The Debussy Première Rhapsodie: A History Lesson for Clarinetists

by Mitchell Estrin

Date Posted: February 01, 2018

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Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is remembered in music history as one of the leading exponents of Impressionism. This movement in music and art was characterized by lush colors and textures, and great subtleties of shape and contour. In art, the paintings of Claude Monet (1840-1926), especially his famous "water lilies", visually exemplify the Impressionist movement. In music, the works of Debussy represent the extraordinarily beautiful musical palette of colors that personify Impressionism. Harmonic innovations of the Impressionists included the use of wholetone scales, pentatonic scales, and non-traditional modulations and chromaticism. These new devices separated Impressionist harmony from other musical forms and previous stylistic periods. 

As is the case with many other compositions for clarinet by the great masters, Debussy composed the Première Rhapsodie towards the end of his life. The piece was commissioned by the Paris Conservatoire for their annual examinations in 1910. So, this work is actually a "Solo de Concours" (competition solo) written to test the abilities of the clarinet students at the Conservatoire. As was tradition, the students were given the music to prepare and memorize one month prior to the examinations. In addition to performing the required solo piece at the examinations, the students were also tested on sight reading. For this test in 1910, Debussy composed a very short and charming work for clarinet and piano entitled Petite Pièce. 

Dedicated to Prospère Mimart

The Première Rhapsodie is dedicated to Prospère Mimart (1859-1928), who was the professor of clarinet at the Paris Conservatoire from 1904-1918. Mimart gave the premiere performance on January 16, 1911. 


As the title implies, the Première Rhapsodie is a free form piece. In a whirlwind seven plus minutes, Debussy poses immense challenges on the performer. The difficulties include a number of significant technical obstacles, tests of endurance, breath control, and subtleties of tone, intonation, and nuance. 

Although originally conceived as a competition solo, the work was quickly recognized as a masterpiece solo work for the clarinet, and soon began appearing in programs on the concert stage. Debussy was so pleased with this work that in 1911 he orchestrated the piano part so that the piece could be performed by soloist with orchestra. The orchestration is brilliant and offers clarinetists a very special addition to the repertoire for clarinet and orchestra. 

The title "Première" (first) Rhapsodie implies that perhaps Debussy may have considered the possibility of a second Rhapsodie, but, unfortunately, this never materialized. 

Performing this Work

The Première Rhapsodie is challenging for an advanced player, and should not be attempted early in the performing life of a clarinet student. Sometimes, I will assign this piece to an advanced college undergraduate student, but the complexities and subtleties are more appropriate for graduate students. Performing the Petite Pièce as a prelude to the Première Rhapsodie is a favorite combination of mine for recital programming. 

You can hear the Première Rhapsodie in its original conception with piano in many fine recordings on YouTube. To listen to the work with orchestra, my favorite recording was made in 1961 by clarinetist Stanley Drucker with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

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