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Composed: 1889; 1907

Length: c. 13 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tambourine, and triangle), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 9, 2002, Yasuo Shinazaki conducting

About this Piece

One third of the art songs Debussy composed were settings of the poems of Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). The poet’s influence on the composer was immense. A description of the poet’s style, one favoring insinuation over declaration, might even be applied to Debussy’s music. An accumulation of fleeting subtleties is more to the point than a grander revealed structure.

The first movements of Debussy’s Petite Suite of 1889 are drawn from two poems of Verlaine’s 1869 volume Fêtes galantes. The poems evoke the era of 18th-century aristocrats on country outings, the world depicted in the fanciful paintings of Fragonard and Watteau. Partiers assume the archetypal Commedia dell'Arte roles – there are countesses and rogues, priests and knights, all engaged in an atmosphere of frivolity.

In En bateau (Sailing), revelers in a boat have their minds on romantic trysts as they sail at dusk on a dark lake. Debussy’s music captures perfectly a mood of water-borne serenity and languor, opening with a kind of musical sigh that made the Petite Suite immediately popular with a wide audience.

But Verlaine’s poem has a wrinkle. There is a desire for romance, but no consummation. In fact, the poem ends with a wistfulness, despite a happy tone – promise unfulfilled. Acknowledging the challenge of capturing the words, here is the last stanza in the original and in three translations by C.F. MacIntyre, Norman Shapiro, and Martin Sorrell.

       Cependant la lune se lève
       Et l’esquif en sa course brève
       File gaîment sur l’eau qui rêve.

Meanwhile comes the moon and beams
       as the sailboat gaily skims
       briefly over waves of dreams.

Meanwhile, up comes the moon; the bark
       Gaily sails round the little park
       Over the water, dreaming, dark.

       Moon emerging;       
Small boat on short journey,       
Glide on water, dreaming.

And listen as Debussy’s music hints, just hints, at this dreaming and longing.

In the second movement, Cortège (Retinue), Debussy happily conveys Verlaine’s outward textual playfulness as a lady and her escort of a liveried monkey and pageboy retire upstairs. Nor does he miss the less-than-pure thoughts on the minds of her companions as their mistress proceeds unaware.

The final two movements, Menuet and Ballet, while not connected to specific poems, articulate broadly the nostalgia and the sparkle held in balance throughout the poems of Fêtes galantes.

In keeping with the theme of this program, it must be noted that the Petite Suite we hear now is not the piece Debussy composed at all, but is itself a kind of translation. Debussy’s suite was originally written for piano duet. This is the transcription for orchestra created by the composer’s colleague Henri Büsser.

- Grant Hiroshima