Debussy: Berceuse Heroique

Claude Debussy was asked to write something for King Albert’s Book which was a collection of music sponsored by The Telegraph and put together by Hall Caine, and was designed to send “a tribute of admiration to Belgium on the heroic and ever-memorable share she has taken in the war”. He was in good company as composers such as Elgar, Massenet and Saint-Saens were among the other contributing musicians. Debussy composed the Berceuse Heroique during the first year of the First World War and this was the only music he composed all year. He was reportedly devastated and depressed by the war and did not feel it was appropriate to compose or even play music during this time, and the following quote captures his apologetic approach to the composition;
“At the request of The Daily Telegraph, I had to write something for King Albert’s Book,” wrote Debussy. “It was very hard, especially as La Brabançonne (the Belgian national anthem, incorporated into Debussy’s piece) stirs no heroic thoughts in the breasts of those who were not brought up on it. The result of these divagations is called Berceuse Héroique. It’s the best I could do . . .”

This sombre berceuse evokes the war through a solemn march, punctuated by distant bugle calls, two gunshots and a snippet of the Belgian anthem La Brabanconne. Debussy apparently decided that a ‘Marche Heroique’ would be too blatant and so settled on ‘Berceuse Heroique’ as being a more tranquil alternative (berceuse meaning ‘lullaby’), and he was quoted as saying he “has no pretensions other than to offer an homage to so much patient suffering.” Originally written for the piano, Debussy reworked it for orchestra the following year which suggests he may have eventually warmed to his music during this time.

Vicky Moran, Violin 2