Homenaje de Debussy

by Thomas Stiegler

A work so multi-layered that the English composer Benjamin Britten was once to say: »The piece is only seven minutes long, but there are twenty minutes of music in it.« [1] – whereas a performance of the piece lasts barely three minutes (which makes this statement seem even more remarkable). Having become known as a »melodically rather insignificant little work« [2] this judgement has completely changed over time, and today we regard the work as a milestone in the history of modern guitar literature.

The genesis of Homenaje goes back to Henri Prunières, a French musicologist and editor of the music magazine »La Revue Musicale«, who in 1920 invited various composers (in addition to de Falla, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and Erik Satie) to write a work for a new issue of his magazine on the death of the great impressionist composer Claude Debussy. For de Falla, this was a happy coincidence, because around the same time, the famous guitarist Miguel Llobet had already asked him for a work, and he, therefore, decided to kill two birds with one stone.

In this work, in which, according to guitarist José Rey de la Torre, there is »nothing unnecessary« [3] and every note has its own meaning, de Falla succeeded not only in combining completely different musical styles and pressing them into one framework, but also in creating a work of rare beauty and intensity. For the Homenaje is actually a tombeau, i.e. a lament for the death of a loved one, which, however, breaks with all conventions and comes along in the lascivious swaying step of a habanera [4]. In addition, de Falla gives us an artful homage to the world of French Impressionism (he even quotes from Debussy’s own work), without ever denying his own language. Thus the work breathes the spirit of Spain and its music in every note and yet sounds so very different from what we would expect from an adaptation of flamenco from the hand of a modern composer.

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Manuel de Falla and Claude Debussy, although they both came from completely different musical worlds, had more in common than a superficial examination of their works would suggest. For it is not only in the colours of de Falla’s orchestral works or in his use of even unusual-sounding harmonies that one recognises the strong influence of Impressionist music, of which Claude Debussy was the most brilliant exponent, but also Debussy allowed himself to be strongly influenced by the Spanish musical language throughout his life, which was evident in many of his works – not only those that were obviously Spanish-influenced.

Manuel de Falla apparently knew Debussy’s work very well and even went so far as to describe his »La Soirée dans Grenade« [5] as the most faithful musical-pianistic image of Spain he had ever heard; thus he said of it: »Here Andalusia stands before us, truth without authenticity, one might say, since not a bar occurs in it that is borrowed directly from Spanish folklore, and yet the piece makes one feel Spain in its slightest details.« [6] This is all the more astonishing because Debussy had only set foot in Spain once for a few hours and could therefore only get to know the country through the language of his music.

This statement is made even more impressive by the fact that de Falla was one of the best connoisseurs of Spanish folk music in his time and was not only superficially concerned with this music, but had a deep insight into all kinds of flamenco. That is why he also recognised that Debussy, unlike an Albéniz or Granados, for example, who always remained attached to the classical principles of form and composition, was closer to the roots of »real« flamenco. This form, known as »cante jondo«, also meant that Debussy’s music, although firmly in the tradition of French music, sounded far more raw and natural and closer to the original Spanish folk music than that of de Falla’s Romantic contemporaries.

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Manuel de Falla now gives us a successful synthesis of all these influences in his »Homenaje de Debussy«. Through its direct and primal reference to Spanish national music, this work takes on a special role within classical music for the guitar, which can best be compared with the effect of Stravinsky’s music from his »Russian phase«. Not only the basic mood of the work seems to come directly from the realm of the »cante jondo«, but also especially such details as the limited range of the melodies, which rarely goes beyond a sixth, or the stringent repetition of the same note over and over again.

The connection to Debussy, whose spirit this music breathes, comes not least from the fact that de Falla used quotations from both the already mentioned »La Soirée dans Grenade« and »La Puerta del Vino« (from Debussy’s Préludes). Both works have a direct reference to Granada (the first is called »The Evening in Granada«, the second draws its inspiration from a postcard de Falla sent to Debussy showing the »Wine Gate (Puerta del Vino)« of the Alhambra fortress) and both use the rhythm of a habanera.

Manuel de Falla plays with the music of this dance from the beginning, which also indicates his great experience as a composer. The typical habanera rhythm is a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note and two eighth notes as an ending. Manuel de Falla himself now juxtaposes this rhythmic motif with two sixteenth notes as an upbeat, which means that this part fits the melancholy of the tombeau far better than the original dance would suggest. Of course, this contrast between the lament of a tombeau and the lascivious rhythm of a habanera makes it difficult to capture the exact mood of the work, but that is part of the appeal of this composition for us listeners.

After a short introduction of seven bars, the guitar is finally allowed to sing its song and gives us one of the most concise and beautiful melodies of classical guitar literature, in which one can clearly recognise the aforementioned echoes of the original flamenco.

Then the habanera of the beginning shines through again, but the subsequent harmonies convey a more hopeful mood and the transition leads to a strikingly dissonant chord that scurries by almost unnoticed (for purists: De Falla stacks a fifth, a fourth and an augmented fourth here and at the same time reminds us of the beginning of the piece with the two low notes of the chord). A short run takes us into a completely new section of the work, the harmonies seem to be taken directly from Debussy’s work and their instability and almost impressionistic blurriness drive the piece on and on.

A few bars summarise everything we have heard so far before de Falla prepares us for the end of the work with »Più calmo«. It is interesting that four bars before the end, a direct quotation from Debussy’s »La Soirée dans Grenade« appears before the work ends with the title »perdendosi«.

Julian Gray was once to say of this wonderfully sad ending to the work: »[…] Falla [really] creates a moment here, like when Hamlet says of death that it is ›the undiscovered country from which no traveller returns‹.« [1]

Literature used

1 … Reflections on Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje, Benjamin Verdery; benjaminverdery.com

2 … Homenaje (An Analysis of Manuel de Falla´s »Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy«), Dušan Bogdanović; www.academia.edu

3 … José Rey de la Torre, in »Rey de la Torre discusses Manuel de Falla’s Homage to Debussy«, www.guitarist.com

4 … Ein kubanischer Tanz, der sich im 19. Jahrhundert in der gesamten westlichen Welt verbreitete und sowohl die amerikanische Jazzmusik als auch den argentinischen Tango beeinflusste.

5 … Aus seinen »Estampes«, komponiert 1903.

6 … Manuel de Falla, zitiert nach: »La Soirée dans Grenade« auf jochenscheytt.de

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