Natasha Lo­ges

De­bussy was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary who al­tered the di­rec­tion of western clas­si­cal mu­sic – and yet even his most ad­vanced works seemed to ap­peal to ev­ery­one. Stephen Walsh ex­plains how

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

Aca­demic and critic

‘This month’s cover CD of De­bussy’s and Mozart’s best-loved songs re­veals the con­trasts and the cor­re­spon­dences be­tween these two tow­er­ing fig­ures’ ap­proach to art­song.’

Claude De­bussy had lit­tle faith in pop­u­lar taste. After at­tend­ing the dress re­hearsal of Char­p­en­tier’s Louise at the Paris Opéra-comique in Fe­bru­ary 1900, he told Pierre Louÿs that ‘peo­ple don’t much like Beauty; it’s an em­bar­rass­ment, and doesn’t suit their ugly lit­tle souls.’ His com­plaint was not that they didn’t like Louise, but that they did. ‘Holy smoke!’ he raged, ‘it’s a thou­sand times more con­ven­tional than [Meyer­beer’s] Les Huguenots, while us­ing the same means with­out seem­ing to! And they call that Life! God in heaven, I’d rather die on the spot.’

What­ever its artis­tic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, the sub­text of this out­burst was al­most cer­tainly the fact that he was at that very mo­ment start­ing to con­tem­plate the long hope­d­for pro­duc­tion of his own Pel­léas et Mélisande, like­wise at the Opéra-comique, after three years of wait­ing for the mere prospect of a per­for­mance and another two wait­ing for the the­atre to give it a firm date, which in fact it didn’t un­til May 1901. If Louise was what peo­ple liked, he must have ref lected, what would they pos­si­bly make of Pel­léas, so in­con­ceiv­ably re­mote from the sen­ti­men­tal verismo of Char­p­en­tier’s Parisian love story? ‘If it were pos­si­ble to have Pel­léas done in Ja­pan,’ he told his pub­lisher, ‘I’d much pre­fer it!’

He needn’t have wor­ried. When Pel­léas fi­nally reached the stage in April 1902, what hap­pened was the re­verse of what he feared. At the dress re­hearsal on the 28th, played to a ‘list’ au­di­ence of press, aris­to­cratic pa­trons, priv­i­leged mu­si­cians and the well con­nected, there were in­ter­rup­tions, cat­calls, laugh­ter at Yniold’s ‘pe­tit Père’ and mimicry of Mary Gar­den’s Scot­tish ac­cent (which had ap­par­ently gone un­no­ticed when she took over the part of Louise days ear­lier). But the first per­for­mance on the 30th, to an au­di­ence of sub­scribers and pun­ters, went off with­out dis­tur­bance and was a suc­cess. The opera ran for 14 per­for­mances in 1902, was con­stantly re­vived, be­came prof­itable, and reached its 100th Paris per­for­mance by early 1913.

THE CASE OF Pel­léas is cu­ri­ously sim­i­lar to that of Boris Go­dunov, an im­por­tant inf lu­ence, as it hap­pens. The first (nearly) com­plete per­for­mance of Mu­sorgsky’s mas­ter­piece at St Peters­burg’s Mari­in­sky The­atre in Jan­uary 1874 was greeted with wild en­thu­si­asm by the au­di­ence, but gen­er­ally ex­e­crated by the press, who largely pre­ferred to draw at­ten­tion to what they saw as Mu­sorgsky’s tech­ni­cal in­com­pe­tence rather than his mu­sico-dra­matic ge­nius which, if they ac­knowl­edged it at all, they played down. In the same way, it looks as if De­bussy’s crit­ics al­lowed them­selves to be ir­ri­tated by the in­for­mal­ity of his har­monic lan­guage, his fail­ure to pro­vide the singers with good op­er­atic melodies, and his novel ap­proach to decla­ma­tion, and sim­ply failed to no­tice the ex­quis­ite beauty and dra­matic pre­ci­sion of this strange new id­iom. Au­di­ences, it’s true, are not al­ways per­cep­tive, not in­vari­ably dis­crim­i­nat­ing, and quite of­ten spend money on junk. But some­times they will re­act pos­i­tively to mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ences that, in how­ever new and sub­tle a way, achieve a de­gree of charm and emo­tional truth that any­one can hardly fail to re­spond to. It doesn’t bother them that rules are be­ing bro­ken, even if they no­tice. But what hap­pens when the charm and truth turn out to be not just ap­peal­ing to the in­no­cent ear but rev­o­lu­tion­ary in their ef­fect? Is it pos­si­ble, in fact, to be both these things? De­bussy’s mu­sic seems to ar­gue that it is.

Where, after all, did we get the idea that mod­ern art had to be dis­agree­able? In the 18th cen­tury the nor­mal ob­jec­tion to the most chal­leng­ing mu­sic was that it was too com­pli­cated, called for too much en­gage­ment, was even too beau­ti­ful.

