Calefax Reed Quintet: Debussy and Whistler

Experience the painterly palette of sounds created by composers Claude Debussy and Enrique Granados in this concert celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth. The virtuosic Calefax Reed Quintet, from the Netherlands, performs its own lush arrangements of Debussy’s works, which were deeply influenced by the American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler. This concert was presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series on March 2, 2012, and made possible in part through support from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts.


Calefax Reed Quintet
Oliver Boekhoorn, oboe
Ivar Berix, clarinet
Raaf Hekkema, saxophones
Jelte Althuis, bass clarinet
Alban Wesly, bassoon

Title Time
Claude Debussy
Estampes (1903) (arr. Raaf Hekkema)
Pagodes (Pagodas)
La soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada)
Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain)
Enrique Granados
Goyescas (1911) (arr. Jelte Althuis)
Suite Bergamesque (1890; revised 1905) (arr. Oliver Boekhoorn)
Clair de lune
Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (Aria)
Hans Abrahamsen
Walden (1978)
Four movements


Debussy and Whistler

This concert explores relationships between visual arts and music as revealed, in part, through the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler, his influence on French composer Claude Debussy, and their mutual connection to Japan. Whistler’s work was collected often by Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, and Whistler encouraged Freer to explore Asian art. The Freer Gallery now holds one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art as well as the largest collection of Whistler’s work. This year, 2012, is the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, and a fitting occasion to explore his indebtedness to Whistler. (See our previous podcast of pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute for further examples of Whistler’s relationship to music.)

Whistler was one of the first artists in the West to collect and study Japanese art after Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly opened Japan to Western trade in 1854. Especially influential for Whistler (and many of the French impressionists) were Japanese woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai. Debussy later became familiar with the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai as well as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Utagawa Hiroshige, whose Fireworks at Ryogoku Bridge is part of the slideshow accompanying this podcast.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Whistler created a series of dark, atmospheric paintings of nighttime landscapes that he called “nocturnes.” His inspiration for these works partially came from Japanese woodblock prints. The term “nocturne” itself was suggested by Frederick Leyland, an amateur pianist and one of Whistler’s patrons. (Whistler transformed Leyland’s dining room in London into the Peacock Room, which is on permanent display in the Freer Gallery of Art.) Leyland, in turn, borrowed the label from Frédéric Chopin’s piano works of the same name, written in the 1830s.

At least three of Whistler’s nocturnes now in the Freer collection were exhibited in London in 1892, where Debussy apparently saw them. The paintings so inspired Debussy that he began composing his orchestral Nocturnes immediately upon returning to Paris, completing them from 1897 to 1899. Debussy was deeply influenced not only by Whistler’s paintings but also by his revolutionary ideas about art. Whistler’s aesthetic theories reached a wide audience in Britain through the “Ten O’Clock Lecture” he delivered in London in 1885. It was translated into French by the symbolist poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé three years later. Both Whistler and Debussy attended a series of famous Tuesday night gatherings at Mallarmé’s Paris home, where Debussy became known as the “Whistler of music.”

Deeply influenced by Whistler’s art and thought, Debussy once described his orchestral Nocturnes as “an experiment … in finding the different combinations possible inside a single color, as a painter might make a study in gray.” The composer’s indebtedness to the visual arts is also found in the names he gave to many of his other works: images, sketches, estampes (prints), and scenes.

Like Whistler, Debussy collected Japanese art, including a lacquered wood panel titled Poisson d’Or (Goldfish). That piece inspired the last movement of his piano series Images Book II (1907), which he similarly titled Poisson d’Or. He named his 1903 piano work Estampes (Prints), which we hear in this podcast, in homage to the art of woodblock prints. For his orchestral tone-poem La Mer, Debussy insisted that his publisher place on the cover Hokusai’s famous woodcut Under the Wave off Kanagawa. The subtitle of La Mer—Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra—further exemplifies the importance of the visual arts to Debussy’s work.

—Michael Wilpers and Lee Glazer

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

Claude Debussy heard a Javanese gamelan orchestra in the Dutch pavilion at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, an experience that exerted a lasting influence on his composing. Years later this experience found its way into Pagodes, the opening movement of his Estampes. The fact that Debussy describes a Chinese temple with music inspired by Javanese sounds is immediately forgiven by the sheer beauty of the music.

Spain put the mark on the second movement: La soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada). Even though Debussy had never been to Spain (apart from a few hours in San Sebastián), this musical portrait of Granada could not have been more accurate. Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote, “There is not even one measure of this music borrowed from the Spanish folklore, and yet the entire composition in its most minute details, conveys admirably Spain.” The third movement projects the fear Debussy had felt during a midnight thunderstorm in the country. It is a horror-like synthesis between a rolling thunder and a French children’s song: “Nous n’irons plus au bois.”

