Jon Lee


Debussy Piano Trio in G major, L. 5

Program Notes

In 1872, at the age of ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire. There his piano teacher, Antoine Marmontel, noted his first prize in score-reading and recommended him to Nadejda von Meck, the famous patroness of Tchaikovsky, who was looking for a pianist to accompany her and her children on their travels.

He joined her in the summer of 1880, when he administered piano lessons to her children, accompanied her daughter who was a singer, and played piano duets with herself. They arrived in Florence that fall, where the family was joined by a violinist and cellist fresh from the Moscow Conservatory. It seems the trio was required to perform every evening. Tchaikovsky had not yet written his tragic Trio in A minor; the young Debussy, eighteen at the time, beat him to it and wrote his own Trio in G major. Perhaps this served as inspiration for Madame von Meck, who asked Tchaikovsky for one.

The Trio reflects Debussy’s criticism of German music as being “too heavy and clear.” As early works go, it appears to reflect the composers familiar to Debussy at the time—Delibes (whose music was ubiquitous at the Conservatoire’s sight-reading class), Franck, Schumann. The work can’t be characterized as anything but lightweight salon music, written for immediate gratification.

The piece appears in four movements. The first movement tends to have four-bar phrases that take a seat at the end waiting for something else to happen; while a weakness here, it is a feature Debussy uses effectively in his later music. The playful second movement hops between dainty and smooth textures, conjuring images of tutus and a Pas de deux. The third movement’s romantic expression evokes a swan solo. The Appassionato finale provides a strong end to the work.

The existence of the trio was known and catalogued but assumed lost. An autograph score of the first movement and the complete cello part became available in 1980, but it wasn’t until an autograph score of the last three movements was discovered among the papers of Debussy’s pupil Maurice Dumesnil two years later that the entire trio could be assembled. The effort wasn’t without its challenges: the two sets of autographs has considerable discrepancies between them, suggesting different drafts; an entire page from the score of the finale was missing and had to be reconstructed; and amusingly, Dumesnil had physically removed the last four measures of the finale and gifted it, through he at least had the good sense of copying the score of these measures on the scrap. The reconstituted trio was published by Henle in 1986.

Other resources

  • Updates:
  • 10 Sep 2022 — Adopted from Alden Trio program notes

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