Saturday, 28 September 2013

Harriet Cohen: Debussy’s Claire de Lune & La Cathédrale engloutie

I have always loved Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ from the Suite bergamasque. In fact, the orchestral version of this work was one of the earliest pieces of French music that I can consciously recall. A few months ago, I reviewed the excellent 3-disc set of Harriet Cohen’s ‘Complete Solo Studio Recordings’ released on APR Recordings APR7304.  I had first come across an old record of Harriet playing ‘Cornish Rhapsody’ back in the 1970s and was suitably captivated. I concluded my review by noting that ‘the reader may well divine that I am still half-in-love with Harriet some 40 years after first discovering her: that may well be true. However, I would challenge any person to listen to her performance of Debussy’ Clair de Lune and not be impressed, challenged and moved’. This performance has since become a regular feature of my listening pleasure. The original 12” 78rpm record also featured Debussy’s evocative ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ from Book 2 of the Preludes.  The two pieces were recorded on 26th January 1948 on Columbia DX1496 priced 5/9d (29p).

The Gramophone reviewer (September 1948) writes: - The disc unfortunately came too late for review last month, in which list it appeared. Many people will doubtless have bought this recording of two of Debussy’s most popular piano pieces, and I imagine that most of them will be enjoying Miss Cohen’s playing by now. She gets the atmosphere of both pieces beautifully. I particularly like the Cathédrale, which she builds to a fine climax with big and full tone most excellently recorded. (There are some wonderful whacking bass notes.)
In ‘Clair de Lune’ she avoids any over-sentimentalising which may disappoint some people, but the piece is so often revoltingly slushed over by popular cafe ensembles these days that if there are people whom they lead astray, they would do well to get used to Debussy’s exquisite piece as it is played here. Altogether an attractive disc.’

Both pieces require considerable strength of pianism to play well. E. Robert Schmitz has written about ‘Clair de Lune’ that ‘the extraordinary popularity obtained by this composition should not induce the musician to underrate its importance. After all, not all that is popular is trivial.’  He goes on to suggest that this piece is ‘slaughtered in public more often than revealed.’  Debussy himself has written that this piece ‘...is inscribed in Nature. It must be in intimate accord with the scenery.’
Writing in her exploration of piano music Music’s Handmaid, Harriet Cohen begins by suggesting that many pianists had told her that they ‘really did not know what to do with this piece.’ From her point of view she understood this work to be of ‘no great technical difficulty, easy to memorise, rather quiet, and not very quick.’  She is correct in acknowledging that all listeners know and love this piece. It has unfortunately become a work that is ‘hackneyed’ by amateurs. She believes that ‘its apparent simplicity is a delusion and a snare, and because it is so easily and quickly learned, its inner message may never reveal itself.’ Her pupils that presented this piece for a lesson have often not dedicated much time to its interpretation and preparation: they rather hope that somehow it will ‘come off.’ Before it is halfway through, however, it is clear that it has not succeeded. Her major critical premise about ‘Clair de Lune’, as well as most of Debussy’s other piano works is that colour and rhythm are interdependent.


‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ is the most ‘mystic’ of the ‘Preludes’. It is programmatic and makes clear the old Breton legend that Lalo had used in his opera Le Roi d’Ys. The story tells how on occasion the cathedral of Ys will rise at dawn out of the sea. The bells are tolling the monks are singing matins. After a while it slowly sinks back into the sea and to rest.  Debussy has made use of a ‘Gregorian’ melody which is supported by medieval organum. This means musical parts moving largely in parallel chords. There are three main themes in this piece –the plain chant and the organ, the quiet sea and the surge of the sea. There is a ‘bell’ motive heard at the climax of the piece.  

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