One cannot help but wonder how different the course of classical music might have been if the Paris Exhibition of 1889 had featured indigenous music from India instead of, or in addition to, the Javanese and Balinese exhibits. Would the great French composer Debussy have taken a very different path than he did? Would he have found our music just as riveting, spending hours listening to our native instruments, examining the way they were tuned, and transcribing melodies as he did with the Javanese gamelan? We shall never know. What we do know is that Debussy opened an Alice-in-Wonderland door to a bold new sound-world where the straitjacket of rules and restraints regarding form and structure was summarily discarded.
This year is his sesquicentennial (150th birth anniversary). Claude-Achille Debussy (he would drop the Achille in later life) was born on 22 August 1862 in the Parisian suburb of Saint-German-en-Laye, to a family of simple stock (a lineage of farm labourers, artisans and merchants). His parents were not musically inclined, and his introduction to the piano came from an aunt when he stayed with her in Cannes. Back in Paris, he studied with Mme. de Fleurville, a former pupil of Chopin, who recognised his potential. At the remarkable age of ten, he gained admission into the Paris Conservatoire. But to Debussy it was “that gloomy, dirty place where the dust of bad habits clings to one’s fingers”.
“What rule do you follow?” asked an exasperated professor once. “My own pleasure!” retorted young Claude. Unsurprisingly, his played was described as “irresponsible and muddle-headed”. “Modulate, modulate!” exclaimed his composition teacher, the renowned César Franck. “Why should I? I’m quite happy with the key I’m playing in!” was his cheeky rejoinder.
In 1883, he won the much-coveted Prix de Rome in composition, which entitled him to spend four years in Italy. But Debussy hated those years, describing his room at the Villa Medici as an “Etruscan tomb”. The one highlight from those years was his meeting with Liszt, who made the piano “breathe” through the sustaining pedal.
His initial fascination with Wagner and his grandiloquent “music-dramas” soon waned. He had begun his quest for a new musical language, “flexible and adaptable to fantasies and dreams”. He discarded conventional rules of harmony, and adopted the whole-tone scale (omitting the semi-tones that confine a musical phrase or work into a definite “tonality” or key), with a resultant blurred, deliberately ambiguous effect.
France celebrated the centenary of the French Revolution with great aplomb in 1889, with a dazzling World Fair in Paris that saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Here the exotic Javanese pavilion held Debussy in its thrall. Flower-bedecked graceful dancers swayed to the music of the “gamelan” orchestra (tuned gongs, bells, xylophones, tiny cymbals). He was seduced by the economy of the Oriental five-note (pentatonic) scale, and it began to seep into his compositions as well.
In addition, Paris in Debussy’s adulthood was the hub of the Belle Époque, a veritable hothouse of creative talent. Contemporary composer Paul Dukas writes that “the most important influence on Debussy was that of writers, not composers”. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s Afternoon of a Faun was the inspiration for Debussy’s groundbreaking Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune., and he was profoundly influenced by the writings of Verlaine and Baudelaire. His blurry, smudged harmonies were inevitably compared with their contemporary visual counterparts, the artworks of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas and others collectively called the Impressionists. The label stuck to Debussy’s music, a term he intensely disliked.
Debussy is known to most of us through his piano works, but there’s so much more. His only opera Pelléas et Mélisande “shattered the world”, in the words of biographer Roger Nichols. His ballet Jeux, a poème dansé, was far ahead of its time, and was unfortunately eclipsed by the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring the same month.
Debussy fought a slow, painful battle with cancer and died on 25 March 1918 while the First World War was still raging. The funeral of this “musicien français”, as Debussy had begun signing his works, was therefore quite subdued. But his legacy has lived on. His music has influenced every major composer after him, from Ravel to Bartók to Boulez and Dutilleux. He left his mark on the world of jazz too, influencing Gershwin, Ellington, Theolonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and Jacques Loussier.
Alliance Française Goa presents a celebration of Debussy’s life and works at Fundação Oriente Panjim on 21 July 2012 at 5.30 pm. All are welcome.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 21 July 2012)
I interviewed several musicians who have performed in Goa in the recent past, for their thoughts on Debussy. As you will read, their contributions have been diverse. Some of them give their impressions about Debussy’s music; others have sent in more detailed analyses of specific works, or advice on playing his scores.
