Pianist Jeffrey LaDeur is currently in the process of preparing all of the solo piano music by Claude Debussy for performance in time for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death on March 25, 2018. Today he brought a “progress report” for his Noontime Concerts (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. The program consisted entirely of the second book of preludes, a set of twelve that Debussy composed between 1911 and 1912. Each of the preludes was given a descriptive title; but, in the original publication, those titles only appeared on the final page, rather than as headers for each of the pieces.
LaDeur arranged his program as three sets of four preludes, providing descriptive background material prior to playing each set. This made the entire program somewhat longer than a “lunch break.” However, because his informed spoken material was as absorbing as his playing, there seemed to be few (if any) early departures.
While Debussy himself may have chosen to conceal his titles, LaDeur used his three introductions to provide explanatory justification. These served as excellent preludes for the preludes, so to speak, preparing those new to the music for awareness of key signifying features while refreshing the memories of the rest of us. What was most significant was how much diversity there was across those twelve titles, covering such sources as British literature (in one case in an edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham), other composers from both present (Maurice Ravel) and past (Jean-Philippe Rameau), an American clown, and a variety of images associated with different times and places.
Approaching such diversity four pieces at a time worked very well. The attentive listener had a viable number of “mind-sized bites” to keep in his/her head during each set. The result was that many in the audience probably found themselves aware of more of the subtle details behind the notes than they may have experienced on previous encounters with the music. I would, however, contest LaDeur having called his performance a “journey” through the preludes, since that suggested that there was some overall direction to the collection in its entirety. A more appropriate metaphor would have been a visit to a gallery, where the order in which works of art are experienced could just as easily be determined by the visitor as by those who initially hung the paintings.
Since this site discussed Debussy’s interest in the American influence of the cakewalk earlier today, it is worth noting that the cakewalk is again invoked in the depiction of that American clown, who performed under the name General Lavine. My one possible point of disagreement with LaDeur may have come from his explanation for “Canope,” referring the ancient Egyptian use of a separate “Canopic” jar to hold the vital organs of a mummified corpse, so they they would be available for retrieval in the afterlife. He suggested that there was an Egyptian flavor to the music, which may or may not have been a reference to some of the efforts of Camille Saint-Saëns to evoke impressions of the Egypt of Biblical times. However, Debussy’s music seemed to bear more of a family resemblance to some of the sections of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian), which evoked similar times but in a less idiosyncratic style.
Finally, it is worth noting that even Debussy was not above going out with a burst of fireworks, thus explaining the title of the final prelude. LaDeur confessed that this was the most difficult to prepare; but then, as the late music theorist David Lewin demonstrated in his book Musical Form and Transformations: 4 Analytic Essays, one can go on at great length teasing out the many technical elements out of which this piece was composed. For the record, the composers covered by the other three essays were Luigi Dallapiccola, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Anton Webern, not the sort of company usually associated with Debussy. It is also worth observing that, while Lewin was a master of description in technical terms, there is more than enough for the attentive lay reader to harvest from this particular essay, all of which provides a useful framework for a piece of music that tends to haul out everything but the kitchen sink over the course of only about five minutes.