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"The Prismatic Debussy"

CLASSICAL: The many colors of Debussy 

"The Prismatic Debussy"

Fans of the works of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) should be sure to invite themselves to the "Prismatic Debussy" Festival, a month-long series of concerts, lectures, and displays taking place at the Eastman School of Music, held to celebrate the composer's 150th birthday. Highlights include premieres of recently discovered Debussy songs, new compositions inspired by Debussy's works, and the display of original manuscripts. Each concert will feature a different aspect of Debussy and his works, with concert titles like "Extravagant Debussy," "Inspirational Debussy," and "Intimate Debussy."

The festival also gives ESM an opportunity to show off one of its prized archival possessions. At the Sibley Music Library, Special Collections Librarian David Peter Coppen has put on display an original manuscript of Debussy's "La Mer" and an autographed manuscript of "Minstrels."

"La Mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre" ("The Sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra") was composed by Debussy between 1903 and 1905. The manuscript was acquired by original Eastman School of Music head librarian Barbara Duncan, who had been recruited from the Boston Public Library and was charged by George Eastman and Hiram Sibley with building a world-class research collection.

Duncan's records "indicate that this was an important document related to the genesis of an important orchestral piece," says Coppen. "Debussy had only been dead a decade, but 'La Mer' was receiving great reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and Miss Duncan recognized it as an item that would only increase in value."

According to Coppen, much of the Sibley Music Library's early acquisitions were made at auction, as Duncan traveled between Rochester and London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin while most of Europe was recovering from World War I. This manuscript was purchased at auction in 1929 from the estate of Debussy.

Coppen points out that he is not a professional appraiser, but says, "Naturally, as a librarian, I do keep an eye on dealers' catalogues and all of us working in this profession have an idea what distinguished manuscripts are going for."

Coppen says that the Sibley Music Library manuscript of "La Mer" is an "entire, intact manuscript in such pristine physical condition, by a now-acknowledged master composer, of a top 100 orchestral works of any decade." He adds, "My confident assertion is it would easily go for seven figures."

Coppen says that for those who make the pilgrimage, ESM's manuscript of "La Mer" will offer a rare insight into the "active creative progress" of Debussy. "It is beautiful visually and esthetically," says Coppen. "One can discern the complete musical thread from start to finish."

"The basic rendering of music is black ink on the paper, but then after the musical notation with black ink, [Debussy] then goes to work in several layers in colored pencil and, in some cases, red ink," says Coppen. "He does many, many elaborations, annotations, and markings."

This particular version of the manuscript of "La Mer" is believed to be the last version prior to Debussy setting forth the complete orchestral score; it is a "short score," flowing across four staff gatherings. Debussy's original, full orchestral scores are housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and Coppen adds that the libraries have exchanged copies of the scores on microfilm to compare the versions and support scholarly advances.

Whether you're interested in scholarly pursuits or simply want to hear good music, among the many concert choices the festival also offers an entire day — on Saturday, October 27 — of scholarly papers, premieres of Debussy songs, and master classes linked to the Royal College of Music in London.

Eastman musicology professor Ralph Locke, like Coppen, cannot contain his enthusiasm for Debussy and, specifically, for Debussy's songs. "The songs are not nearly as well known as the piano music," says Locke. "I think the reason is that they are so subtle that you have to absorb the poem to really get into the beauty and magic of the music. In that sense, they are challenging. They are a multimedia experience of music and somewhat elliptical poetry."

The day will be divided into two parts. The morning session will include three scholarly papers about the "new" songs recently made available to the public, interspersed with performances of the songs. The afternoon will include one paper and then a performance of other songs by Debussy, performed by ESM students and, via Internet2, singers at the Royal College of Music. For each of the performances, the Debussy scholars will comment on the songs before and after they are sung, in the style of a master class.

Locke describes Debussy as having a "great sensitivity to the sound of language." He says that Debussy set to music some of the greatest poets, from Baudelaire to Verlaine to Mallarme, and he often set contemporary poets to music before other people did.

