Children's Corner

Claude Debussy

Children's Corner

L113, CD119

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

In 1904 Pleyel, the famous Parisian firm of instrument manufacturers, approached Debussy with a commission for a new test piece for chromatic harp, intended for use in the diploma examinations at the Brussels Conservatoire. Pleyel had introduced and patented the chromatic harp in 1897. Unlike the conventional concert harp, which is tuned according to the notes of the diatonic major scale, and has seven foot pedals, each of which corresponds to a single scale degree and its chromatic alterations (i.e. natural, sharp, and flat), Pleyel's instrument had no pedals. Instead, a separate string was provided for each chromatic note throughout its range.

Debussy's response to Pleyel's request was to compose his Danse sacrée et danse profane, which eventually took a place among the best-known and most frequently performed works for harp in the concert repertory. The harp parts are surprisingly conventional, and actually not especially difficult to play, though the exotic, coruscating passagework and rich chordal effects might suggest otherwise.

Almost from the outset, Danse sacrée et danse profane was played more often on the conventional orchestral harp, since the chromatic harp was soon abandoned, mostly because of its unwieldy size and the inordinate amount of time required to tune it before every performance.

According to the conductor Ernest Ansermet, the main theme of the first section was inspired by a piano piece by the Portuguese composer Francisco de Lacerda. This has not been proven, however, and it seems more probable that Debussy, with due regard for the antiquity of the harp (one of the oldest instruments in existence), based this slow, modally inflected piece on what he imagined Greco-Roman music must have been like. Another likely source of inspiration may well have been the antique flavor of Erik Satie's Gymnopédies for piano, which Debussy greatly admired, and two of which he orchestrated.

The second part is much faster, and takes the form of a waltz in the key of D major. Still, the music is filled with harmonic contradictions, particularly evident in the use of such "primitive" effects as the lowering of the seventh scale degree.