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100 years ago: Debussy at the Queen’s Hall

March 5th, 1909

ON Saturday afternoon a large audience assembled, in spite of the inclement weather, to hear a couple of works by the French composer, M. Claude Debussy, who conducted them himself. Three Nocturnes for Orchestra, of which this was the first performance in England, were the special attraction, and naturally many French people were present to support their compatriot. The music is of the impressionist order, and is supposed to suggest the movement of the clouds, the rhythm of the atmosphere, and the mysterious sounds and movements of the sea, the titles of the Noc­turnes being respectively Nuages, Fêtes, and Sirènes. In the last-named a chorus of female voices sang a weird, wordless chant to the syllable “Ah,” which served for the imagina­tion to call up the idea of a siren song, but to the plain man sounded very much like a lesson in voice-pro­duction. From the purely mu­sical point of view, it appeared to overpower the excessively deli­cate accompaniment of the orchestra. Frankly, the Nocturnes, in spite of a refinement and cleverness that can­not be disputed, were not exactly satisfying. The analytical pro­gramme described the Sirènes thus: “Its greatest charm lies in the subtle and original orchestration, with its translucid (sic), glaucescent colour­ing,” which would seem to be the last word in musical criticism. When music is asserted to be able to call up the glaucous colour of the sea, one can only say, Prodigious! The other composition, by M. Debussy, L’après-Midi d’un Faune, was performed in the Queen’s Hall a year ago, and bids fair to become a favourite item of concert pro­grammes. It is a graceful and charm­ing work.

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