Debussy: Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp

note by Roy Howat (1988)


In 1914 the outbreak of war reduced Claude Debussy - and several other

artists - to almost complete silence, until, in Debussy's own words, he

managed to "rediscover music" in the summer of 1915, reaping a rich harvest

of twelve piano Etudes, the two-piano suite En blanc et noir, the Cello

Sonata, and the trio Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. It was to be almost

Debussy's last work; the onset of his last illness left him with only enough

strength to complete his Violin Sonata before his death in 1918. In a letter

Debussy described the trio Sonata as "in the ancient, flexible mould with

none of the grandiloquence of modern sonatas." Despite the war clouds

filling Europe, it evokes inner worlds, sometimes through the masks of the

Commedia dell'arte, sometimes through a feeling of dances of ancient times.

For all its conciseness, its emotions are intense, and Debussy, on first

hearing it performed, did not know whether to laugh or cry.


Schoenberg: Fifteen Poems from "The Book of the Hanging Gardens"


The first performance of the Fifteen Poems from "The Book of the Hanging

Gardens" took place in Vienna on 14 January 1910. In the original program

notes, Schoenberg made the following statement:

With the "George-Lieder," I have succeeded for the first time in approaching

an expressive and formal ideal which has haunted me for years. Up until now,

I lacked the strength and the self-assurance to realize it. But now that I

have started definitely upon this road, I am aware that I have burst the

bonds of a bygone aesthetic; and, foresee the opposition which I shall have

to overcome; I feel the heat of the animosity which even the least

temperaments will generate, and I fear that some who have believe in me up

till now will not admit the necessity of this evolution.


Schoenberg was stimulated by the writings of Stefan George, the visionary

symbolist poet. He turned in an entirely new direction, producing music that

was characterized by greater refinement, economy of means, and

understatement. Gradually abandoning traditional tonality, Schoenberg

uncovered a whole new world of sound in his settings of George's poetry - in

succession, the last two movements of the Second String Quartet, Op. 10, the

Op. 14 song, "Ich darf nicht dankend," and most decisively, Fifteen Songs

from "The Book of the Hanging Gardens," Op. 15, where he loosened the

restrictions of tonality altogether.


Schoenberg may have been attracted to George's ideal of an aristocratic art,

so much like his own, and his opposition to the slovenliness and

sentimentality of the poetry of the time, or he may have been searching for

a new mode of expression in a period of personal and spiritual crisis which

led him into trying his hand at painting.


In each of the 15 poems of the cycle, Schoenberg finds the appropriate means

- a figure, a chord succession, a melodic fragment - to express the

underlying meaning of the text. As he states in his article "The

Relationship to the Text": "I had completely understood the poems of Stefan

George from their sound alone." To a certain extent he follows the formal

patterns of the poetry by recurrent musical forms (aba), though partially in

most cases, and by constant variations of a principal musical idea. The

vocal line covers a whole range of lyrical and recitative-like utterances,

sometimes within the same song, and although a larger vocal compass than

usual is covered, Schoenberg generally accommodates the singer by treating

the highest pitches 'forte' and the lowest pitches 'piano' or 'pianissimo.'

The voice and the piano partake of an intimate relation throughout, often

intertwining in close imitation or by overlapping one another. The

subtleties of expression follow those of the poetry in every regard,

demanding the highest degree of artistic sensitivity from the performers.

Although there is no explicit story within the cycle, the poems suggest in a

very mysterious and removed way a tale of a love affair against a luxuriant

background ("the hanging gardens"). The paradise of a strange land is

depicted in the first two poems, followed by the path pursued by the

apprentice to reach his beloved in the next three poems. His intense

yearnings (poems 6-9) find their fulfillment in the following four poems,

before disillusionment sets in, as the garden fades along with love in the

last two poems of the cycle. In the short fourteenth song, one line of

melody depicts with the utmost economy of means the flickering light of

winter's storm, and serves as a prologue to the dramatic final song, the

fading away of love in the ruins of Eden. In this song, the longest in the

cycle, the piano provides both a lengthy introduction and conclusion to the

ultimate act of rejection and despair.


Song Translations (by Linda Trotter)


Under the protection of dense leafy depths

where from stars fine flakes snow,

soft voices proclaim their sufferings,

fabled animals from brown gorges

spew streams into marble basins,

from them little brooks rush lamenting;

candles came to ignite the bushes

white forms divide the waters.



Groves in these paradises

alternate with meadows of flowers,

halls, gaily-painted tiles,

beaks of slender storks ruffle

ponds scintillate with fish,

rows of birds faintly gleaming

trill on slanting roofs,

and the golden rushes murmur -

yet my dream pursues only one thing.



Tell me on which path

she may pass by today -

that from the richest chest

I may fetch delicate woven silks,

pluck roses and violets;

that I may spread my cheek

as a stool under her sole.



To all labors I am henceforth dead.

To call you close with my senses,

to spin new tales with you,

service and reward, concession and prohibition,

of all things only this is needed;

and to weep that images always flee,

which flourished in beautiful darkness -

when the cold, clear morning threatens.



You lean against a silver willow

by the river bank; with the fan's still lace

you shield your head as if with lightning

and roll your jewels as if playing.

I am in the boat, which leafy arches watch over,

into which I vainly bade you step...

the willows I see bending lower

and flowers scattered in the water, drifting.



Speak not always of the leaves, the wind's prey,

of the dashing of ripe quinces,

of the tread of the destroyers late in the year.

Of the trembling of dragonflies in thunder storms

and of lights whose glimmer is inconstant.



We peopled the evening-gloomy

arbors, bright temples, paths and flowerbeds

joyfully - she with smiles, I with whispers

Now it is true that she is going forever.

Tall flowers pale or break,

the glass of ponds pales and breaks

and I flounder in decomposing grass,

palms with pointed fingers prick,

the hissing throng of brittle leaves

are driven fitfully away by invisible hands

outside, around the ashen walls of Eden.

The night is overcast and sultry.