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En blanc et noir

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

En blanc et noir

1. Avec emportement
2. Lent - Sombre
3. Scherzando

En blanc et noir, a suite for two pianos, reflects, at least in two of its three movements, every Frenchman’s preoccupation with World War I, raging in 1915 when the work was composed. In a letter to his good friend Robert Godet, Debussy appears to minimize any suggestion of extra-musical reference, urging Godet not to “rack your brains about En blanc et noir. These pieces derive their color and their feeling merely from the sonority of the piano.” There is sonority aplenty, but the pieces are far more than “mere” pianistic explorations.

Each movement is headed by a quotation from a poem. The first, dedicated to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, is drawn from the libretto of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette:

Qui reste à sa place
Et ne danse pas
De quelque disgrâce
Fait l’aveu tout bas.

Debussy remarked that it was used ironically, alluding to “the men who stood aside from the macabre dance of the battlefields, thus confessing to some physical defect.”

The second movement – which the composer considered the strongest – is dedicated to Lt. Jacques Charlot, a friend associated with Debussy’s publisher Durand, who had been killed in battle in March 1915. Its quotation is from François Villon’s “Ballade contre les enemis de la France”:

Prince, porté soit des serfs Eolus
En la forest ou domine Glaucus.
Ou privé soit de paix et d’espérance
Car digne n’est de posséder vertus
Qui mal vouldroit au royaume de France!

The music is dark and desolate (it has been described as a virtual battle scene, with bugle calls clearly evident) and the unexpected quotation of J.S Bach’s “Ein feste Burg” cantata lends it additional emotional weight.

The third movement is dedicated to Stravinsky, and bears a heading from a poem by Charles d’Orléans: “Yver, vous n’este qu’un villain.” It leaves behind the serious references of the preceding pieces, in a quixotic, pleasantly unpredictable spirit.

© Shirley Fleming

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