How to Listen to Debussy’s Sublime “Sarabande”
November has been bustling! It started with a combined student recital and clarinet choir concert that I organized and performed in, followed by a week-long staycation for me where I got a chance to dive back into an arranging and composition project I’ve been neglecting for far too long. I was also busier with teaching private lessons (which is good, but it does add to my schedule). Then there’s the usual work and house stuff, plus Thanksgiving. Before I knew it, it’s the end of the month and I hadn’t picked a piece to talk about.
My busy schedule aside, let’s talk about Sarabande, from the suite Pour le Piano, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). I didn’t appreciate Debussy until I was an adult. For various reasons, I dismissed him when I was younger. I’m sure part of it was his use of “smushy” chords, though I didn’t fully grasp that at the time. Some of it may have been because I couldn’t easily play the pieces I came across in piano compilation books. I seem to remember a friend of mine (who also played piano) didn’t like him, and that certainly influenced me. But later on, after I’d been exposed to more of his music, I realized I do like him after all. He’s mostly known for piano music, but that music also works well when transcribed for other instruments. For today, we’ll stick with a piano performance.
A sarabande is a dance form in triple meter (i.e. 3/4 time). It has origins in Spain, but later became popular in France as a slower, stately dance. Many orchestral and other instrumental suites over the years have had a sarabande as one of the movements. Debussy marks this piece as “avec une élégance grave et lente” (roughly translated to “with a serious and slow elegance”), so pianists’ interpretations vary on exactly how slow to go. Beyond the version I show here, poke around YouTube a bit to listen to other performances.
The piece begins quietly, both hands moving together in rhythm. We start right in on those squishy chords, don’t we? But the rhythm and shape of the line sets up our primary theme (0:07-1:13, kind of). The themes and motifs in this piece are more nebulous than in other pieces we’ve discussed. so bear with me on this one. And while Debussy uses a lot of complex chords, sometimes he treats us to straight-up major chords (0:39 and 1:09) which let our ears take a break from the more complex harmonies throughout the piece.
At 1:15, Debussy repeats what we heard at the very beginning, note for note. While he keeps the rhythm at 1:32 to match what we heard earlier (0:25), he alters the notes and shape of the line, and adds in chords for a full sound before dropping down to utilize the lower octaves of the piano (1:37). After the fullness of what we’ve heard, it’s unexpected.
The secondary motif begins at 1:50, dark and brooding. Listen for the moving line in the middle of the chords. I hesitate to call this a full theme because it doesn’t really stick around all that long before morphing into a transition. But you’ll hear that initial rhythmic line, and a close relative, several times in this section (1:50-2:51). We keep building upward in pitch, though not always in volume, until 2:52 where the chords cascade down into the recap of the primary theme.
While we’ve been rather quiet and delicate up until this point, Debussy changes moods when he goes back into the main theme. The first statement is marked forte (our first one in the piece), and the chords are bolder and more “normal”-sounding that what we’ve been hearing so far. But quick as that, Debussy switches right back to delicate at 3:22. The notes and rhythms are similar enough to what happened at the beginning of the piece to be recognized as such, it’s just an octave higher.
But at 3:39, he inserts a brand-new motif instead of continuing on with the main theme. Pay attention around 3:54, however, as there’s a tiny rhythmic snippet that will return later. At 3:57, after a build-up in intensity from the previous few measures, we’re treated to another lovely major chord. We continue on with the rhythm from the primary theme, though on different notes, landing on another big major chord at 4:17.
After all that, we quiet down suddenly at 4:22, repeating the primary theme rhythm with the pitches closer to what we heard originally (0:45). It’s a brief quote, though, as we move on toward the closing section of the piece (coda). At 4:36 we hear that small rhythmic snippet from back at 3:54. It echoes at 4:40, with the echo ringing downward in pitch until 4:48, where we hear one last quote from our main theme. Debussy closes the piece with bell-like chords moving up the range of the instrument and some final, quiet notes in the bass.
That wraps up our afternoon with Claude Debussy. I hope you’ll explore more of his music, and feel free to let me know any of your favorite pieces by him so I can listen to them.
The Atlantic published an article about Debussy that’s worth a read as well.
If you’d like the sheet music for this piece, there’s a public domain version available at IMSLP.org. (Shameless plugs: if you’re a clarinet player, I’ve arranged this for clarinet choir. You can also buy collections of Debussy’s and other composers’ works at Sheet Music Plus and support the blog).
To go along with the above shameless plug, I now have a recording of real people playing my clarinet choir arrangement. Yay!