I reproduce them in full below:
In music, the 20th century is the richest and most varied era. It is an era which is very dear to me, and I feel more attuned to its music, specially of the early part, which includes Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and the list is long… Debussy is undoubtedly one of the most innovative of them, mainly in terms of harmony.
Actually, the "20th century piano music" has already started with Franz Liszt, if we think about some compositions like "Nuages gris", "Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este", "Bagatelle sans tonalité", etc… Liszt anticipated a new musical language – using whole-tone scale, parallel fifths and augmented triads, just to name a few – that Debussy has developed further.
I would like to point out one more characteristic: the descriptive titles. Debussy, in the beginning, gave abstract titles to his works, like Mazurka, Menuet, Prelude, Toccata, but slowly introduced a more allusive and evocative titles, like "The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air" (Title taken from a poem by Baudelaire) or "And the moon descends on the temple that was", or "Fairies are exquisite dancers"… it makes me so excited even before listening to the piece itself. It is comparable to the feeling when reading the menu and imagining the taste of the dish before it is served!!
The Piano Trio by Claude Debussy
The Trio in G Major for Violin, Cello and Piano by Claude Debussy was long considered lost and was only rediscovered in the eighties of the last century. This is the earliest surviving composition of Debussy.
The rediscovery of the autograph was rather convoluted. Until about 1980, only the score of the first movement and the cello part of the entire manuscript as a trio were available. Only in 1982 did an editor discover the score of the last three sets in the estate of Maurice Dumesnil, Debussy’s former student. From a few bars of the finale there is only the cello, so that the publisher had to reconstruct the piano and violin. Amusingly Maurice Dumesnil separated the last four bars of the autograph and then sent them as gifts! Luckily he had previously written them down.
The 18-year-old Debussy, was a student at the Paris Conservatory, in the eyes of his parents and teachers he was a "failed prodigy", who did not fulfil his career as a piano virtuoso. Then he got a tempting offer: The Russian millionaire Madame Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky sought for their annual trip to Europe a house pianist and piano teacher for their children. Debussy could look forward to a musically inspiring time. In addition to the daily piano lessons there was a lot of chamber music playing in the evenings which included the piano trio literature. This seemed to encourage Debussy so far that he ventured to compose his first piano trio work. He dedicated it later, probably with a bit of irony, to his harmony teacher Emile Durand (with whom he was not particularly popular) with the words: "Beaucoup de notes de beaucoup d’accompagnées amitié, offert par l’auteur à son Professeur Monsieur Emile Durand" ("A lot of notes, of great friendship accompanied by the author to his professor, Monsieur Emile Durand presented").
Although his first work compositionally does not come even close to the later masterpieces, it nevertheless has its special charm. Not to miss are the influences of composers Schumann and Franck, whom Debussy held in high esteem.
The first set comes with a youthful insouciance. Following are passionate as well as dreamy moments, but the sense of movement is never lost.
The second movement enjoys a saucy start from scratch with the strings in unison, pizzicato. The piano interferes with loud chords before the main theme begins.
In the third movement, the instruments take turns in beautiful cantilenas each other. A highly romantic gesture that should be taken quite seriously, however, is its basis all through.
The last movement is full of Passion. Vibrant eighth-notes accompany the lead voice. Rhythmically charged with full sound, the work ends on a (somewhat short) Stretta.
—— Julia Kraus
(Click here for my review of the TonTrio concert in Goa)
I had my first relation with Debussy’s music playing "Children’s Corner". I still love that piece; with its "easy" structure, it shows all the characteristics of Debussy’s music-world! Finesse, irony, colours, new piano sounds, looking on the overseas music culture…
Later of course, I discovered all the compositions by Debussy.
My humble idea of his music is: after Mozart’s "pure" music …
there is Debussy. He is a real turning point in music history!
Now I’m playing L’isle joyeuse…
But my secret love is …all the songs for voice and piano!
I’m dreaming of finding a singer to perform all that wonderful poetry inside the music!
——- Paolo Vergari
(Click here for my review of Vergari’s concert in Goa)
THOUGHTS ON PRACTICING DEBUSSY
By Prof. Dr. Nancy Lee Harper, Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal
Growing up in the USA during the mid- 20th century and studying Debussy as a young student, I found the most difficult thing about this music was in not knowing how to practice it. Recordings and scores were not what they are today even though there were those by Gieseking and Durand. At that time, I would just hope that eventually the technical command would put the musical essence into place. I dreaded trying to unravel these mysteries, praying that by some miracle I would wake up to find the new piece in its correct musical and pianistic place. This was not music by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, nor Ravel. It was not direct, but rather presented a vague illusion to something else: something French, something Spanish, something Oriental, something subtle.