‘Too beau­ti­ful for our ears, my dear Mozart,’ Joseph II is sup­posed to have com­plained after the first per­for­mance of Die Ent­führung in 1782, ‘and mon­strous many notes!’ The story may be apoc­ryphal, but it il­lus­trates an at­ti­tude nonethe­less. Imag­ine any­one grum­bling to Schoen­berg, ex­cept per­haps iron­i­cally, that Er­wartung (1909) was too beau­ti­ful. It is beau­ti­ful, but only to those who are unlikely to ob­ject. But then the idea that the se­ri­ously mod­ern needed to be hard on the ears as well as the in­tel­lect be­longs, pre­cisely, to the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, and has some­thing to do with artists’ need to dis­tance them­selves from an in­creas­ingly ed­u­cated, well-in­formed, well-to-do, but com­pla­cent, some­what philis­tine au­di­ence, and an academy that had set­tled into a for­mu­laic ap­proach to method and aes­thetic judge­ment. All of a sud­den, artists were rebels. Im­pres­sion­ists turned against aca­demic draw­ing; Ex­pres­sion­ists turned against nor­mal­ity. De­bussy turned against the Con­ser­va­toire. Schoen­berg dis­carded tonal­ity, sup­pos­edly as part of a log­i­cal process, but in the full knowl­edge that it would cause trou­ble. The prim­i­tive and the es­o­teric joined hands across the im­mense aes­thetic dis­tance that sep­a­rated them, with the sole pur­pose of dis­cred­it­ing the mun­dane world of fac­to­ries and ma­chin­ery, elec­tric light and pub­lic trans­port, money and mil­i­tarism.

These ex­pla­na­tions are com­mon­places of art his­tory. But artists don’t usu­ally think in such ways. They re­spond to all kinds of mo­tives and stim­uli, they look at or lis­ten to each other’s work. ‘In ef­fect,’ Pierre Boulez wrote in Auprès et au loin, ‘the

young com­poser grad­u­ally be­comes aware of his craft through that of his pre­de­ces­sors, ap­pro­pri­at­ing their in­no­va­tions and as­sim­i­lat­ing their pow­ers.’ Re­bel­lion can be over­rated. Stravin­sky turned mu­sic his­tory up­side-down in The Rite of Spring; but its ma­te­ri­als and meth­ods go back to his kuchk­ist, Peters­burg ori­gins, with a flavour­ing of the fash­ion­ably prim­i­tive and a great deal of added ge­nius. Some­thing sim­i­lar might be said about De­bussy. At the age of 27, in conversation with his old com­po­si­tion teacher, Ernest Guiraud, he rub­bished al­most ev­ery­thing about mu­sic the­ory as taught at the Con­ser­va­toire, but was then forced to ad­mit that with­out that teach­ing he wouldn’t have de­vel­oped the free­dom to re­ject it with con­fi­dence.

One might even de­scribe his re­bel­lious­ness as some­what after the fact. For a long time, es­pe­cially as a song­writer, he had im­i­tated his pre­de­ces­sors – Gounod, Bizet, Franck – but re­fracted through his own lens. Like dozens of his French con­tem­po­raries he had be­come ob­sessed with Wag­ner but, not lik­ing or per­haps feel­ing equal to the sheer scale and grandeur of Wag­ner’s dis­course, he had iso­lated par­tic­u­lar mo­ments – par­tic­u­lar chords, chord pro­gres­sions, rhyth­mic tex­tures – and treated them as mo­tifs, usu­ally with a re­fine­ment and del­i­cacy of a kind not nec­es­sar­ily typ­i­cal of the orig­i­nal. There are good ex­am­ples in his first set­ting of Ver­laine’s ‘En sour­dine’ (see Tris­tan, Act II) and ‘L’om­bre des ar­bres’, where he not only iso­lates two or three bars from the open­ing of the Tris­tan pre­lude, but even takes Wag­ner’s avoid­ance of res­o­lu­tion as a hint for a more ex­treme de­con­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion of his own. A hos­tile critic might see this as noth­ing bet­ter than pick­ing up scraps from a great com­poser and re­cy­cling them in a more eas­ily di­gestible form. But that

Where did we get the idea that mod­ern art had to be dis­agree­able?

would be en­tirely to miss the point of the way De­bussy’s Gal­lic sen­si­bil­ity ex­plores the sep­a­rate bits and pieces of mu­si­cal lan­guage and con­verts them into sym­bolic ob­jects en­riched by but not re­stricted to the mem­ory of their orig­i­nal con­text.

