Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Debussy - Première Rhapsodie For Clarinet And Orchestra

 In 1909 the Director of the Paris Conservatoire Gabriel Fauré appointed Debussy to the Board Of Directors. This position obligated Debussy to compose test pieces for Conservatoire students and be an adjudicator in examinations. His first duties in this post were to write two pieces for the clarinet department examinations, as well as be on the panel of judges. 

Debussy wrote the shorter Petit Pièce and the longer Première Rhapsodie in 1910, both for clarinet with piano accompaniment. Evidently Debussy was not looking forward to listening to a class of clarinetists playing the two pieces over and over again, but as it turned out Debussy was delighted with the experience and how well his pieces sounded as he wrote in a letter to his publisher:

“The clarinet competitions went extremely well, and, to judge by the expressions on the faces of my colleagues, the Rhapsodie was a success.”

Prospère Mimart

The success of the piece suggested that it was more than a student examination piece, so Debussy made an orchestrated version in 1911. It was dedicated to the professor of clarinet at the Paris Conservatoire Prospère Mimart, who also premiered the orchestral version in 1911. It has remained one of the most played pieces for clarinet solo in the repertoire ever since, and is still heard in clarinet examinations in the piano accompanied version. 

The piece is in free form, true to the name of rhapsody, and offers many technical challenges for the soloist in breath, endurance, and range. It is a piece for a advanced student or a professional clarinetist. Debussy fulfilled  the requirements of an examination piece as the work covers all aspects of a virtuoso technique and musicality, while also writing a musical piece that the music lover who knows nothing about clarinet technique can enjoy. 

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