30 Oct 2012

Debussy – Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (Scottish March on a Popular Theme)

By Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, harp, strings.

Duration: 7 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918) – The late 1880s and early 1890s were painfully formative years for Debussy. His was a rather Bohemian existence, but not nearly as pleasant or picturesque an as opera libretto might depict. Debussy was exceedingly poor and though he spent his days expanding his mind among the great symbolist poets and artists of Paris, he was often forced to seek financial assistance from friends.

THE MUSIC – Debussy was also forced by circumstance to be indiscriminate about commission opportunities. No offer could be spurned, no matter how odd it may have been. So, when Scottish General Meredith Reid approached in the composer in 1891, he found a young man who was more than ready to listen. The commission was to be a march based on the traditional melody of the Ross clan, of which Reid was a descendant. Debussy chose to render the music for piano four-hands but orchestrated it nearly two decades later in 1908. The General’s reaction to the original version is not known, but one wonders if he felt like he had gotten what he paid for. The music sounds Scottish enough but Debussy’s treatment of it doesn’t make much of a march and the piece does not wait long to defy expectations. It begins with an air of mystery rather than pomp and when it does reach full voice, it is really more of a fantasy of fanfare flourishes and coloristic episodes. The Marche has a constantly transforming nature that culminates finally in a rousing martial salute that hopefully got at least one smile out of the commissioner. The charm of the orchestral version lies in its orchestration. Debussy was purportedly not completely pleased with it but the incredible instrumental finesse he had at his disposal in 1908 was put to good use on the music of his 29-year-old self.  

THE WORLD – Hawaii’s King Kalakua died in 1891 and was succeeded by his sister Queen Lilluokalani as the islands’ last monarch. Also that year, construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway was begun and the first Java Man fossils were uncovered.

THE CONNECTION – These concerts represent the Utah Symphony premiere of Debussy’s Scottish March.