Claude Debussy, Danse Sacre et Danse Profane

Today, I start writing about one of the most wonderful episodes of my life. In January of 1975, I moved into “The French House” at Indiana University. This dorm sat in a complex called Graduate Residence Center (GRC). During World War II, the university became a language training center for the armed forces. A number of dormitories for the troops sprang up at the East side of campus in a small meadow, through which a little stream ran. After the war, more dorms were added and given over to students in graduate school, in order to separate them from the rowdier dorms. The older buildings were set aside for those of us studying a particular foreign language, and you were only supposed to speak your house’s language in the dorm.

During that first semester there, I met more interesting people in my little, two story dorm, than I had up to that point in my entire life. Most of the people in this coed dorm either majored in language or music, or some other humanity. There was only one science major, a randy, polyglot pre-med student with boundless energy. For the first time since adolescence, when I had became obsessed with the desire to become an intellectual, I did not feel like a freak.

Every body in the French House, and GRC for that matter, loved learning. And on top of that, there were a great bunch of eccentrics thrown in. I once met a guy who had studied Greek and Latin in high school. He dressed in army fatigues, smoked a pipe, and looked a bit like a side of beef. “My teacher made us translate the Oddyssey from Greek to Latin, and then back again,” he once said as we chugged along one day to class, he puffing away like a manic train engine.

Over the next few weeks, I will talk about a number of interesting people in and around the French House, whose stories are bound up with my exposure to even more classical music. Indeed, I heard a number of my all time favorite works of classical music–the ones I want to be buried with–while I was living in this dorm. I was exposed to a number of these while sitting around talking about art, literature, or music in the rooms of my dorm mates. And best of all, these people weren’t sitting around getting plastered before they started having a philosophical or literary discussion. You could actually talk about these things over dinner in the cafeteria.

Since Indiana University was the largest music school in the States, you had ample opportunities to get your fill. The music school had five student orchestras and mounted an entire opera season over the course of the year. Every night you could go hear a doctoral or master’s recital. In addition, Indiana University was on the tour circuit for major performers. While I was there, Horowitz, Nureyev, and Peter Schickele performed there as well as dance companies like Alvin Aley, Philobolus and Eliot Feld. So I felt as if I had died and gone to classical music heaven.

Even better, the people in my dorm would think it quite reasonable to want to go and see a performance and shared information about upcoming ones that promised to be good. That is how I first encountered today’s piece, Debussy’s Danse Sacre et Danse Profane. Someone asked me to if I wanted to go see the Eliot Feld Dance Company. This was not long after seeing the Nutcracker, so I accepted the invitation.

Feld’s company was much less formalized than the traditional ballet companies, and the dancers wore costumes that suggested real clothing and not bizarre tutus or thigh-hugging tights. The dancers also seemed more in touch with the rhythm and mood of the pieces. My favorite work that evening was a sensual dance of seduction set to Debussy’s music. A man courted a woman and they moved sinuously around the one prop on stage–a divan on wheels that they could push around and fall on in passionate embraces. It was one of the most beautiful performance I had ever seen, and the music still evokes that scene today whenever I hear it.

One of the links at the bottom of the page today talks about how Debussy a harp manufacture commissioned this piece to showcase a new invention in the instrument-a pedal system that allowed the performer to change keys easily. That invention made the instrument more versatile and caused its induction into the orchestra as an integral instrument.

The first dance, the sacred one, starts out sounding a bit like angelic harps. Of the two dance, it is less melodic and more impressionistic. It creates an expansive mood of airiness, lightness, and joy. The tonal structure is inspired by Debussy’s fascination for Spanish music, and I find it almost has an oriental feel to it. The second dance, the profane one, has a strong beat that carries it along. The melody rides this pulse, welling up, from time to time, in passionate exuberance. It ideally suits Feld’s use of it for the dance of seduction.

It wasn’t until doing the research on this piece that I realized another reason why it appeals to me so much. The profane dance is really reminiscent of Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies, which Debussy loved and even orchestrated. These are works of sheer, unadulterated, and perhaps naive beauty and passion. And since the French House is where I found my first love, these pieces today still pack a big emotional bang for my buck.

Debussy Commissioned by Harp Manufacturer

Debussy Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Debussy Sacred and Profane Dances


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

2 Responses to Claude Debussy, Danse Sacre et Danse Profane

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Precious times. 🙂


  2. Gallivanta says:

    I can see why it was a wonderful time. My first year at University I was in the first ever co-ed hostel. That was an interesting experience. Didn’t ever get used to the idea that the boys thought it was funny to have drunken weekends, throw water about and set off fire alarms.


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