Claude Debussy

String Quartet, L. 91 (85) (Op. 10)

    Description by Michael Jameson

    Debussy began work on the composition of his only string quartet in 1892. Little documentary evidence, save for one or two passing oblique references in letters to friends remains to indicate his rate of progress. The final movement, however, caused him no little trouble, and only in August 1893 did Debussy feel able to write to his colleague André Poniatowski that "I think I can finally show you the last movement of the quartet, which has made me really miserable!"

    Cast in the traditional four movements, Debussy's Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 has as its most distinctive feature its overarching preoccupation with timbre and sonority. The work as a whole offers a compendium of string-playing techniques, yet it also displays a concision of thought rare, perhaps, in a composition often regarded (along with the quartet by Ravel) as one of the seminal impressionist works in the string quartet genre.

    Its fascinating and readily palpable thematic concentration seems all the more remarkable when one realizes that the very first theme of the opening movement (Animé et très décidé) comes to furnish almost all of the diverse thematic components for the entire work. Another ingenious feature (possibly less immediately apparent to the listener at first hearing) is that the quartet is less dominated by melodic or harmonic considerations than by a rhythmic flexibility which carries the potential for seemingly endless variety. In this respect, Debussy's string quartet seems to strongly prefigure those by Bartók. Yet it remains unmistakably a work dominated by the sensuality and longueurs of French late nineteenth century Romanticism, a strong feature of the slow third movement (Andantino doucement expressif).

    The work is also strongly predictive of the disjunctive and highly polarized new musical language that would assert itself in the two decades following its completion. The Scherzo (Assez vif et bien rythmé), for example, makes use of the disruptive sonic confrontations that can occur when rapidly alternating pizzicato and bowed passages produce what one commentator has described as "a confusion that forces the listener to concentrate on the textures, rather than the linear form of the music." These apparently disparate elements are then welded together in a finale of striking economy of means, and only at the close does it become really clear that the opening gestures of the work have actually altered themselves and coalesced to produce an organic unity of some 25 minutes' duration.

    The work was to be dedicated to Ernest Chausson, whose personal reservations eventually diverted the composer's original intentions. Debussy sold his score for a mere 250 francs to the publishers Durand & Cie, who, as he later recalled, "were cynical enough about it to freely admit that what they were paying me didn't cover all the labor this 'work' has entailed." Not surprisingly, the quartet was widely misunderstood at its premiere, given by the Ysayë Quartet on December 29, 1893. At the time, the composer Guy Ropartz was the lone voice in a wilderness of critical lack of interest; he described the quartet as a work "dominated by the influence of young Russia (interestingly, Debussy's patroness in the early 1880s had been Nadezhda von Meck, better known for her support of Tchaikovsky); there are poetic themes, rare sonorities, the first two movements being particularly remarkable."

    Parts/Movements

    1. Animé et très decidé
    2. Assez vif et bien rythmé
    3. Andantino, doucement espressif
    4. Très modéré - Très mouvementé