Later, with the vast amount of research by musicologists and pianists coupled with my own musical maturity, the sonorous world of Debussy became a revelation of great beauty and perfection. Because this “illusive” music is so tightly constructed (some structurally obeys the Golden Section); is so specifically and microscopically indicated by the composer regarding musical expression, rhythmic preciseness, and even rubato; and is so incredibly delicious; all of these facts make me wonder why as a young person I had such difficulty in practicing it. The answer, I believe, is that my own musical imagination, musical culture, and inner ear were not sufficiently developed as to be able to fully appreciate Debussy’s music. My own mother was so terrified of La Mer that we could not play the recording while she was in the house!
The Debussy scholar, Roy Howat, whose editions, recordings, books, and discoveries of new Debussy works have provided us with invaluable information, was overheard to say in a Masterclass: “Just play what is in the score”. Recently, I had a Masters’ student, Catarina Fortunato, who analysed and compared the notion of tempo indications in Debussy’s Préludes II. While observing metronomic markings by Debussy in other works of his and while using sophisticated software (Sonic Visualiser, created by Chris Cannam University of London), she was able to pinpoint exactly the velocity and rubato used by Walter Gieseking (1895 – 1956) in his recordings of 1939 and 1954; by Jacques Février (1900 – 1979) from 1961; by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920 – 1995) of 1988; and finally by Roy Howat (b. 1951) of 1996. She did not use the 2005 Transart Live recording of Georges Pludermacher (b. 1944), a pupil of Février, because of the use of a 4th harmonic pedal invented by Denis de La Rochefordière, which would be another study all on its own. Nor did she use Debussy’s own recordings of some of his other works in the absence of a recording by him of Préludes II. Taking into account the differences in recording technologies and the fact that a scientific measurement could be ascertained of emotionally-based tempi indications, she concluded: “The perception of the operation of key elements [in this care, tempo and rubato] that are assumed for the overall design of the work leads the interpreter to the construction and establishment of personal goals that are consistent with and conscious of the requirements of the author.”
So, with any work by any composer but especially with Debussy, study its legacy − its background, history, editions and manuscripts, recordings, composer’s words (although not always totally truthful) and those of his contemporaries. Then, listen to your own inner voice. Sometimes our interpretations are somewhat conditioned by the instruments we play them on and in that respect Pludermacher’s may offer something unusual. Certainly the other recordings mentioned above do, as well as the new Durand Debussy editions. Above all, remember Debussy’s sentiments: "I am trying to do ‘something different’ − an effect of reality…” (Thompson, 161, in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Debussy, consulted 4 July 2012).
(Click here for my review of Lee Harper’s concert in Goa)
I was always a big admirer of Claude Debussy. I remember performing „Deux Arabesques“, Suite Bergamasque, L´Isle Joyeuse and lots of his Préludes very well. The audience always likes this special kind of music and I think that he was one of the greatest composers from France until now. This music has a unique style and can be recognized immediately being performed live or on radio. Young pianists love to practise these pieces.
Happy Birthday, Monsieur Debussy!
——— Harald Kosik
(Click here for my review of the Haydn Trio’s concert in Goa)
My first full concert ever included a piece by Debussy entitled: Des pas sur la neige (Footprints or Footsteps in the snow) and I’ve always had the depiction of this barren landscape imprinted in my memory and strong association with Debussy. Of course his music captures many moods…by contrast, in recent years I’ve taken to playing the extremely popular L’isle Joyeuse or Island of Joy. I’ve always thought of that piece as a wonderful combination of romanticism and modernism and something audiences are always happy to hear.
—————– Kimball Gallagher
[In fact, at Gallagher’s concert in Goa, he mentioned that L’Isle Joyeuse reminded him of our beautiful state!]
I like Debussy because he knew the rules but broke them not out of mere rebelliousness but because he could see beyond them. He didn’t mess around, he broke them tastefully, gradually, and paved the way for generations of not just classical music but every genre. In that respect he was the great grandfather of jazz. Even Bill Evans and Tom Jobim cited him as a direct influence on their harmonic language. I just wished he had lived longer and written more!
—————– Shirish Malhotra, flautist