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The Essential Debussy

François-Xavier Roth

'My relationship with Debussy first began as a flautist. He wrote so many wonderful parts for the flute, and I had a lot of time to discover the music in depth. So when I first started to conduct he was in my programmes all the time.'

With 2018 being 100 years since the death of Debussy I wanted to find a way to celebrate this major figure in music history, whom many people believe was the first to really advance modern music. Although Debussy is an important composer for the orchestra he actually didn’t create that many works for these forces – no symphonies and only one opera. I thought it would be great to have three different programmes that guide us through Debussy’s music, from his influences through to whom he influenced.

I started with Debussy’s roots; with where he came from. There’s no doubt that he was influenced by French traditionalists, like, for example, Édouard Lalo. As a young man Debussy discovered Lalo’s ballet Namouna, and like a lot of young composers at the time was fascinated by the new possibilities and colours that were coming through his music. Richard Wagner was also a great influence, especially in the way he structured his works and by his philosophy; and finally Jules Massenet was an extremely important figure while Debussy was a student in Paris. And so the first programme of my trio will feature music by these three composers as influencers of Debussy’s work – Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, Lalo’s Cello Concerto – with an amazing young soloist Edgar Moreau, already a star, making his LSO debut – and Massenet’s Le Cid ballet music. By Debussy himself we will have an exciting discovery: the UK premiere of Premiere Suite. The parts for this work were only recently unearthed in a library in New York, and I had the great privilege of premiering this piece in 2012 with my orchestra, Les Siècles. The suite is in four movements and although it’s clearly music by a young man, it already shows some really interesting developments and has some magical moments.

The second programme is pure Debussy. Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune is the masterwork. Many people say that it’s the start of modern music, and so important in terms of its language, its harmony, its structure; everything. It’s a great thing to have the Prélude and Jeux together in the same programme – Prélude is still Debussy as a young man, opening a new door in music, and I think Jeux opens the next door. The Fantasy for Piano is a marvellous piece with a marvellous soloist, Cédric Tiberghien, who has such great taste and understanding of this magical work. And we finish with Three Nocturnes, which is the most brilliant and fascinating work for orchestra that Debussy wrote.

The third programme was conceived with music by those whom I consider to be Debussy’s 'sons', the next generation influenced by Debussy. There’s no doubt that Pierre Boulez was heavily influenced by his music, and you can hear it in so many of his works such as Notations and Dérives, and in the piece that I have programmed for this concert, Livre pour cordes. We have Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto with Renaud Capuçon, Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol, and by Debussy himself, La mer. We will also hear a new work by Ewan Campbell from the LSO’s Panufnik Composer Scheme. It’s great to see the commitment for the next generation of composers, and it’s something that every orchestra should take as seriously and as joyfully as the LSO.

It’s fantastic to be celebrating this most important of French composers with three of my compatriots as soloists – although I didn’t actually deliberately plan it that way! – and with the LSO, to which I owe such a lot and who I think of as the best ‘French’ orchestra. The LSO has the flexibility you need for Debussy; to achieve the subtle colours the music requires. I’m very much looking forward to this cycle.

François-Xavier Roth, conductor
January 2017

What's On

The Young Debussy
21 January
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Essential Debussy
25 January
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Debussy and Beyond
25 March
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BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts: Debussy & Pizzetti
A series at LSO St Luke's celebrating two composers with anniversaries this spring: Claude Debussy and Ildebrando Pizzetti who died 50 years ago.

Cédric Tiberghien & Friends
9 February
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16 February
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16 March
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BBC Singers
9 March
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Debussy Day at Milton Court
As part of the Debussy centenary the Barbican presents a day of the composer's piano music on the 100th anniversary of his death. Played, introduced and discussed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Debussy scholar Roger Nichols, it will include Études, selections from both volumes of Préludes and much more. Visit for more details.