We are approaching the end of the year 2018, a year that not only marked the centenary of the end of World War I, but which also marks the 100th anniversary of the death of French composer Claude Debussy. The war had ravaged Europe, bringing the continent to its knees, and had dealt a savage blow to the cancer-wracked composer. Both the war and Debussy’s disease had, for a time, drained him of creativity. Then, toward the end, the composer once again picked up his pen and threw himself into composing a set of six sonatas for various instruments. For these works, Debussy derived inspiration from the court music of his French Baroque predecessors, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Francois Couperin, and revisited works from over the course of his own career, transforming the desolation of war into creative impetus to produce late works of penetrating, crystalized perspicacity.
Debussy’s works for solo piano remain popular even today, with two books of preludes particularly admired by music lovers. His short composition The Evenings Illuminated by the Burning Coal (Les Soirs Illumines par l’Ardeur du Charbon), written in 1917 but rediscovered only in 2001 in private hands, was not only the last piece for solo piano Debussy ever wrote, it can also be regarded as the envoi to his two books of preludes.
Throughout his life, Debussy had been an ardent admirer of the work of his compatriot Charles Baudelaire, and had composed a song cycle as the musical setting of Baudelaire’s poems. In a similar vein, at the end of the fourth prelude in Book 1, published in 1910, Debussy wrote “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (the sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air), a line from the poem Harmonie du Soir from Baudelaire’s famous collection Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The title The Evenings Illuminated by the Burning Coal came from another poem — The Balcony (Le Balcon) — from Flowers of Evil, serving as an apparent allusion to the first song of the younger Debussy’s song cycle. At the beginning of this semi-improvisational adagio work for piano, lasting a little over two minutes, Debussy invokes the melody from the Baudelaire-inspired prelude “Les sons et les parfums…” with traces of the melody from Canopic jar (Canope) from the second volume of preludes appearing in the middle section, coupled with musically animated yet fragmented snatches from Alternating Thirds (Les Tierces Alternees) and Fireworks (Feux d’Artifice), which conclude Book 2. Sadly, both the sounds and fragrances or the celebrative fireworks belong to another, more innocent world.
In 1917, when Debussy was penning his final composition for piano, World War I was coming to a close, but resources were still scarce. In the extremely harsh winter of that year, one indispensable commodity in particular — coal — was in short supply, and almost impossible to get hold of. A coal merchant that Debussy knew happened to be a music lover, and proposed that the composer write a short piece for him, and give him the manuscript; in return he would do his utmost to divert coal supplies to the Debussy household. Debussy agreed, and composed The Evenings Illuminated by the Burning Coal, a short piece revisiting melodies from some of his legacy works, to create what would be one of his most moving compositions.
(Translated by Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
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