Gavin Goodwin: Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone


Gavin Goodwin, saxophone

Saxophonist Gavin Goodwin (GDip '18) will be performing Debussy's Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone with the McGill Contemporary Ensemble Friday, April 13, 2018 at 7:30 pm in Pollack Hall. We caught up with Gavin in a recent email exchange to learn more about his upcoming performance.

Why did you choose to attend Schulich?

After completing an undergraduate degree in Canada and my master’s degree in the United States, I was looking to continue my studies and McGill felt like the perfect fit. Montreal was a city I had been interested in making my new home base for some time, and Schulich’s reputation and being at the heart of downtown Montreal was a strong draw for me. Combined with the flexibility of the Graduate Artist Diploma program in allowing me to continue to hone my craft as a performer and make important connections in the city, having the chance to study more closely with Marie-Chantal Leclair was important to me. I previously worked with Marie-Chantal at a summer workshop and I knew her reputation as a teacher and as an excellent performer, so with our common musical tastes and sensibilities, I knew it would be a invaluable experience to study with her.

Can you explain Debussy’s piece? Are there certain moments that the audience should listen for?

Claude Debussy’s Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone is the lone work by the composer featuring the saxophone. We have Elise Hall to thank for the existence of the work, as she commissioned Debussy to write for saxophone, an instrument that he likely would have ignored without the commission. Hall was an American amateur saxophonist and Boston socialite frustrated by the lack of repertoire for the instrument. This lead her to, in addition to Debussy, commission many French composers of her day to write for the saxophone, including André Caplet, Florent Schmitt, and Vincent d’Indy, and we are indebted to her for her work in expanding the early repertoire of the instrument. 

The commissioning process was a lengthy and difficult one for Debussy. Receiving the commission in 1901, Debussy did not deliver a complete version of the piece to Hall until 1903, and the piece was not premiered until after Debussy’s death in 1919. Correspondence from the composer exists detailing his dislike of Hall (to whom he referred to as “the saxophone lady”), how the commissioning fee had been spent long before the completion of the work, and his unfamiliarity with the saxophone as an instrument. Despite all of this, he was able to deliver a work that is a true gem in the repertoire and one that is undeniably “Debussy.” Rather than being presented as a concerto, the piece should really be approached for what it is: a rhapsody. The saxophone is featured in an episodic manner with languid melodies marking each of the contrasting moods throughout the piece. Many Debussy hallmarks can be heard, including long lyrical melodies and frequent use of whole tone scales that give the work that “Debussy” harmonic flavour. Similarities with Debussy’s other works can also be heard, with the opening melody from the saxophone echoing the mood of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), the strong triple-duple rhythmic motive and exotic harmony being reminiscent of Lindaraja (1901), and the winding, embellished melodies evoking moments in L’isle joyeuse (1904). 

The work has a history of being arranged, with multiple versions for saxophone and piano being published, often including more of the orchestral wind lines in the solo saxophone part. The version to be performed by the Contemporary Music Ensemble is a chamber orchestra arrangement by French saxophonist Clément Himbert.

Buy tickets for this performance here.