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2019 Champs Hill Records CHRCD 147
    2018 Menuetto Classics
    2018 Menuetto Classics null
    2018 Menuetto Classics null
    2018 Warner Classics null
    2018 Deutsche Grammophon
    2018 Deutsche Grammophon 4798642
    2018 Harmonia Mundi HMM 902304DI
    2018 Harmonia Mundi HMM 902304
    2018 Warner Classics
    2018 Warner Classics 571189
    2018 Decca
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4795982
    2016 Alto MCS 1296
    2016 Arcana A 392
    2016 Linn / Linn Records CKD 512
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 002894795516
    2016 Hyperion CDA 68061
    2016 Decca / Philips 4788977
    2016 Brilliant Classics 94744BR
    2016 RCA Red Seal 88985321742
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4796018
    2015 Genuin GEN 15373
    2015 Praga / Praga Digitals PRD 250312
    2015 Cedille Records CDR 156
    2015 Albany Music Distribution / Albany Records TROY 1592
    2015 Capriccio Records C 5239
    2014 Timpani 1C 1207
    2013 MSR Classics MS 1424
    2013 Broken Audio BRAU 0954
    2012 Harmonia Mundi HMG 50839091
    2012 Melodiya MELCD 1001973
    2012 Newton Classics 8802159
    2012 Deutsche Grammophon
    2012 Deutsche Grammophon 4790529
    2012 La Dolce Volta LDV 08
    2012 Fuga Libera FUG 595
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2012 Chandos CHAN 10717
    2012 Deutsche Grammophon
    2012 Deutsche Grammophon 4790056
    2011 Documents 232867
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099908520
    2011 Archiv Produktion / Marlboro Recording Society 80003
    2010 Harmonia Mundi 902067
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 EMI Classics 965939
    2010 Hyperion CDA67759
    2010 In a Circle ICR 003
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Gramola 98843
    2009 Warner Classics
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Challenge Classics 72331
    2008 UT3 Records / Zebralution
    2008 Virgin Classics
    2008 Erato / Virgin Classics 5099951904
    2008 ABC Classics 4766904
    2008 EMI Music Distribution 5675502
    2008 Marquis Records 81379
    2008 Vox 3031
    2007 Apex
    2007 MDG 3071430
    2007 EMI Music Distribution 66557
    2007 EMI Classics
    2007 EMI Music Distribution 82231
    2007 Classics for Pleasure
    2007 Union Square Music 46
    2007 X5 Music Group 21289
    2007 Urania 332
    2006 Wigmore Hall Live 12
    2006 Arte Nova 900690
    2006 Decca
    2006 Opus KURA 2057
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Harmonia Mundi 987057
    2005 Urania 278
    2005 Music & Arts CD1181
    2004 EMI Music Distribution 568147
    2004 Praga 250208
    2004 Urtext 75
    2003 Calliope 3893/4
    2003 Bridge 9137
    2002 Philips 464699
    2002 Arte Nova 74321
    2002 ASV PLT8505
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 74020
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 67551
    2001 EMI Classics 569656
    2001 Talent Records 63
    2001 Surroundedby Entertainment 1004
    2000 Supraphon 3461
    2000 Delos 3167
    2000 Arcana 303
    2000 Simax 1201
    2000 Deutsche Grammophon 469 130-2GP2
    2000 Deutsche Grammophon
    1999 Biddulph Recordings 133/34
    1998 Gasparo Records 320
    1997 Calliope 9893
    1997 Point Classics 267172
    1996 LAB LAB105
    1996 Sony Music Distribution 62413
    1996 Sony Music Distribution 62708
    1995 Gallo 512
    1995 Valois 4730
    1995 Orfeo 361941
    1995 Pavane 7288
    1995 ASV 930
    1995 Nimbus 5389
    1994 RCA 61816
    1994 Deutsche Grammophon 437836
    1994 Deutsche Grammophon 445509
    1994 Naxos 550249
    1994 RCA Victor 62552
    1994 EtCetera Records 1088
    1993 Channel Classics 3892
    1993 Sony Music Distribution 52554
    1993 Denon Records 75164
    1986 Telarc Distribution 80111
    BBC Music Magazine 207
    Analekta 3019
    Masters of Art 93812
    Chandos 9980
    EMI Music Distribution 74792
    Erato 89231
    Philips Classics 411050
    Deutsche Grammophon 427320
    RCA Silver Seal 60909
    Vanguard 4049
    Forlane 16521
    Arianna String Quartet 000
    Cypress String Quartet
    Disques Pierre Verany 786102
    Globe Records 5039
    Nimbus 5077
    Melodiya 1000040
    IMP Masters 17
    Testament 1375
    Musidisc 290442
    IMP Classics 35
    London 430434
    EMI Music Distribution 47347
    Sphinx Organization 000