Debussy, “Danses sacree et profane”

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Danses sacree et profane for harp and string orchestra (1904)

Debussy’s music often heavily emphasized the harp–his inclination towards transparent textures and blurry, unconventional harmonies seemed to draw him towards the instrument. So when Pleyel et Cie, the instrumental manufacturing company, wished to commission a work to highlight their new chromatic harp, Debussy was a logical choice.

Until the 19th century, harps were frequently diatonic–a harpist who wished to perform a piece in D major and then a piece in A major would have to bring two harps. The 18th century saw the invention of harps with pedals, which allowed some notes to be adjusted chromatically, but the instrument still could not play in certain keys and was known for its buzzy sound and frequent string breakage. These obviously limiting factors are the reason that earlier symphonies, such as those by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, never included harp. But the early 19th century saw the invention of the double-action pedal harp (the modern concert harp). This harp has seven pedals, each of which is attached to one note and has three positions which make that note sharp, natural, or flat. Thus, the harp could finally play in any key, and even switch keys in the middle of the piece!

The only significant disadvantage of the double-action pedal harp is that it takes some time to switch between keys, and often the pedals make dull clunking sounds when doing so. The Pleyel chromatic harp had no pedals, and using a method of cross-stringing the harp in order to make a single string for each chromatic pitch reachable by the player. The instrument was quickly abandoned for reasons that become quickly apparent when viewing one–it is large, bulky, and has an overwhelming number of strings, each of which needs to be tuned individually multiple times per day.

However faulty the instrument Debussy originally composed for, his two Dansesare not compromised. The modern concert harp (used tonight) can present the work as beautifully as the chromatic harp. The two dances are neither sharply contrasting nor were they intended to be. The modal melodies and transparent textures of the string family add a sense of antiquity and solemnity to the sacred dance, while the final dance has a light, waltz-like feel. The word “profane” is not used in any sort of pejorative sense, but instead indicates devotion to the senses, rather than to a deity. One can almost imagine the dance taking place internally while sitting in a sunlit meadow. Both dances are light and beautiful, without a trace of wickedness

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~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
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