TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.
Prelude and Fugue
It will come as a surprise to many people that Debussy wrote a Prelude
and Fugue for organ - a work of his maturity too - but there it is,
the title page proudly announcing 'par Claude Debussy, Organiste Français'.
It would appear that he had intended writing a set of at least three similar
pieces, all based on old French baroque forms, for at the end of the manuscript
he has pencilled: 'No. 2 - Toccata, Aria and Passacaglia? No. 3 - Prelude,
Chaconne, Canon and Chorale?' If death had not intervened, what amazing
new facets of this chameleonic composer would we not have seen? Alas! all
that survives is this solitary Prelude and Fugue.
From the start it is clear that Debussy is not going to model
himself on J. S. Bach, or anyone else for that matter. In the Prelude he
ingeniously intertwines five (maybe more - who can tell?) French folk songs
into the texture over a C-flat pedal note. The contrasting middle section
- also over a C-flat pedal - introduces new ideas in the form of 'The Marseillaise',
'Von Himmel Hoch', 'Bobby Shafto' and 'Le Drapeau Belge'. Was Debussy trying
to tell us something here? - the effect is, to say the least, unsettling.
Even more singular is the Fugue, whose subject will be instantly recognised
as the tune of 'Clair de Lune' squared up and expanded. There is a great
deal of unorthodox fugal-writing, including copious parallel 5ths and octaves,
but I think that we must assume that Debussy was doing this deliberately.
(It has to be admitted that Debussy's knowledge of fugal method seems to
have been rather hazy, a fact borne out by some pencilled marginalia on
his manuscript: '? Middle entries -? Double Counterpoint -? Stretto: check
After the final entry of the exposition, he seems to lose interest in
the fugue altogether and we are thrust into the impressionistic sound-world
of his piano pieces: 'Pagodes' makes a brief appearance, followed by 'Soirée
dans Grenade' and a virtual replay of 'Minstrels', and this extraordinary
piece reaches its conclusion with the final cadence of 'Golliwog's Cakewalk'.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment - certainly for organists - is the organ
writing, and particularly Debussy's limited use of the pedal-board. In fact
he uses only one note (the C-flat) throughout the Prelude and doesn't involve
the pedals at all in the Fugue until the final chord (C-flat major). One
cannot help wondering whether his heart was fully in the work.
Copyright © 13 January 2000, Trevor
Hold, Peterborough, UK
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