“Debussy never witnessed a performance of Khamma, nor did he finish orchestrating it. The composer already had a problematic relationship with the world of dance following Nijinsky’s radical choreography to Jeux and L’Après-midi d’un faune, commissions of the Ballets Russes which have since asserted themselves as concert masterpieces.
Despite Khamma’s troubled genesis, its tightly wrought dramatic structure and mysterious harmonies are pure Debussy. The dark, undulating piano arpeggios and distant trumpet calls of the opening measures set the scene with vivid strokes, with a nearly Leitmotivic approach to illustrating the plot. The influence of Stravinsky, and in particular Petrushka—which Debussy praised for its “sonorous magic”—manifests itself in sharp timbral contrasts and bitonal passages.
Debussy accepted the commission from Canadian dancer Maud Allan in the midst of health problems that obliged him to take extensive loans from his publisher, Jacques Durand. The contract for what the composer would soon call “the wretched little Anglo-Egyptian ballet” was signed behind Durand’s back in 1910, splitting royalties between the two parties, but the terms would have to change.
Allan, at the height of her fame following appearances in The Vision of Salome, turned to Debussy for another exotic work culminating in an ecstatic, sacrificial dance. The veiled protagonist of Khamma, originally entitled Isis, falls dead at the feet of the sun god, Amun-Ra, after a supplication to deliver his people from invaders. The libretto was most likely conceived by Allan’s co-author William Leonard Courtney, according to an Egyptian tale.
Debussy, struggling to find the time for his opera La Chute de la Maison Usher—for which he penned his own libretto but never completed— condemned the plot to Khamma as “so shallow and dull that a negro could do better!” He nonetheless found the inspiration to turn out a piano reduction in 1912, already mentioning to Durand his idea for the muted trumpets which emerge in Usher.
Yet when Allan demanded modifications to length and instrumentation, the composer backed out, declaring to his publisher, “here comes this little madam to give me lessons in aesthetics… who talks of her taste and that of the English!” Following measure fifty-five of the first scene, the orchestration was entrusted to the Fauré protégé Charles Koechlin.”