Enrique Granados (1867–1916) (arr. Jelte Althuis)

Enrique Granados was born in Lleida, in the Catalonia region of Spain. After studies in Paris, he returned to Spain as a composer and a piano virtuoso. By that time, Spain had been defeated in the Spanish-American War, and the country had lost the last remnants of a once-grand empire. Inspired by the paintings of Francisco José de la Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), Granados translated the essence of the Spanish soul into music in such a way that immediately after its publication in 1911, Goyescasbecame his most famous work.

While this cycle of six piano pieces does not refer to a specific painting by Goya, its main theme is love between young people. The Goyescas was turned into an opera that premiered in New York in 1916; Granados and his wife, Amparo, traveled to see it. Their return voyage ended tragically when their boat was struck by a German torpedo. The composer reportedly saw his wife struggling in the water, and they both drowned in his attempt to save her.

Suite Bergamasque
Claude Debussy (arr. Oliver Boekhoorn)

Debussy’s Suite Bergamasqe is one of his most fascinating works for piano, not only for its rich, impressionistic qualities but also for its somewhat mysterious creation. Supposedly Debussy began composing it in 1890, while he was still studying music. In 1905, however, he revised the works and published them under the title “Suite Bergamasque.” It is unknown how much of the work was completed in 1890 and/or 1905.

Throughout the first movement, Debussy evokes a sense of improvisation (a sound he meticulously sought while composing his work). Opening triumphantly, its playful harmonies dance along flowing lines until it finally pushes toward a climactic end similar to the opening bars. The menuete is unlike a Haydn or Mozart minuet and trio; its dancelike structure is more reminiscent of the baroque style, yet its harmonies remain true to Debussy’s impressionistic sound. The most famous of the movements, Clair de lune (Moonlight), has a sublime melody, with rivers of rolling notes, colorful harmonies, and intriguing dynamic phrases that are perhaps Debussy’s interpretation of moonlight filtering through the leaves of a tree. It is a masterpiece unto itself. The exciting final movement, with staccato in the left hand relatively throughout the movement’s entirety, is one of the most difficult to play. Its sharp contrast with flowing themes in the right hand creates a marvelous, complex sound that is a perfect ending to a beautiful suite.


Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952)

Written in 1978, Walden was commissioned by the Funen Wind Quintet. The title is taken from Henry David Thoreau’s novel from 1854 about the two years he spent living in the woods. His experiment was an attempt to strip away all the artificial needs imposed by society and rediscover man’s lost unity with nature.

Although Thoreau himself never completed an actual social analysis, he was way ahead of his own time in his perception of the economy and cyclic character of nature, today known as ecology. His ideas are particularly relevant now that the pollution caused by society has reached alarming proportions.

Walden was written in a style of recycling and “new simplicity.” Much superfluous material has been stripped away to reveal qualities such as identity and clarity. Various layers are encountered in the quintet, such as the organic (growth, flowering, decay), concretism (mechanical patterns), and the descriptive (distant horn calls and other ghostlike music of the past enter the consciousness like a dream). Walden consists of four movements. In 1995 another version of the reed quintet was written for the Calefax Reed Quintet.

—Hans Abrahamsen


Calefax is well known for its virtuoso performances, innovative programming, and engaging concerts. The Dutch reed quintet performs standing up and always introduces itself and the program to the audience. Most importantly, the five musicians arrange, recompose, and interpret music from eight centuries to suit their unique lineup: from early music, Renaissance, baroque, and Romantic works to jazz and world premieres.

The quintet has played more than six hundred concerts in twenty countries. It has appeared throughout Europe, both in new music forums and in early music festivals, and has toured in Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States. Calefax received the Philip Morris Art Prize (1997), the Kersjes van de Groenekan Prize (2001), and the VSCD Classical Music Award (2005) for the best chamber music performance at Dutch venues in the 2004–2005 season. In recent years Calefax collaborated with the Zapp String Quartet, pianist Ivo Janssen, and mezzo-soprano Cora Burggraaf, among others.

The German recording label MDG issues Calefax’s ever-growing discography. The group’s latest CD features arrangements of Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano, described by the Dutch press as “very likely the CD of the year 2009.” Other CDs include J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Suites by Duke Ellington, and Suites by Jean-Philippe Rameau, described as “five souls playing as one.” In addition to concerts, Calefax offers master classes and workshops for young amateur musicians and conservatory students. In cooperation with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Calefax developed a musical game show for school children and a family concert staged by Jetse Batelaan.


Podcast, notes, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. Web design by Liz Cheng and Melda Washington, audio engineering by SuMo Productions and Andy Finch, text editing by Joelle Seligson, and curatorial coordination with Lee Glazer. Special thanks to Calefax for granting permission to podcast their performance at the Freer Gallery.

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