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Exploring Debussy’s legacy: Maurice Ohana’s 'Tombeau de Claude Debussy'

Rae, Caroline ORCID: 2018. Exploring Debussy’s legacy: Maurice Ohana’s 'Tombeau de Claude Debussy'. Presented at: Claude Debussy in 2018: a Centenary Celebration, Manchester and Glasgow, UK, 19-23 March 2018.

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To mark the Debussy centenary of 1962, Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF) sought to commission a major new orchestral work that would both acknowledge the legacy of the great French composer and enshrine a perceived continuity in twentieth-century French music. The driving force behind the idea was Henri Dutilleux, then still employed in his capacity as Director of Music Productions at French Radio, whose own compositional debt to Debussy was already evident in his technique of 'progressive growth' that was soon to achieve new prominence in the extended variation processes of Métaboles (1959-1964) which in turn owe much to the principles of organic evolution in Debussy's La Mer (1905). While Dutilleux may have been the ideal choice for the Radio France project, he was already immersed in the composition of Métaboles which had been commissioned by George Szell for the Cleveland Orchestra. The task of finding a suitable composer for the Radio France commission was, however, less straight forward than might have been imagined. Although Messiaen nominally accepted, he was unforthcoming with a work. Despite acknowledgement of Debussy's influence on his early musical thinking through the many references to his compositional predecessor in his writings and teaching, Messiaen was focussing on developing the new compositional paths in terms of rhythm and treatment of birdsong that had been opened with Chronochromie (1960) and which were to be further extended in Sept Haïkaï (1962). While Boulez might have been another contender for the commission, not least due to his interest in Mallarmé that came to the fore in Pli selon Pli (1957-1962) it is likely that relationships with those at Radio France were still too sensitive for this to be a viable option particularly as the Debussy centenary commission was the brainchild of Dutilleux. The commission was thus offered to Maurice Ohana from whom Dutilleux had previously received a number of works for his radiophonic series of 'illustrations musicales' during the 1950s. Dutilleux also knew that Ohana was increasingly looking towards Debussy as a means of developing the more distinctively French aspects of his mature compositional language, having been closely aligned with the composer during his years as a concert pianist. Thus Ohana composed his Tombeau de Claude Debussy (1961-62), a 30-minute work for soprano, piano, microinterval zither and orchestra that not only drew significantly on Debussy's works for piano, notably the Préludes, Études and En Blanc et noir, but also established a musical language that extended harmonic and melodic processes of his predecessor. This paper considers Ohana's many borrowings from and allusions to Debussy, and the way he adapted Debussian techniques to create a new musical language that both acknowledged and paid homage to his predecessor. These innovations will be contextualised in terms of a range of overtly Debussian works by Ohana as well as other French contemporaries to assess the significance of Debussy as a compositional influence in French music of the second half of the twentieth century.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Music
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
M Music and Books on Music > ML Literature of music
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Last Modified: 24 Oct 2022 08:39

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