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Five Etudes, orchestrated by Aaron Jay Kernis

About the Work

Claude Debussy
Quick Look Composer: Claude Debussy
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hugh Wolff, conductor/Stephen Hough, piano, performs Saint-Saëns Apr. 24 - 26, 2008
© Richard Freed
In the 1990s, when Hugh Wolff was its music director, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra sought to enhance its repertoire of music from the Romantic Era by commissioning a number of distinguished composers to orchestrate existing works created originally for piano solo. Eric Stokes chose some of Schumann’s piano pieces; Martin Bresnick arranged some of Janácek’s; Oliver Knussen chose some of Scriabin’s. Aaron Jay Kernis, however, advises that he

had no interest in orchestrating Romantic works, and since I had first come to know Hugh Wolff’s work through his superb performances of French repertoire with the New Jersey Symphony, looking at French works seemed a perfect choice and the kind of challenge I was looking for. I had long loved the Études, and in looking at them I found that only a handful seemed appropriate for orchestration—or some of the more complex ones might require a year for figuring out how to score them—so I chose those that seemed both challenging and realistically possible, and devised a sequence which I felt would make a good set. By way of preparing for this project, I undertook a study of the orchestral scores of both Debussy and Ravel, and this influenced my own creative work for a number of years.

Aaron Jay Kernis, born in Philadelphia January 15, 1960, now lives in New York. He first came to national attention in 1983, when his first orchestral work, dream of the morning sky, was given its premiere in the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons Festival. The Philharmonic then commissioned his New Era Dance for its 150th anniversary; that piece has been performed more than a hundred times since then, by orchestras in both America and Europe, including the National Symphony, and was recorded by the Baltimore Symphony under David Zinman. In the meantime, Mr. Kernis began his very productive connection with the Twin Cities in 1989, when the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra commissioned his Symphony in Waves. He served that institution as composer-in-residence for some time, and in 1998 he took on his present position as new music adviser to the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Orchestra.

He continues to receive commissions and premieres from prominent performing organizations in our own country and abroad, and many of his works have been recorded. Such titles as Lament and Prayer (a piece for violin and string orchestra, composed for Pamela Frank and the Minnesota Orchestra), Garden of Light (a large-scale choral symphony commissioned by the Disney Company to welcome the new millennium), Fragments of Gertrude Stein (for soprano and flute), Simple Songs (texts from various spiritual disciplines; for soprano and small ensemble), and 100 Greatest Dance Hits (for guitar and string quartet) reflect his productive interest in the literature, popular culture, and world events of our own time. Among his numerous honors are the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his String Quartet No. 2, (musica instrumentalis) and the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for the cello-and-orchestra version of his concerto Colored Field (originally for English horn as solo instrument).

Mr. Kernis created his orchestral settings of his five chosen études in 1966, and Hugh Wolff introduced them in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s concerts of September 13-15 of that year. The score notes that the commission came from Susan and Louis Hill, and Linda and Jack Hoeschler, in honor of Jane and Joseph Micallef (community leaders in Saint Paul, where Mr. Micallef represents his native Malta as honorary consul general).

Debussy composed his Études for piano 1915, during the period in which he began to come out of the fallow period brought about by the cancer to which he would succumb three years later. His creative impulse received a boost as part of his patriotic response to the ongoing horrors of the Great War, and he signed the sonatas he composed that year "Claude Debussy, musicien français." In the previous year his publisher, asked him to edit the Études of Chopin, and that seems to have provided the impetus for him to compose his own set of twelve, and these proved to be no mere salon pieces, but music so demanding that it would, in Debussy’s words, "strike fear in your fingers."

Mr. Kernis, approaching them as orchestrator rather than pianist, did not fear for his fingers, but used the expression "walking on eggshells" to describe the challenge he faced in orchestrating "such perfect music" by a composer who was himself "one of the greatest orchestral innovators and geniuses." To Christine Dahl, the annotator for the Saint Paul premiere, he described the Études, in their original form for piano, as

incredible pieces that not too many people know. At first hearing they seem strange, even counterintuitive. Ideas sometimes seem to flow without conventional logic. There is something ineffable in this music that vanishes when you try to grasp it; but it is really very organic, although it doesn’t seem so at first.

Debussy divided his Études into two books of six each, with Book I focused on technical concerns, Book II on confronting various types of musical devices or configurations. He dedicated them to the memory of Chopin, but also took note of another famous composer of didactic pieces in the opening number, which opens this orchestral set as well. Mr. Kernis’s sequence is as follows:

No. 1, Pour les "cinq doigts"—d’après Monsieur Czerny. Debussy marked his five-finger exercise Sagement, a term generally rendered as "well-behaved. The introduction of a single "wrong note" turns the piece into a gigue.
No. 4, Pour les sixtes. Debussy wrote of this piece:
For a very long time the continuous use of sixths gave me the feeling of pretentious demoiselles seated in a salon sulkily embroidering, envying the scandalous laughter of mad ninths, . . . yet in this study I’m writing, the attention of the sixth organizes the harmonies only with aggregates of these intervals, and it’s not ugly! (Mea culpa.)

No. 9, Pour les notes répétées. Repeated notes are dealt with in a little dance.
No. 10, Pour les sonorités opposées. This most extended of the Études evokes a sense of mystery, the opposing sonorities suggesting a clash of emotions. A figure frequently described as a horn call (Mr. Kernis assigns it to a trumpet) is marked "clear and joyous," but it is twisted into something quite different at the end of the piece.
No. 5, Pour les octaves. The suite ends with the most outgoing of the twelve Études, which Debussy marked "Joyous and transported, in free rhythm."