Printemps, symphonic suite for chorus, piano & orchestra, L. 61
1. Tres Modere
One of Debussy‘s assignments as a Prix de Rome scholar at the Villa Medici in 1887 was to send back to the Fine Arts Academy in France an orchestral score so his benefactors could judge his professional progress. All Debussy managed to turn in was a piano duet called Printemps, or “Spring”; he claimed that the full score, complete with humming chorus, had been destroyed in a fire. Not until 1913 did he get around to generating an orchestral version, and even then the work was assigned to Henri Büsser who, working from the keyboard original, had no access to any original choral material. In a nod to the music’s origins, Büsser included a prominent but not quite concertante keyboard part in the finished score.
The Academy committee found the piece to be excessively progressive, which in the late 1880s meant little more than Wagnerian in its chromaticism. (The committee’s condemnation includes the first recorded application of the term “Impressionism” to Debussy‘s music.) Only in the orchestration did the music begin to sound like mature, Impressionistic Debussy, that effect achieved through timbre rather than harmony. The composer said he intended to compose a work “of a particular color, covering as wide a range of sensations as possible.” Actually, in terms of sensations, Printemps is limited to two: yearning, giving way to relaxed happiness. Debussydescribed the music’s program as “the slow, laborious birth of beings and things in nature, and then their blossoming outward and upward, and finally a burst of joy at being reborn to new life.” Consequently, the piece falls into two movements, both at moderate tempo, and neither employ particularly straightforward or memorable melodic material; the emphasis is entirely on mood.