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Claude Debussy came of age as a composer during a particularly rich period in French cultural history. Around 1887, he began attending the Tuesday evening soirées at the apartment of his friend, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Regular guests included the sculptor Rodin, the painter Monet, poets Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry, and writers such as André Gide and Marcel Proust – a veritable Who’s Who of late 19th-century French visual artists and literati who were abandoning the grandiose gestures of the Romantic age.

Debussy is often linked with the Impressionist painters. Artistically, however, his soul was closer to the Symbolist poets who experimented with free verse and glorified the tenuous, the subtle, and the enchantment of the senses. Debussy’s music luxuriated in languid rhythms, exotic scales, and freely moving chords unbound by rules. His chief building block became color. A marriage of reason and sensuality, his unorthodox approach gave birth to an exquisitely wrought music of fragile beauty which went against every 19th-century trend from Beethoven to Wagner.

The 1890s number among the most productive years of Debussy’s life. From this decade date the Suite Bergamasque for piano, the landmark Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the seductive Nocturnes, most of his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and the only string quartet he ever wrote. Debussy was 31 when the Quartet appeared in 1893, the year that likewise saw the birth of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony and Verdi’s Falstaff. At the time, Debussy was partially under the influence of the old while simultaneously reaching into the future. His distinctive musical language would appear fully formed the following year in his quietly revolutionary Faun. Nonetheless, the Quartet stands as an extremely personal and original statement.

It was perhaps the premiere of César Franck’s String Quartet in 1890 that encouraged Debussy to venture into the realm of chamber music. Writing the Quartet turned out to be a difficult task. As Debussy confessed in a letter to his fellow composer and friend Ernest Chausson, “I’ve had to start all over again three times.”

Debussy felt that “Music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form. The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.” In his quest to shed the straitjacket of formula, Debussy strove to make his scores sound like improvisations. He also held the firm belief that passion didn’t need to be measured in decibels.

The essence of Debussy’s approach to quartet writing lay in its seeming spontaneity of sound. His inspired ear for original yet attractive melodies and harmonies empowered him to create an audaciously ultra-modern piece with startlingly beautiful effects in lieu of sheer shock tactics. In addition, he harbored an affinity for musical architecture in which the reappearance and transformation of themes replaced the traditional contrast and development that formed the crux of the Austro-Germanic musical thinking which had dominated European music during the 18th and 19th centuries. He adopted the “cyclical” method, advocated by Franz Liszt and carried on by Franck and his disciples, a method characterized by the recurrence of certain themes or motifs throughout a work. Debussy combined this cyclical idea with a light-handed variation technique that carried his motto theme through subtle ongoing transformations.

The vigorous motto theme from which Debussy fashions the entire Quartet appears at the outset. Cast in Phrygian mode, it undergoes changes in tempo, rhythm, and harmony as the movement unfolds. For the listener who wishes to follow the progress of his cyclical theme, Debussy grants it a striking melodic profile which remains recognizable through much of its cyclical path. In a nod to tradition, the movement features a lyrical second theme, which turns out to be a close relative to the principal theme itself. Instead of contrasting and developing these subjects in the orthodox manner, Debussy employs what he calls a “circulation” of themes. A mosaic of miniature variations based primarily on the second theme replaces a true development section, while the recapitulation and coda deliver further variations on the themes, cloaked in a rich texture of shifting harmonies.

Repetitious phrases lend a flavor of precocious minimalism (ahead of its time by a century!) to the beginning of the second movement. A dusky viola solo introduces the motto theme, recast now in rhythm, mode, and tempo.

The colorful backdrop of this rhythmic whirlwind runs the gamut from pinprickly pizzicatos to shimmering trills. Later, in a brief central episode, the first violin offers an augmented, more lyrical view of the theme. Over the years, the sonic luxuriance of this stunning scherzo movement has suggested to listeners everything from the spirited Gypsy dances of Andalusia to the hypnotic strains of Javanese gamelan music which had so enchanted Debussy at the Paris Universal Exhibit in 1889.

The motto theme appears most drastically altered in the Andantino, a contemplative movement which features muted soliloquies by viola and cello and an exotically distant key signature of D-flat major. Its mood recalls the sensuous ambience of the nocturne from the Borodin quartet, a piece Debussy perhaps heard during his youthful days in Russia as house pianist for Tchaikovsky’s generous patron, Nadezhda von Meck. Mutes are abandoned when the music escalates to the emotional climax of the work, a passionate interlude with hints of Pelléas et Mélisande, on which Debussy was working. In the end, the poignant theme quietly threads its way anew amidst lush muted surroundings.

Then, a pensive preamble reflects on various metamorphoses of the germinal theme before plunging into the mainstream of the finale. In the course of the movement, Debussy makes some concessions to tradition as the motto theme appears in inversion, imitation, and the slightest hint of fugato. The work concludes with a potent sample of the powerful, colorful string writing which sparked contemporary complaints that this vital quartet was “too orchestral.”

The piece was given its first public performance on December 29, 1893 by the prestigious Ysaÿe Quartet (to whom the work is dedicated) at a Paris Société Nationale concert at the Salle Pleyel. The critical reception was mixed. A few hailed Debussy as “one of the most gifted and original artists of the young generation.” Others condemned his “orgies of modulation.” The Quartet gained widespread fame only after Debussy achieved international acclaim for his Pelléas. In the beginning, even Ernest Chausson expressed reservations about the score. Promising his friend that he would write another more well-behaved quartet, Debussy optimistically published the present piece as the “First Quartet.” The composer reportedly commenced work on a second quartet soon thereafter, but it never appeared.

— Composer Kathy Henkel has written program notes for many musical organizations in Southern California