The very notion that music by Debussy continues to be "discovered" is a fascinating one to Locke. "It makes the process of writing music history very exciting, because new sources are being located all the time and we have to revise our sense of the composer's development, and some of our most comfortable generalizations get challenged. That's good to keep us honest."

The six songs that will be receiving premieres have been recently shared from private collections. One of the songs in private possession was examined by ESM professor Mary Rolf, who spearheaded this festival, and who convinced the private collector to allow her access to the score.

Unlike the Debussy works at the Sibley Music Library, which are catalogued and made freely available to scholars, musicians, and music students alike, the notion of the private collector seems contrary to the idea of composers composing for the public.

Locke takes a positive view, however, saying, "We need to be immensely grateful to the private collectors. Often they have saved materials from inadvertent destruction, being lost or thrown out, or they have recognized the potential value of something that was found in a used bookstall and held on to it. In general, they eventually understand the value of what's in the manuscript and they're happy to make it available to performers and the scholarly community."

Another interesting selection is the "Inspirational Debussy" concert event on Wednesday, October 17, for which Musica Nova, conducted by Brad Lubman, will perform new works by members of the ESM Composition Department inspired by Debussy's prelude "Des pas sur la neige" ("Footsteps in the Snow").

ESM composition professor David Liptak was one of the composers invited by Lubman to listen to the Debussy prelude to see whether it would inspire an original work. Liptak's work, "Footsteps," is an ensemble piece for 12 instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, piano, two violins, viola, cello, and bass.

When Liptak imagines Debussy's musical sensibilities had he lived in the present, 150 years after his birth, Liptak imagines a Debussy "concerned with color, a sense of suspended harmony — meaning harmony which does not have a quick motion — and figurative patterns."

You could argue that Liptak and Locke are coming at Debussy from the two end points: Liptak pulling Debussy into the future, Locke considering Debussy in his day.

Yet, in spite of all of these scholarly pursuits at Eastman relative to Debussy, Locke best expresses what it is that has enchanted audiences in Debussy's music. "There seems to be a moment-to-moment freedom, an unpredictability," says Locke. "Debussy wrote some of the least academic music ever composed."

"Prismatic Debussy" Schedule Highlights

"Debussy Treasures" Through October 27. Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music. Exhibit of Debussy manuscripts, including a complete working draft of "La Mer" and an arrangement for violin and piano of "Minstrels." (Free and open to the public.)

"Extravagant Debussy" Saturday, October 13, 8 p.m. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Concert featuring Eastman Philharmonia, Eastman School Symphony Orchestra, Eastman Wind Ensemble, Eastman Chorale, performing "Printemps," "Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien" (Acts IV and V), "Hommage à Rameau," and "Sarabande." (Free)

"Inspirational Debussy" Wednesday, October 17, 8 p.m. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Musica Nova performs works by Pierre Boulez and new works inspired by Debussy's piano prelude "Des pas sur la neige" by Eastman composers David Liptak, Brad Lubman, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Allan Schindler. (Free)

"Intimate Debussy" Saturday, October 20, 7 & 9 p.m. Hatch Recital Hall, ESM. Eastman faculty and students perform a prism chamber concert featuring non-stop, surround-sound performances, with arrangements of some of Debussy's best-known piano music and songs. (Free)

"Comic-Book Debussy" Thursday, October 25, 7 p.m. Memorial Art Gallery. A conversation with artist P. Craig Russell. (Free with museum admission)

"Theatrical Debussy" Friday, October 26, 8 p.m. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Eastman classical and jazz musicians, conducted by Matthew Brown, perform a cross-over arrangement of Debussy's opera "Pelléas Redux" to accompany P. Craig Russell's comic book "Pelléas et Melisande." (Free)

"Debussy Premieres" Saturday, October 27, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Hatch Recital Hall, ESM. Scholarship and performance of five newly discovered Debussy songs through guest scholars Denis Herlin (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Mylène Dubiau-Feuillerac (Université de Toulouse), Marie Rolf (ESM), and Jonathan Dunsby (ESM). (Free)

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