Claude Debussy is increasingly regarded as the most important composer of the twentieth century, even though he died before the end of World War I. This year, the 150th anniversary of his birth, more people than ever are making that claim, while the composer’s influence can be heard everywhere from the concert hall to the nightclub.
Last century, when the idea of progress was privileged, an ‘important’ composer was one who wrought change and influenced others. The two traditionally mentioned in this context are Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. While both lived longer than Debussy (Stravinsky dying relatively recently, in 1971, at the age of 88), their boldest experiments took place during Debussy’s lifetime. For the Russian Stravinsky, innovation was mostly a matter of rhythm: the primitive stamping and jagged syncopations of his ballet score The Rite of Spring (1913) helped to stoke an opening-night riot in Paris. For the Viennese Schoenberg, it was mostly about harmony. He abandoned the hierarchical system of keys that had supported tonal music for centuries, in favour of a kind of anarchy in which no one pitch was more important than another. That was the theory, and it produced music that still astonishes, such as in the virtuoso work Erwartung (Expectation; 1909).
Schoenberg never felt he was being experimental or modern. As far as he was concerned, he was following an Austro-German tradition which demanded that music should evolve. But audiences found his work difficult, assuming they could hear it at all above the house-key whistling that drowned out unpopular performances in Vienna. Stravinsky, on the other hand, cheerfully claimed to be modern, but we now know that The Rite of Spring drew heavily on folk music. In the 1930s, both men moved to the United States, where they lived the rest of their lives: Schoenberg proud but perennially disappointed; Stravinsky, the showman, enjoying his considerable popular renown. (Late in life he took to paying for everything – even his groceries – by cheque, knowing that a piece of paper he’d signed was more likely to end up in a frame than presented to a bank.)
But if Stravinsky was the century’s most famous composer – the Picasso of the concert hall – and Schoenberg, to the wider public, its scariest, where does this leave Debussy? What were his musical innovations? And why has his importance registered more slowly?
Debussy’s radicalism was subtle. Far from intimidating audiences or provoking a riot, the premiere of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; 1894) had to be encored. Many consider this the start of ‘modern’ music. That’s even the opinion of the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who is pretty uncompromising about these things. It is easy to account for the instant popularity of L’après-midi – it has a long, limpid flute tune, a delicately coloured orchestral palette, a free-flowing structure that gathers itself into a couple of satisfying climaxes and, behind it all, a teasingly erotic story. But there are no primitive rhythms, no dissonant harmonies and it’s hard to imagine anyone being upset by it. So what was new here?
In L’après-midi, Debussy provided an antidote to a century of heroic Romanticism. From the late works of Beethoven (whom Debussy called “the old deaf one”), via Schubert and Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, to Wagner and Bruckner, music in the concert hall and the opera house had grown larger, longer and louder. Along the way, tonal harmony expanded to admit complexities that would eventually lead to atonality but, in the meantime, allowed composers to delay sounding the home key for great stretches of time. To listen to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde or a late Bruckner symphony is to be guided up the twisting paths of a rugged tonal mountain until finally we arrive at the summit, exhausted but bathed in the glow of the home key. To describe these works as goal-oriented is comic understatement.
But Debussy’s L’après-midi is not like this. In Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, which inspired the piece, a faun wakes from a dirty dream about a pair of nymphs, then tries to recall the details – something to do with the blowing of reed pipes, pomegranate seeds bursting through their skin and Etna erupting. (You don’t have to be Freud …) Instead of attempting to convey the poem’s narrative elements, such as they are, Debussy’s music evokes a generalised eroticism. The lovely, languid flute theme is passed around the orchestra, but barely develops; the harmony drifts ambiguously, then stays in one place for a while; the climaxes dissipate in sequences of gently receding waves; and the piece concludes almost reverently, with chiming antique cymbals and a veiled ‘amen’.
It hardly seems the stuff of revolution, but there had not been anything like it before in Western music. The harmony owes plenty to Wagner – there’s even a version of the famous Tristan chord – but it is never used as Wagner used it. At the end of L’après-midi, far from feeling we’ve climbed a mountain, it’s as though we’ve never even moved. Mallarmé’s faun wonders aloud if it was a dream he loved, and we might wonder with him whether we’ve just dreamt this nine-minute piece of music. It’s not surprising, then, that L’après-midi’s first audience insisted on hearing it again.
But just as significant as the re-use of Wagner’s harmony were influences that have nothing at all to do with Western music. Five years before he composed L’après-midi, Debussy heard a Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and the experience left its mark. As well as those little antique cymbals in L’après-midi, it is heard in the stretches of harmonic stasis. Rather than striving for some goal, Debussy’s music often seems to float in the present. “If I am happy in C major,” he said, “why should I modulate?”
Debussy’s reputation has been dogged by the notion that his music is impressionistic, concerned with translating pretty pictures into sound. According to Dolly Bardac, Debussy’s step-daughter, the composer disliked impressionist painting. Yet the tag clings to his music – partly because he gave his pieces titles such as Images, Estampes (Prints) and Nocturnes, the last borrowed from the painter James Whistler. But the subject matter (rain, wind, mist and moonlight, sunken cathedrals and flaxen hair) nearly always has its roots in fin de siècle symbolism. Even the gold fish of Poissons d’or, the last piece in his second set of Images for piano, were inspired not by real fish, but by the painted carp on a lacquered Japanese cabinet.
It is perhaps significant that the ‘floating world’ images of Japanese Edo-period artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, also impressed Debussy. Under the Wave off Kanagawa was a particular inspiration for La Mer, the image even appearing on the cover of the published score. But Hokusai’s famous woodcut, remember, is not just about the wave but also the flimsy vessels it threatens to crush. It is, in a word, symbolic.
Debussy was drawn to the symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Mallarmé, the theatre of Maurice Maeterlinck (whose play Pelléas et Mélisande he turned into his one great opera), and the pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Far from trying to conjure images, Debussy’s music is contemplative, content to stay in one place and examine light and colour in the same way one might take in the beauty of that lacquered cabinet. But this isn’t to say his music eschews darkness or even violence. The American proto-symbolist Edgar Allan Poe, a great favourite of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, inspired Debussy’s unfinished opera, La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher).
Schoenberg might have remained a prisoner of Viennese tradition, and even Stravinsky’s music is dynamic in ways that nineteenth-century composers would have understood. But Debussy’s was genuinely radical in the Western context. In using sonority for its own sake and colour as harmony, Debussy looks forward to Olivier Messiaen. In building larger structures from individual and sometimes unrelated moments, he points to Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Sometimes his music runs on the spot, like that of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and any number of techno artists. Sometimes it sinks into a gentle oblivion like the ambient electronica of Brian Eno or Aphex Twin. It even predicts John Cage: “Music,” Debussy once said, “is the silence between the notes.”
In the middle of 1912, Debussy sat at a piano with his young colleague Stravinsky and played through The Rite of Spring, then still incomplete. At the end he was overwhelmed, both by the music itself and the feeling that he had just heard the future and it didn’t include him.
He was wrong. Debussy seems more modern with every passing year.
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