Claude Debussy

Rhapsody for alto saxophone & orchestra (or piano), L. 104 (98)

    Description by Michael Jameson

    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.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2014 Navona Records NV 5983
    2014 Haenssler / Hänssler Classic 93.315
    2014 Indesens INDE 063
    2012 Indesens INDE 040
    2012 Naxos 8509002
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2011 Piper / Zebralution
    2011 Apex 67717
    2011 Naxos 8572675
    2009 Arts Music 47748
    2008 Maestro Music 4695949
    2007 Ottavo 30589
    2006 Cala Records 1017
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 0946365240
    2006 Naxos 8 552127/8
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Andante AN1200
    2005 Brilliant 92765
    2005 EMI Classics 5866482
    2005 MDG 6031324
    2004 Stradivarius 33662
    2003 Chandos 10144
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 5 75526-2
    2002 Naxos 8557063
    2002 Clarinet Classics 0040
    2001 Concerto Royale 206222
    2000 Naxos 554784
    2000 Agora Musica 242
    1999 BIS 1020
    1999 Nuova Era 7329
    1999 Ars Musici 1220
    1998 Sony Music Distribution 60695
    1998 Digital Sound 51038
    1997 Teldec 13133
    1996 Chandos 7018
    1995 Chandos 7019
    1992 Vox 5053
    1992 Marco Polo 223374
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 54301
    1990 Pearl GEMMCD9348
    1987 Delos 1007
    Brilliant 92765/4
    EMI Music Distribution 72109