Many great composers have accepted commissions for new works, and then never managed to bring them to fruition; Debussy was certainly no exception. A composer who found it exceptionally difficult to write anything to order, Debussy found the composition of his Rhapsodie for alto saxophone and orchestra -- which had been requested in 1903 by Elisa Hall, President of the Boston Orchestral Club -- a particularly disagreeable task.
Hall had taken up the saxophone -- as yet still rather unfashionable prior to the jazz era, when the instrument came into its own -- in the hope that it would improve a respiratory weakness from which she suffered. With little regard for the cost, she set about commissioning a substantial array of new works for the instrument, which then had a very small repertory, and approached several prominent French composers, including Debussy. Debussy, who cared little for the instrument and knew almost nothing of its technical capabilities, would not fulfill the commission for the Rhapsodie for several years; indeed, when he did submit his score, it was incomplete and unorchestrated.
Not easily deterred, Hall traveled to Paris, pressing for a completion date. Debussy wrote to André Messager of her visit in somewhat ungracious terms: "The Americans are proverbially tenacious...the saxophone lady has arrived, and is inquiring about her piece. Of course, I have assured her that it is the only subject that occupies my thoughts...so here I am, searching desperately for novel combinations calculated to show off this aquatic instrument." And to Albert Louÿs, he confided "Considering this piece was ordered, and paid for...and (its proceeds) eaten more than a year ago, I realise that I am behindhand with it. The saxophone is a reed instrument with whose habits I am not very well acquainted. Does it indulge in romantic tenderness like the clarinet?"
In 1905, Hall performed one of her other commissions in Paris, and Debussy, who was present, later wrote that he thought it ridiculous to see a woman in a pink frock playing on such an ungainly instrument, adding that it was not his desire to perpetuate the spectacle. However, in 1911 Debussy again resumed work on the piece, and finally sent Hall a rough draft of just three or four staves, with much of the score still missing. Jean Roger-Ducasse undertook the task of completing the work after the composer's death, in a manner which showed how well he understood Debussy's musical language.
Originally, the work was to be called "Rhapsodie Orientale"; subsequently, it became the "Rhapsodie at a Société Nationale de Musique event Mauresque," possibly a more appropriate title, since this straightforward work owes much to Spanish idioms. The Rhapsodie was premiered in its completed form on May 11, 1919, conducted by André Caplet and featuring saxophonist Yves Mayeur as soloist.