Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, suspended cymbal, 2 harps, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 23, 1930, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with pianist Giles Gilbert
About this Piece
Debussy’s lifelong interest in Asian music began with a visit to the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889. There, while the rest of the attendees oohed and aahed over the Exposition’s centerpiece, the Eiffel Tower, the 27-year-old composer heard a Javanese gamelan ensemble: “If one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears,” he said of the experience, “one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.” The discovery marked the final step in the evolution of the young composer’s musical language, helping him resolve to break with the influence and techniques of Richard Wagner, whose shadow loomed large over French musical circles of the age.
Debussy composed the Fantaisie (Fantasy) for piano and orchestra in 1889–90, returning to it several times for revisions. He had studied piano at the conservatory, but his failure to win first prize in performance precluded a career as a virtuoso. The Fantaisie is a fairly early work, followed in his orchestral output by his first masterpiece, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, written, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Fantaisie is in three sections, conforming to the traditional concerto layout, fast–slow–fast. The work, however, is not cast as a 19th-century concerto, with the expected back-and-forth between soloist and orchestra, but rather with the piano soloist well-integrated into the orchestral texture.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction in which the solo oboe, joined by other winds, plays the movement’s principal theme. The melody displays a clear debt to the gamelan music Debussy had heard at the exposition: It is written using the Javanese madenda scale, a pentatonic scale whose notes (E, F-sharp, G, B, C) are shared with the Western key of G major. The exoticism of the theme permeates the movement, and, indeed, the work as a whole. Debussy uses a technique derived from one of his teachers at the Paris Conservatory, César Franck, to bind the work together, bringing back interrelated themes in a cyclical manner over the Fantaisie’s course. —John Mangum