In 1903 Debussy announced that he was composing a Suite bergamasque - not the famous 1890 one which, at that time, had not yet been published, but a new one to comprise Masques, the 2e Sarabande, and L’Ile [sic] joyeuse. What the 2e Sarabande was, or what became of it, is unknown, but it is possible that it was related to D’un cahier d’esquisses which dates from the same period. We do know that Debussy set great store by this piece; the pianist Ricardo Vines who was responsible for so many Debussy (and Ravel) first performances relates how Debussy played him the work and told him that he was dreaming of a kind of music whose form was so free as to seem improvised or simply torn straight out of a sketchbook. (Incidentally, when this conversation was reported to Ravel, he, rather surprisingly, declared himself to be thinking along the same lines - lines that were to lead to Miroirs. And, in the event, Ravel himself was to give the first public performance of D’un cahier d’esquisses.)

Masques and L’Isle joyeuse were revised and published separately in 1904, the former having shed any pretence of carnival gaiety in favour of a representation of what Debussy described to Marguerite Long as “the tragic expression of existence”, the latter with the spelling of “île” changed to “Isle”, a reference to the island of Jersey where Debussy had gone on holiday with his future second wife, Emma Bardac.

Whatever the stories and anecdotes attached to these three pieces, they remain the finest, the most substantial, the most developed of all Debussy’s separate piano pieces, and ones which I always present in “Suite” form, as on this CD.

When I was in my teens, the music of Debussy was surprisingly little played, and the late works, in particular, were regarded as a significant falling-off, the inferior products of an already very sick man. At the beginning of the First World War there had been a period of silence, depression, and crippling and painful illness (the rectal cancer that was to kill him).

And then it broke:

“I’ve rediscovered the possibility of thinking musically, which hasn’t come to me for over a year... Certainly it’s not indispensable that I write music, but it’s the only thing I know how to do. [...] So, I’ve been writing like a madman, or like one who is to die tomorrow morning.”

The hope, the fantasy, the sheer inventiveness, the freshness, the renewal in the face of catastrophe - the world catastrophe of the War and the personal catastrophe of inescapable and imminent death - are unbelievable. The 12 Etudes were, indeed, written at white-hot speed during the summer of 1915. Debussy hovered between a dedication to the memory of Couperin or Chopin before plumping for the latter, but, in either case, the intention was surely to place these extraordinary keyboard works in the line of the great keyboard tradition. Each takes as its starting point a “given” of the Western keyboard tradition - intervals, scales (diatonic or chromatic), ornaments, repeated notes, chords, but used, rediscovered, re-invented almost. The pieces look, feel, sound like no others in the piano literature including, amazingly, other pieces by Debussy. Gone is any sense of calm or repose, gone the almost orchestral layering of events and textures, gone the silence or the exploration of resonance and vibration in that silence. Instead, the invention is linear, sequential, restless, and furious. Events succeed, overtake each other at an almost breathless rate, each page black with notes. This is music, and it accounts for much of its power, far beyond the capabilities of even the most gifted amateur, pushed to the very limits of what two hands at one keyboard can do.

Not only is Debussy’s late music not a falling-off, it seems to me one of the most important artistic and human statements of all time. All Debussy’s music vibrates with a passion and a nervous intensity at the edges of something we cannot “know”, but can only sense and feel. (Pelléas et Mélisande is surely the consecration of this mystery). If ever the “feverish truth of interpretation” so endlessly sought by Debussy were present, it is in these late works. And if I could point to one instant, it would be the chord that ends Pour les sonorités opposées. The entire piece, miraculous as it is at every moment, seems to “set up” this chord. As all the bugle calls from the battlefield gradually recede into an infinite “beyond”, we are left with something that sound alone could express.

© Paul Crossley