Debussy: Danses sacrée et profane

Throughout the eleven years he spent as a student at the Paris Con­servatory and for the rest of his career as a composer, Debussy was considered a revolutionary. His unorthodox harmonies and sense of musical form antagonized both his teachers and fellow students and would inevitably stir up great controversy among those fortunate enough to be able to witness the premieres of his compositions.

Debussy loved to experiment with music, and his sense of adven­ture was no doubt ignited by the prospect of composing tonight's offering, which was commissioned in 1904 by the Pleyel company. Founded in 1807 by the esteemed pianist Ignaz Pleyel, the firm was quite prosperous well into this century. However, the reason for this commission was to herald what was potentially a revolutionary new instrument that had been invented by the company's chief director Gustave Lyon, a chromatic harp.

The standard harp used in orchestras (and the type to be used in this performance) is known as the double-action harp. It has only forty-six strings but possesses a range of six and a half octaves. Simply stated, this harp cannot play all of the possible chromatic (half­step) intervals at the same time. To make all of the pitches available, seven pedals are provided which can be raised or depressed in order to give the player three possible pitches on every string. Lyon wanted to solve this problem by giving the player a string for each chromatic note, and he did this by building the harp with two inter­secting rows of strings.

For a brief period, harpists were interested, but they found that the extra strings sacrificed the reso­nance and tone of the instrument, and they soon abandoned the chromatic harp.

The harp was a favorite instru­mental color among the Impressionist composers, probably because of the special effects pos­sible on it, especially the ability to play crystalline passages as well as musical rustles or blurs.

The Danses sacree et profane were written during the period that Debussy was composing his most ambitious orchestral work, La Mer, and a few years after the opera Pelleas et Melisande.

The Danse sacrée with its pastel transparency, modal harmonies, and aura of antiquity mark it as being related to the opera. It begins with a quiet but stately unison melody to which the harp responds with a theme of arpeggiated chords. Thereafter, the harp and strings meander peacefully through land­scapes of parallel harmonies quite

typical of Debussy, pausing here and there to refer back to the initial themes. The Danse profane is written in a pronounced triple meter, which gives this movement a much more stable foundation. Nevertheless, the interplay between harp and strings is much more capricious than in the first dance, particularly in the ebbs and flows of the themes and dy­namics that mark this section as a close relative of La Mer. As such it reflects the designation "profane," not as in the sense of profanity or obscenity, but profane in the sense of a love of nature and earthly existence.

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