Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Ye Hu

A Competition Solo
Written in 1910, Claude Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet was commissioned as an examination piece, Solo de Concours (competition solo) for the clarinet students at the Paris Conservatoire. The piece is lyrical and rich, requiring the full range of technical and musical possibilities that the clarinetist has to offer.

A Masterpiece for Clarinet
This work is dedicated to Prosper Mimart, the clarinet professor at the Paris Conservatoire from 1904–18, who also gave the premiere performance in January 16, 1911. The Rhapsody was originally written for clarinet and piano, and after Debussy heard the composition performed, he was extremely satisfied with the results. He wrote to his publisher, “to judge by the looks on the faces of my colleagues, the Rhapsodie was a success.” It was soon recognized as a masterpiece for clarinet, and Debussy’s particular delight with the piece inspired him to adapt the work for full orchestra in 1911.

A Free-Form Piece
The Rhapsody for Clarinet is a free-form piece. Debussy creates great challenges for the performer, including understanding Debussy’s unique style, structure of harmony, a number of significant technical obstacles, and change of color, tone, intonation, and nuance. This extremely beautiful and fantasy-like composition is known for its multiple levels of dynamics that go from piano to pianissimo to pianississimo to actual silence. Debussy creates different sound worlds within each section. Through his connection of motives, each motive presents a unique idea which develops different color and atmosphere in each section. As the clarinet and orchestra create a dream-like atmosphere, the modules of sound twist in and out of these different ideas in a free way.