Claude Debussy

Rêverie, for piano, L. 68

    Description by Uncle Dave Lewis

    The year 1890 witnessed the first flowering of French composer Claude Debussy's piano music in print, as the Deux Arabesques, the four-hand Petite Suite and, most significantly, the Suite bergamasque all found their way into published editions. Debussy was considerably less satisfied when Paris-based publisher Eugène Fromont issued his piano piece Rêverie from an old manuscript that had been lying about for some time. "I very much regret your decision to publish Rêverie," Debussy testily wrote to Fromont. "I wrote it in a hurry years ago and purely for commercial purposes. It is a work of no significance and, frankly, I consider it absolutely no good."

    Debussy's low opinion of Rêverie has not prevented it from taking pride of place among the very best known of his piano works. Debussy's original manuscript is no longer extant, and in terms of dating, that of the first published edition, as reflected above, is generally accepted. But in actuality, Rêverie was composed sometime between 1880 and 1884. As such, it is a milestone, as it represents the earliest known instance of Debussy working in the "impressionistic" musical vocabulary that eventually became his trademark.

    The piece starts with a modal accompaniment figure that is started on the weakest beat of the bar. As Debussy's plaintive, simple melody gets underway on the beat, there is a rhythmic instability at first between the two parts. This is further obscured due to the wandering modal orientation of the harmony. The piece does not get firmly on the ground until the sixth bar. Debussy applies his melody lightly, and provides a bare, largely arpeggiated accompaniment that is rich in suspensions such as sevenths, ninths, and seconds. Rêverie is wholly satisfying as a mood or relaxation piece, and unlike the vast wealth of similarly intentioned salon music that also appeared in the 1880s, it does not in the least seem dated.

    The first American edition of Rêverie appeared in 1895, and since then the piece has become a popular concert favorite in the United States. The American pianist Harold Bauer helped to popularize Rêverie early in the twentieth century through a rather simplified arrangement of his own, thus establishing a trend toward adaptation of Rêverie that yet continues. Rêverie has been arranged countless times for a wide array of instrumental forces; the version for harp in particular is considered a staple in the literature for the instrument. Jazz musicians have long known the piece, and its influence may have helped to shape the harmonic approach of jazz in general. In 1938, bandleader Larry Clinton recomposed Rêverie into a hit song entitled "My Reverie." In 1974 an electronic version from Isao Tomita's album Snowflakes are Dancing helped to popularize the work even further. Of Debussy's works, Rêverie has exceeded all expectations in terms of its performance within the commercial milieu, the very aspect of the piece that caused its composer to practically disown it.

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