Debussy Rhapsodie (Rhapsody) Pt. I

The Rhapsody for clarinet and piano, (or orchestra) by Claude Debussy is one of the most characteristic of the French repertoire written for the clarinet during the last century and it remains of of the more difficult to execute in the proper style, really what one can call the “French” style. It is simply the best work in this style ever conceived for the clarinet. And, the execution of this work is full of misconceptions which can turn the work into one of great sterility and complete absence of its diaphanous quality.

Like the great Impressionist painters of several decades prior to its conception, it creates a kind of living snapshot of this beautiful ambience made up of whispering legato phrases, in a most syncopated manner, yet never sounding anyting but really buttery layers of sound by both clarinetist and pianist, regardless of the rhythmic mechanics written down.

As clarinetist, you must first choose a pianist who has played Debussy, the Preludes perhaps, and who understand real pianissimi in the context of accompaniment.

For you, as clarinetist, this work requires your most flexible reed and truest intonation able to both whisper and to to articulate forcefully when necessary.

All dynamics are to be realized literally, meaning you play exactly what is directed on the page by the composer.

Debussy was a composer who was able to articulate totally everything he wanted. The Rhapsody could easily have a name or series of names similar to “Footsteps in the Snow” or any of his works, even though the work was conceived to perform at the examinations at the Conservatoire and uses virtually every difficult facet of the technic of the instrument, it is a lovely work which must always be considered in that context.

Nothing should sound difficult to execute, really nothing. The legato must be seamless throughout the whole first section until to the quickening tempi and staccato passages. Even the first notes be the clarinetist are the most difficult to excecute and if you set yourself in the correct frame of mind, realizing that the quality of the open g must not be harsh nor sharp in pitch and must travel with total smoothness to the Bb and then in that exraordinary leap of faith that needs to be perfectly prepared in order to traverse to the C on the third space. These three notes are in many ways the piece. You must be able to play them with total evenness and smoothness each time you approach them, for they start the work and you cannot go unprepared. The three notes immediately show to the listener your ability to understand and to execute perfect legato in piano even the though venting of the C takes so much more control than that of the g and the Bb. It would seem that Debussy chose the notes (in piano) and alone that would immediately show the musical and technical maturity of the player.

This then is the mindset and the musical mindset you must enter into in order to really execute this work both for yourself and for the audience.

Now to the practical aspects of performing this piece:

As there seem to be many young players who learn myriads of notes and few that play them and understand the underlying ideas of the composer’s intent, the above is “for openers”. It is simply not enough to draw an incorrect translation of the French under the passage “doux et expressif” does not mean sweet and expressive. The meaning of doux here is more akin to soft rather then sweet, l but one will find this mistranslation in most of the xeroxed copies one sees, and so-on throughout the piece.

The piano for the first measure plays in octaves, rising octaves leaving one with the F concert (open g) upon which to start. This first clarinet must grow out of the first measure so that the connection is seamless, in other words, no discernible attack on the g and absolutely intune. One does not accomplish this just learning the notes. One has to know the composer, his style, his works and as much as one can of listening to (especially) this composer’s music.

Continuing on, the piano then repeats the first measure follwed by the clarinet repeat of the second, but this time it develops somewhat in bar 5, with a variation that is usually terribly over-emphasized by most players, because there are crescendo marks going toward the Ab in bar 5. Mostly one hears a “Straussian” crescendo that is almost laughable. Now, another good lesson: when one sees dynamics within the realm of pianissimo, one stays within that realm. Do not crescendo as if there is no tomorrow. Remember this is an understated work.

If one can “get” these first few measures one is well on the correct way.

The most important breath is the first one, frequently misinterpreted by the younger player. There is number 1 at bar 11 (on my copy), but the breath occurs at the conclusion of bar 14; yes, after the low c. Take a generous breath, the piano will not interrupt and then continue and do not take a breath until after the first b natural in bar 18(if you can). The breath at bar 18 is also a big (though inaudible) breath. After that the works begins to pick up or become more cumulative. Thinking “faster” will take you away from the music.

And the key changes as well. If you have taken a good breath the next passage is usually not difficult, however the understanding that this is a bridge passage, en serrant, meaning beginning to run until one arrives at the tempo which is twice as fast :”Le double plus vite” containing the famous staccato triplets.

Please please, please, remember that staccato comes from the word stacciari, which means separate, not necessarily short. This is one problem, disease if you will, in which most clarinetists participate apparently with great joy.

Short and separate are two different words, with different meanings. How short one makes the note is entirely dependant upon the style of the composer and his work.

It is not having to do with making the note so short as to swindle it out of its written value. These are not 16th notes, followed by 16th rests, or 32nds, which is the usual rendering of clarinetists. Shortissimo, not a pleasant sound and emulated by none of the other woodwinds, expecially not the flute not the oboe, but sometimes by the bassoon (on occasion). Remember this: an eighth note is still and always an eighth note, played full value, unless specified by the conductor. If the conductor says, “short!” make it that way, however if not, rely on your understanding of rhythm and style and their execution in performance, and as always the style and the intent of the composer.

How do ones get these precepts? Only one way, and that is by listening and by study. Your teacher can help, if he will, but some do not, relying on the student. In other words, if the student gets it, he is talented, if not, well, then forget about him. Sound wrong? A bit too realistic, perhaps, but not incorrect. 

I played this work in the Geneva Competition in 1960 (yes, I am old) and got to hear the other players rehearsing, the best time ever, for there is more to learn listening to a french or a swiss player doing the Debussy. What is remember specifically is the place after the tempo returns to the beginning tempo and then starts to cook with the piano with its special short explosions and the 32nd note arpreggios in the clarinet. What this player did was to play the 32nds just a bit slower than written. God, it was beautiful. The piano has nothing rhythmic there, just sounds, and the clarinet can well afford to play very clearly and without rushing. The player did it and I have always played it the same way, and have never been sorry.

Actually, another terrific precept. Rapid notes must always sound slightly slower. I coud write a book about the presentation of velocity, however this is about Debussy and his marvelous Rhapsody.


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