Printemps

I. Tres modéré; II. Modéré
As a result of the French Revolution, the Paris Conservatoire, established in 1795 became one of the principal institutions in the transformation of Europe's musical life. It embodied the training of artists with uniform expectations and teaching material, replacing the traditional master/pupil apprenticeship. The first music students enrolled at the turn of the 19th Century (as a result of competitions, which these days are a much disputed part of modern music life). One of the earliest and most important such competitions was the Grand Prix de Rome, administered by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and which from 1803, invited entries from the Conservatoire's composition students (as well as young architects, sculptors, painters and poets.) The First Prize, awarded for the finest composition of a cantata, was a four year study scholarship at the Villa Medici in Rome. When Debussy (1862-1918.) was a student at the Conservatoire, he could not refrain from making malicious comments about the institution and also about those academics who had to judge the Rome Prize. Debussy did enter the competition on three occasions, before finally winning it in 1884. He began his stay in Rome in 1885. It is characteristic of his attitude that he referred to the Villa Medici as a “spleen-factory” and unexpectedly returned to Paris some time before his period of study was due to end. Scholars were obliged to send a completed work back to the Académie des Beaux-Arts every year. Debussy's second such work was Printemps, written in 1887. The Académie had this to say: “It is the case that M. Debussy does not stray into monotony or banality. On the contrary, he shows a conspicuous attraction towards the unusual. His predilection for musical colour is so strong that it makes him forget clear voice leading and the importance of form. He must guard against mistaken impressionism, the most dangerous enemy of artistic truth.” Behind the two movements of this symphonic poem lies a shared narrative with much other contemporary spring-music (think of the opening movement of Mahler's I. Symphony). Debussy – according to his own statement – strove to express the slow painful awakening of nature, then its gradual blossoming and finally, its joy of rebirth. In the music we can detect the influence of both Wagner and Liszt, but also note the originality of the unaccompanied pentatonic melody of the opening bars. The tonality of the opening movement is F sharp major. This is interesting because we can suspect it as a deliberate act of provocation against the Conservatoire on Debussy's part. A year before, Saint-Saëns had criticised another of his scholarship submissions, Zuléima, saying that he believed F sharp major a tonality best avoided in orchestral writing. The original orchestration of the work is lost, but Büsser succeeded in orchestrating the surviving piano score in 1912.