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Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Thu., Jan. 22, 2004, 7:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Debussy disowned or withdrew several of his early works, and his Fantasy for Piano and orchestra was one of them. During the period immediately following his return from Rome in 1887 (following his two years there as a winner of the Prix de Rome ) he was extremely self-critical—concerned about the impression his work might make on the public, and even more deeply about being able to define a personal style. He composed the Fantasy in 1889-90 and its premiere was scheduled almost as soon as the score was completed, but he withdrew the piece just as it was being put into rehearsal (with Vincent d'Indy conducting), and the first performance did not take place until after his death, in 1918. There have been rather few since then. Although the Fantasy is the only "piano concerto” by a composer regarded as one of the greatest among those who wrote for the piano, it remains one of Debussy's least frequently performed works even now.

To be sure, this is not at all a characteristic work, in its treatment of either the piano or the orchestra: it shows the influence of Fauré and Franck, and we might understand that the still young Debussy, who had yet to establish that sought-after personal style in such works as the String Quartet and The Afternoon of a Faun, might have felt the Fantasy was not was seeking in that respect. It was at his own wish that it was neither performed nor published in his lifetime. Historically, however, and also in its own right, the work is well worth the attention of both the performer and the listener.

Here the piano does not figure as a solo instrument in the conventional concerto sense, but rather as an equal partner with the orchestra, a primus inter pares. . There are, however, the conventional three movements, the final two in this case linked together without a gap. The principal theme of the first movement ( Andante—Allegro, in G major) is discoursed upon by the flutes and oboes at some length before it is entrusted to the piano; fragments of it emerge as kernels on which the main body of the movement is developed, eventually intertwined with an intriguing secondary theme prior to the vigorous coda. The second movement ( Lento e molto espressivo, in F-sharp) is a lyric piece, in the nature of an intermezzo despite its extended dimensions, a tranquil and balanced dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra that leads directly into the concluding Allegro molto (again in G major), whose energetic theme is first stated by the oboes and whose lively pace is interrupted only once—by a dreamy, almost weightless episode in A-flat.