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Songs We Love: Debussy, 'La Plus Que Lente'

Claude Debussy, photographed ca. 1908. He died 100 years ago on March 25, 1918.
Wikimedia Commons
Claude Debussy, photographed ca. 1908. He died 100 years ago on March 25, 1918.

When it comes to heavyweight game-changers like Claude Debussy, super fans even celebrate death anniversaries. It was 100 years ago, March 25, 1918, that the visionary composer lost his battle with cancer and died in Paris at age 56.

To mark the occasion, Warner Classics has issued a handsome 33-CD box containing what the label says is "the most complete collection ever made" of Debussy's music.

/ Warner Classics
Warner Classics

Naturally, the set includes the composer's best known works, from the atmospheric piano piece "Clair de lune" and the groundbreaking opera Pelléas et Mélisande, to the audacious symphonic portrait of the sea, La mer. But there are also many rarities such as Chanson des brises (for soprano, women's choir and piano four hands, in a world premiere recording) and a set of piano rolls Debussy made himself.

La plus que lente, a solo piano piece, was written in 1910 and recorded by Debussy three years later on the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano, which accurately mimicked the pianist's tempo, phrasing, pedaling and dynamic levels. The piece's title generally translates in English to "The even slower waltz," a sarcastic reference to the trendy valse lente style of the day.

With its syncopated rhythms, elasticity of the melodic line and blue tinted chords in the left hand, the music seems to point presciently toward jazz — a genre yet to be fully developed. No surprise then that jazz musicians, from pianist Erroll Garner to saxophonist Kamasi Washington, have been drawn to Debussy.

Ignoring many of the old rules about how to build a piece and how to combine textures, timbre and color, Debussy offered new sonic possibilities — especially in works like Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and his piano Préludes.

Hearing him play his own music, even via the old school player piano, is a fitting way to celebrate a singular artist whose influence and inspiration are still very much alive.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.