By Mary Nemet | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Scored for harp, violins 1 and 2, viola, cello, and double bass, Debussy wrote these two short dances to a commission from the instrument-making firm of Pleyel, keen to market its newly developed chromatic harp. The dances are also playable on the pedal harp, which soon replaced the chromatic harp on the concert platform. The dances’ archaic style, including modal harmonies, used to express a “sacred” rite and a “profane” dance of joy, reflects Debussy’s enthusiasm for antiquity and for his artistic world around 1900.
Playing the concert harp with its 47 strings was challenging enough, with its seven foot-pedals, each with three positions, making a harpist’s feet as busy as their hands. In what seemed like a good idea at the time, the Pleyel Company in Paris (whose pianos were Chopin’s favorite) decided to eliminate the pedals. They came up with a “chromatic” harp with a separate string for every pitch—thus no more complicated footwork. However, Pleyel’s harp had not one but two or more rows of strings.
Excited about their innovation, Pleyel needed to showcase it to the world. Who better to endorse it than the composer of the well-loved harp piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Claude Debussy? So in 1904, Pleyel approached him with a commission for a new work for the debut of the chromatic harp. Danses sacrée et profane was an instant hit, but the chromatic harp was not. Too cumbersome with its many rows of strings, it was too heavy, difficult to keep in tune (there were no electronic tuners in 1904), and not nearly as resonant as the pedal harp. Off it went to the museum.
At the Dances’ premiere on chromatic harp in Paris, the public was enthusiastic while the critics (including Gabriel Fauré) ranged from restrained to negative. “His harmonic idiosyncrasies are sometimes curious and alluring, sometimes also unpleasant,” opined one such critic. At a second performance in 1910, the pedal harp was back in favor, much to Debussy’s relief, and the Dances have survived to this day, enjoyed for their intoxicating melodies and lush harmonies.
Often called impressionistic (a term that Debussy strenuously denied), his music shares the same luminous characteristics as the paintings of his contemporary Impressionists Monet, Degas, and Renoir. The first edition of the full score (there is also a two-piano version), dating from 1904, is the main source for this Henle critical edition. The generous Preface and Comments highlight the extensive research and scrutiny of each note by experts in the field, culminating in a clear, reliable, and comprehensive score.