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Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone: Update 2006


(Update 2009: Debussys Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone Revisited
published in 2008 in The Musical Quarterly can be found at jamesnoyes.com)
James R. Noyes
with research assistance by
William H. Street, Jean-Marie Londeix, Paul Cohen,
Roy Howat, Harry Joelson, and Ruth Mueller-Maerki
Debussys Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone has been long dismissed as an
incomplete and inconsequential saxophone concerto. The work was commissioned in
1901 by Boston Orchestral Club president and amateur saxophonist Elise Hall.2
Biographical accounts indicate Debussy composed Rapsodie between 1903 and 1911 but
never finished, sending Hall an incomplete rough draft in 1911.3 These accounts also
allege that Rapsodie was posthumously completed and orchestrated by Jean RogerDucasse in 1919.4 That this had been for Debussy one of the most hateful of
commissions,5 which had borne little fruit6 became a widely accepted yet
uncorroborated conclusion.
An analysis of source materials, including letters of Debussy and Roger-Ducasse,
Rapsodie manuscripts, concert reviews, and scholarly commentary indicates a deliberate
orchestral commission (pour orchestre et saxophone oblig7) taken very seriously.8
Debussy wrote a structurally complete and orchestrated sketch of Rhapsodie Mauresque
pour Orchestre et Saxophone Principal in 1903. This manuscript remained with the
composer until his death in March 1918 at which time Jean Roger-Ducasse was asked to
realize the orchestral score. While the composers specific orchestration is the basis for
this realization, slight modifications were made in accordance with Debussys
compositional techniques. After Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone was premiered and
published in 1919, the holograph sketch was finally sent to Elise Hall in Boston.
2

William Henry Street, Elise Boyer Hall, Americas First Concert Saxophonist: Her Life as Performing
Artist, Pioneer of Concert Repertory for Saxophone and Patroness of the Arts, (D.M.A. diss,
Northwestern University 1983), 45.
3
Lon Vallas, Claude Debussy, His Life and Works, trans. Marie and Grace OBrien. (London, 1933), 161-2.
4
Ibid.
5
Simon Trezise, Debussy: La Mer, (Cambridge, 1994), 10.
6
Pitts Sanborn, Notes on the Program, The Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, Popular
Concert (Students) at Carnegie Hall, 11 November 1939.
7
Claude Debussy, Paris, to Andre Messager, 8 June 1903, trans. Shirin Murphy, La jeunesse de Pellas.
Lettres de C. Debussy A. Messager, Paris, Dorbon, 1938.
8
Marcel Dietschy, A Portrait of Claude Debussy, trans. William Ashbrook and Margaret G. Cobb, (Oxford,
1990), 126.
Copyright 2006 James R. Noyes

Poe and Debussy:


A Lifelong Partnership
Mr. E. A. Poe...this man though deceased, exerts on me an almost distressing tyranny.
- - Claude Debussy9
1885

Introduction une esthtique scientifique by Charles Henry. Discussion of


stylistic traits of da Vinci, Rameau, and Poe. Also, Golden Section
proportions and the subject of arabesque.10

1887-1888

Debussys cantata, La Damoiselle lue, was based on The Blessed Damozel by


Dante Gabrielle Rosetti. The poem portrays the feminine side of Poes
Raven, the sadness of the deceased maiden in heaven.11

1889

Debussy answers a printed questionnaire: Your favorite prose authors?


Flaubert and Poe.12 (French translations of Poe included those of
Baudelaire, Mallarm, and Debussys close friend Gabriel Mourey.)

1890

Andr Suares: Debussy is working at a symphony on psychologically


developed themes whose idea would seem to be based on many tales of
Poe, particularly The Fall of the House of Usher.13,14

1893-1902

Pellas et Mlisande: The underlying inspiration of Pellas, both the drama


of Maeterlinck and the opera of Debussy, derived from Edgar Allan Poe
and in particular The Fall of the House of Usher.15

1902-1911

The Devil in the Belfry, a musical tale in two acts, based on the Poe story.

1908-1917

The Fall of the House of Usher, now conceived as an opera.

Claude Debussy: Lettres indites Andr Caplet, 1908-1914, recueillies et prsentes par E. Lockspeiser, trans.
James Noyes (Monaco: d. du Rocher, 1957), 41.
10
Roy Howat, Debussy in Proportion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983),165-6.
11
John Clevenger, Debussys Rome Cantatas, in Debussy and His World , Jane Fulcher, ed., (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2001) , 72.
12
Marcel Dietschy, A Portrait of Claude Debussy (La Passion de Claude Debussy, 1962), trans. Ashbrook and
Cobb, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 56.
13
Ibid, 56.
14
Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, vol. 1, (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 196.
15
Ibid, 195.

Copyright 2006 James R. Noyes

6
(Note: the original page 6 with answers has been
intentionally changed for pdf download.)

The Philosophy of Composition Enacted:


Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone

Poe*

Debussy

Length
Province
Tone
Structural Pivot
Pretext
Supremeness
Climax
Original Combinations
Setting
Locale
Introduction Of Pretext
Force of Contrast
Undercurrent
Dnouement

* All comparative references and quotations attributed to Edgar Allan Poe within this
presentation come from The Philosophy of Composition, published in Grahams Magazine,
April, 1846.
Copyright 2006 James R. Noyes