Debussy’s Second String Quartet?

July 22, 2011

It’s the masterpiece that Debussy titled First String Quartet that the Tokyo Quartet will bring to Jane Mallet Theatre, September 15 when they open Music TORONTO’s 40th anniversary season.

The Tokyo do not have a second quartet by Debussy in their repertoire. In fact, you won’t find a string quartet that does. But the French composer did promise to write a second quartet for his fellow-composer and sometime benefactor Ernest Chausson. “I’ll write another one which will be for you, in all seriousness for you,” Debussy wrote in February 1894, a few weeks after the première of the First.

“In all seriousness?”
Substitute the word ‘irony’ and you’ll get the picture.

Ernest Chausson - didn't like Debussy's quartet

Chausson hadn’t hidden his feelings about Debussy’s innovative, ground-breaking quartet from his friend. He was baffled by it, didn’t like it and told Debussy so in no uncertain terms.

 

The waspish Debussy was stung. So he promised to do things better next time around. As a parting shot to the slightly older, comfortably established composer he added, for good measure: “And I’ll try to bring some nobility to it.”

Irony again.

Debussy never wrote another letter to Chausson. He also broke a promise to dedicate the First Quartet to Chausson when it was published.

As for the title of the quartet that Debussy published – First String Quartet, in G minor, Op. 10 – irony again.

Debussy never gave any other composition an opus number and never specified a key elsewhere. He gave his music some of the most poetic titles in the business. (Already on the drawing board was the beautiful Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune). What Debussy is doing with that utilitarian title to the string quartet is sending up the traditional way composers title string quartets.

Perhaps he could have added the year of composition (1893) at the end of that title. Voilà! A title formal enough to be catalogued in the library of even the stuffiest institution in town. The Paris Conservatoire, perhaps? Debussy had recently spent more than a decade there, questioning the rules, infuriating his teachers.

Claude Debussy

Debussy’s quartet – his only quartet – is anything but formal. It’s a work of transcendent beauty and infinite subtlety of timbre, thematic variation and harmony, as you’ll hear when the Tokyo return to Music TORONTO.


Tokyo Quartet with Markus Groh. Debussy/Ryan/Brahms. Thursday, September 15, 2011 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto

Posted by Keith Horner

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