Claude Debussy wrote his first string quartet in 1893 and planned a second as part of the series of six chamber works of which only half were to be completed in 1915, when the composer was depressed by the war and the fatal disease, which brought about his death three years later. The existing string quartet, however, stands at the threshold of his career and at the threshold of the new music that a new century was to bring. At the Conservatoire Debussy had won the Prix de Rome in 1884. Early in 1887 he was able to return from his unwelcome obligatory stay at the Villa Medici in Rome and refused the expected provision of an overture for a public concert of his work in Rome, an event that consequently had to be cancelled.
In his personal life at this time Debussy seems to have embraced a fin-de-si�cle hedonism that led him into a number of liaisons of an unfortunate kind. From 1888 he enjoyed a stormy relationship with Gaby Dupont that was to last nine years, interrupted by his engagement in 1894 to the singer Th�r�se Roger, the cause of the end of his friendship with Chausson. Gabrielle Dupont tried to shoot herself in 1897, but survived. Two years later Debussy married his first wife, Dupont's friend Rosalie Texier, a mannequin, whom he deserted in 1904 for the married woman who was to become his second wife. The vie de Boh�me with Dupont, however, is also of the period of those remarkable settings of Verlaine, of the Pr�lude � l'apr�s-midi d'un faune based on Mallarm� and of early work on the Maeterlinck opera Pell�as et M�lisande.
The string quartet looks forward in many ways to the musical language that Debussy was to develop as entirely his own, characteristic in its use of modal and whole-tone scales, in its subtle harmonies and texture and in its clarity of form. The four movements are thematically related, in the manner suggested by the work of C�sar Franck. The first movement retains the general shape of a classical first movement. The following scherzo is dominated by the viola theme with which it opens and leads to a slow movement that suggests the medieval or pre-Raphaelite world of Pell�as et M�lisande. The final movement opens in contrapuntally angular fashion, proceeding to an allusive summary of something of what has passed. The quartet was given its first performance in December 1893 by the Ysa�e Quartet in Paris.
If Debussy was to despise the Prix de Rome, for Ravel it was to prove a cause of public scandal. At the Conservatoire, which he had first entered in 1889, Ravel had variable success, and consistently failed to win the Prix de Rome even when he had established his reputation in the wider musical world of Paris. His failure to win the prize in 1905, caused in part by his deliberate unwillingness to follow the academic rules of the competition, led to the resignation of the director of the Conservatoire, the conservative Dubois, and his replacement by Ravel's teacher Gabriel Faur�.
Ravel wrote his only string quartet in 1902, dedicating it to his teacher Faur�. The work was to excite comment and there were comparisons with Debussy's quartet, which had obviously influenced the younger composer. Ravel was never to disparage Debussy, but the latter grew to resent suggestions of Ravel's influence on him, which at times seemed evident enough. The quartet opens with one of those characteristically nostalgic melodies, replete with yearning for an unattainable past, a mood of which Faur� was a master. The second theme suggests a theme to be used a few years later in the Introduction and Allegro, here poignantly announced by first violin and viola. There is a scherzo of subtle rhythmic complexity with thematic links to the first movement and leading to a slow trio section in which the resources of the quartet are fully explored. The slow movement offers music of suggestive delicacy, evocative of a past world and this leads to a lively final movement of rhythmic asymmetry but thematically re1ated to what has gone before.
Ravel wrote his Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet in 1905. Relatively simple in conception, this work contains in it the spirit of an age and of a poetic national mood. The harp is beautifully handled in music that expresses beyond the power of words that world on which Ravel had earlier touched in his Pavane pour une infante d�funte.
ReviewsArtistically and technically this is a satisfying performance - Penguin Guide