K is for Khamma and Koechlin – Debussy’s Khamma


I thought that ‘K’ would give me a quick and easy time in this A-Z survey of Debussy and his music, with a brief post on Khamma, the ballet. But the more listening and reading I do, the more fascinated I become with this little-known piece, which started life as a piano score. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet discovered  a copy in a Parisian book store, and has recorded it as part of his Chandos 5 CD set of Debussy’s piano music. Here it is online, courtesy of IMSLP, with details of the story above relevant parts of the score, and here are details of the CD.

The scenario for the ballet was written by William Courtney, then literary editor of the Daily Telegraph and an Oxford Don, and dancer Maud Allan, who commissioned the work from Debussy, and whose colourful career has been well documented. There were various wrangles between Debussy and Allan, and Debussy’s ill-health and other commissions got in the way of the composition from 1911-1913, so much so that he only managed to orchestrate fewer than 100 bars before asking Charles Koechlin to complete the orchestration. It was published in 1916. Maud Allan’s notorious 1918 court case, which she lost, signalled the end of her dancing career and her European reputation; the work’s first performance was in a concert version in 1924, after Debussy’s death, and the first choreographed performance was not until 1947.

The story takes place in Ancient Egypt; Thebes is threatened with invasion, and the high priest in the inner temple of Amun-Ra, the ancient sun-god, prays for deliverance. He sends a young, veiled virgin, Khamma, to dance before Amun-Ra’s statue; fearfully, by moonlight, she complies –  with three dances as an offering. At the end of the third dance, Khamma sees that the head and shoulders of the stone god are moving; the hands rise from the knees, the palms upturned. Khamma’s fear vanishes, she dances again with ecstasy and joy – and then is struck by lightning. The third scene shows the temple at dawn; a victorious crowd comes to celebrate the city’s deliverance, but the sight of Khamma, sacrificed, halts the proceedings. The piece ends with the high priest giving a blessing over Khamma’s body.

A real curiosity; I should like to see a performance. The music is very atmospheric and imaginative, and Koechlin’s use of orchestral piano is notable. There is some wonderful writing throughout, and particularly beautiful moments around  9:00 and following, during the Première Danse.

For further reading, Robert Orledge‘s book, Debussy and the Theatre, describes the various intrigues concerning Khamma’s commission and publication.

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This entry was posted in Composers, Music, The French Connection - An A-Z of Debussy's music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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