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FastNotes

  • Debussy insisted En blanc et noir (1915) was not a comment on the first World War, but since virtually all of his correspondence from this period indicates a near obsession with the subject, this claim is debatable.
  • The central movement bears a dedication to the memory of a French army officer who had recently been killed in action, and there is no mistaking the music’s suggestions of distant bugle calls and quiet military drum rhythms.


In addition to his numerous duo-piano arrangements, Debussy wrote two of his own works for two pianos: Lindaraja is considered a warm-up to his masterpiece in this form, En blanc et noir (In black and white).

The composer wrote of En blanc et noir that the movements "derive their color and feeling merely from the sonority of the piano." Debussy insisted the work was not a comment on the first World War, but since virtually all of his correspondence from this period indicates a near obsession with the subject, it's hard to image the music is just about the piano. In fact, the title's coy reference to the colors of the piano keys could be heard as a double entendre, perhaps commenting on the abject ghastliness Debussy saw in war. The movements' titles and the recognizable musical associations in the work suggest that this is the case. The central movement bears a dedication to the memory of a French army officer who had recently been killed in action, and there is no mistaking the music's suggestions of distant bugle calls and quiet military drum rhythms.

The first movement opens with a layering of contrapuntal figures that rain down exuberant hopefulness, then devolves into a jagged, martial motif. The two ideas push against each other, becoming more and more compressed and ultimately fusing into a giant C-major chord. The middle movement depicts a profound sense of loss through long spaces of silence; long, still, low chords; a quiet, single-voice motive; and a high-register chime reminiscent of a distant drum beat. This movement's central section, more extroverted and noble, quotes liberally the familiar Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg (A mighty fortress) over the rubble and chaos of dissonant harmonies and rumbling bass patterns. The last, dedicated to Stravinsky, brings together the variety of textures and motives employed in the first two movements, delving at last into the rich possibilities of the piano with a black-and-white purity of musical expression.

- Meg Ryan is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Publications Assistant.