Danses sacrée et profane

Watching from the audience, I always thought playing the concert harp with its 47 strings looked challenging. But when I discovered that it also has seven foot pedals and that each pedal has three positions, I decided that it was next to impossible. Why so complicated? Because each of the seven basic notes in a scale has three pitches: flat, natural, and sharp. If you cannot play each of the three pitches, the harp is limited to playing the white notes on the piano, and certain keys requiring black notes are out of the question. So, a harpist’s feet are as busy as his/her hands.

In what seemed like a good idea at the time, the Pleyel and Company in Paris (whose pianos were the favorite of Frederic Chopin) decided to eliminate the pedals. They came up with a “chromatic” harp with a separate string for every pitch; no complicated footwork. Pleyel’s harp had not one but two rows of strings – and obviously many more of them.

Excited about their innovation, Pleyel needed a splashy way to showcase it to the world. Who better to endorse it than the composer of the harp-notorious Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Claude Debussy. In 1904, Pleyel approached him with a commission for a new work for the debut of their new instrument. He was a natural for the assignment, turning out in short order Danses sacrée et profane. Not surprisingly the piece was an instant hit, but the chromatic harp was not. It was an instant bust. It was too cumbersome with its two rows of strings (of which there were now too many), too heavy, difficult to keep in tune (no electronic tuners in 1904), and not nearly as resonant as the pedal harp. Off it went to the museum. The pedal harp breathed a sigh of relief; the Danses survived.

Now to the dictionary. “Profane” in French does not mean “irreverent”, “impious”, or “blasphemous”. It simply means “secular” in contrast to sacred with no negative connotation attached to it. So don’t expect anything sacrilegious when Debussy switches gears five minutes into it.

Debussy’s Danses is in two parts, written more to explore the chromatic potential of the harp than to explore the implications of its title, so disregard the title and just absorb its luscious music backed by a string quartet. It’s a beauty, intoxicating.

Every music book I ever read calls Debussy’s music “impressionistic”, which he denied with considerable irritation. But it is impressionistic, and I don’t understand why he disclaimed the compliment. It shares the same diaphanous and luminous characteristics as the paintings of his contemporary Impressionists Monet, Degas, and Renoir. Why run from that crowd? Oh well, it’s his to define, not mine.