Dale Wolford



Debussy "Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone"

I'm performing this beautiful piece with the San Jose State University Orchestra on Friday, October 5th. Debussy was commissioned to write this piece by a rich amateur saxophonist, Elise Hall, from Boston. Debussy didn't want to write the piece, but needed the money. Here are some program notes by Eric Bromberger:

            About 1895 Debussy received an unusual commission for a new piece.  An American patron of the arts, Mrs. Elisa Hall of Boston, played the saxophone-still a relatively new instrument at that time-and was trying to create a repertory for by commissioning new pieces.  She commissioned a piece for saxophone and orchestra from Debussy and paid him for it; he promptly spent the money and forgot about the piece.  Then, to his astonishment, Mrs. Hall showed up several years later in Paris, asking about her piece.  Debussy's biographer Leon Vallas describes what happened:             "For the sake of her health this lady [Mrs. Hall] had devoted herself to an instrument which had not yet achieved the popularity it has since acquired, thanks to the triumph of jazz.  Wishing, regardless of cost, to build up a special repertoire for herself, she had given various French composers orders for important compositions.  Debussy was very dilatory in the matter; he was almost incapable of composing to order, and, besides, he knew very little about the technique of this solo instrument.  On 8th June [1903] he wrote to Messager: ‘The Americans are proverbially tenacious.  The saxophone lady landed in Paris at 58 Rue Cardinet, eight or ten days ago, and is inquiring about her piece.  Of course I assured her that, with the exception of Rameses II, it is the only subject that occupies my thoughts.  All the same, I have had to set to work on it.  So here I am, searching desperately for novel combinations to show off this aquatic instrument . . . I have been working as hard as in the good old days of Pelléas . . ."             The actual composition of the piece for Mrs. Hall was spread over several years, and it took some time to complete: Debussy appears to have worked on it from 1901 until 1908.  At that point, he sent his version for saxophone and piano to her; the piano part was orchestrated in 1919, the year after Debussy's death, by the French composer Jean Roger-Ducasse.             In the ten-minute Rhapsody Debussy seems not so interested in virtuosity as in exploring the sound and character of what was for him a new instrument.  Everyone is struck by the exotic sound of this music: one observer hears "Spanish or Moorish associations" in this music, others detect an oriental influence.  The delicate, evocative beginning certainly sounds exotic, and its "oriental" atmosphere is heightened in the orchestral version by a subtle use of tambourine here.  This opening section, in 2/4, is rather free rhythmically, in the manner of a rhapsody, but the music eases ahead as it moves into 6/8, and in the closing pages Debussy finds some unexpected strength in this new instrument he knew so little about.