum, triangle), harp, piano (4 hands), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 10, 1976, André Kostelanetz conducting
In January 1885, Debussy moved to Rome to take up residence at the Villa Medici, having finally won the Prix de Rome the previous year. He complained about everything in letters back to Paris and lived mostly apart from his colleagues, playing the score of Tristan in his room, as a friend at the Villa remembered. "At that time I was a Wagnerian to the point of forgetting the simple rules of courtesy," Debussy himself recalled much later.
With the Prix de Rome came the obligation to return "envois," works showing the artist's development during the residence. "The work I have to send to Paris is giving me a lot of trouble and causes me to lead a life compared to which convicts have a leisurely time," the ever-grumbling composer wrote in February 1887. "The idea I had was to compose a work in a very special color which should cover a great range of feelings. It is to be called Printemps, not a descriptive Printemps, but a human one.
"I should like to express the slow and labored birth of beings and things in nature, their gradual blossoming, and finally the joy of being born into some new life. All this is without a program, for I despise all music that has to follow some literary text that one happens to have got hold of. So you will understand how very suggestive the music will have to be - I am doubtful if I shall be able to do it as I wish."
Debussy's official mentors back in Paris perceived his interest in color, but were otherwise baffled. The report on the piece by Henri Delaborde, secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, is often quoted because it is the earliest known association of the term "impressionism" with Debussy's music. "M. Debussy assuredly does not trangress by platitude or banality. He has, quite to the contrary, a pronounced, even too pronounced, tendency toward the pursuit of the strange. One recognizes in his case a feeling for musical color, the exaggeration of which makes him too easily forget the importance of precision of design and form. It is strongly desired that he guard against this vague 'impressionism' that is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art."
The two movements of this "symphonic suite" function basically as a prelude (the gradual blossoming) and dance (the joy of new life). The gentle, open tune heard at the very beginning provides much of the material, blooming through thematic transformations. Condescension is a commonplace reaction to this early work, suggesting it reveals only an incipient style, but it certainly sounds like Debussy, in color if nothing else. Debussy originally scored the piece for orchestra and a wordless chorus, but his manuscript was lost. In 1912 Henri Büsser orchestrated it - under Debussy's supervision - from the only existing source, a reduction for chorus and piano duet. The result is often uncharacteristically square music inhabiting an utterly characteristic sonic environment.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.