Some­thing in De­bussy’s sen­si­bil­ity made him more in­ter­ested in where he was than where he was go­ing. ‘I dream short po­ems,’ he told Guiraud, ‘mo­bile scenes… di­verse in lo­cale and char­ac­ter.’ Hence, of course, the short, lap­idary scenes in Pel­léas. ‘One is stif led by rhythms [and] rhythm is not the same as me­tre.’ ‘You have to drown the tonal­ity. Then you end where you want, you leave by which­ever door you like. It gives you a big­ger field.’ And what about coun­ter­point? ‘Coun­ter­point isn’t noth­ing. By mak­ing the parts work, you cap­ture some nice chords.’ So it’s less a mat­ter of get­ting along, more a ques­tion of im­mac­u­late chord voic­ing, get­ting the move­ment be­tween and within the chords right. You can hear this in the pi­ano mu­sic, in ‘Hom­mage à Rameau’ and es­pe­cially ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles,’ where an in­tri­cate polyphony of peal­ing bells and rustling leaves forms a de­li­cious tex­ture of mo­tion within the mo­tion­less, be­cause the har­mony, like the bells and the leaves, is an­chored, mov­ing but never pro­gress­ing. De­bussy had also dis­cussed with Guiraud par­al­lel chord streams, which Guiraud ad­mit­ted could be pleas­ant enough (he played De­bussy some par­al­lel tri­ads) but which were, he in­sisted, the­o­ret­i­cally mean­ing­less. For De­bussy, au con­traire, they were one of sev­eral ways of drown­ing the tonal­ity, and to hell with the­ory. As we learn, sub­se­quently, from ‘La Cathé­drale en­gloutie,’ or from the sub­tler not-quite-par­al­lels in ‘Et la lune de­scend sur le tem­ple qui fut,’ an­cient the­ory is help­less in the face of imag­i­na­tive ge­nius, which, after all, is where the­ory ac­tu­ally comes from.

Un­like Schoen­berg, whose ‘only yard­stick [was] his sense of bal­ance and his be­lief in the in­fal­li­bil­ity of the logic of his mu­si­cal think­ing,’ De­bussy told Guiraud that, for him, ‘plea­sure [was] the rule.’ Nat­u­rally plea­sure has its own logic. De­bussy worked and worked at re­fin­ing, test­ing, lis­ten­ing and re-lis­ten­ing, un­til sat­is­fied that each ele­ment, each sonor­ity was as per­fect as he could make it. He was like a sculp­tor or a painter in sound, con­stantly stand­ing back from his can­vas, check­ing the colours and brush-strokes, search­ing for the slight­est im­per­fec­tion in the way the mu­sic would sound. He was, one feels, in love with ev­ery note, ev­ery chord, ev­ery frag­ment of melodic line; and this love com­mu­ni­cates in­stantly to the lis­tener. But he was at­ten­tive, too, to

De­bussy was in love with ev­ery note, ev­ery chord, ev­ery melodic line

those qual­i­ties of bal­ance and logic that Schoen­berg rightly val­ued, and with­out which mu­sic can be as beau­ti­ful as you like but will make no im­pact in the tem­po­ral sphere where it op­er­ates.

We can be­gin to see from his re­marks to Guiraud and the mu­sic that, so to speak, il­lus­trates them why the re­bel­lion that De­bussy ini­ti­ated was a so much qui­eter and more agree­able af­fair than the ones that hit the head­lines just be­fore the Great War: the pre­miere of The Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913, and the so-called Skan­dalkonz­ert in Vi­enna a cou­ple of months ear­lier. The vi­o­lent rhythms and harsh dis­so­nance of The Rite of Spring were part and par­cel of its sub­ject mat­ter, and it’s dif­fi­cult to say whether, had Stravin­sky’s next bal­let after Petrushka been Les No­ces, he would have gone so far, so quickly in point of style. The die was cast, and that was that.

The Vi­en­nese dis­tur­bance, a near-riot at a Musikverein con­cert of works by We­bern, Berg, Zem­lin­sky and Schoen­berg him­self, was sim­ply a log­i­cal con­se­quence of Schoen­berg’s jet­ti­son­ing of tonal­ity, which he chose to re­gard as his­tor­i­cally in­evitable, but which most lis­ten­ers, then and since, have re­garded as an un­for­tu­nate mis­take. At one point in My Evo­lu­tion (1949) he looks for ‘a psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion of the fact that an au­thor who is not sup­ported by tra­di­tional the­ory and, on the con­trary, knows how dis­taste­ful his work will be to con­tem­po­raries, can feel an aes­thetic sat­is­fac­tion in writ­ing this kind of mu­sic.’ In other words, never mind the lis­tener. The idea that one writes for pos­ter­ity is the last re­sort of the mis­un­der­stood Ro­man­tic. But the sad fact is that, nearly 150 years after his birth, Schoen­berg’s pos­ter­ity has

not yet ar­rived – not, at least, if pos­ter­ity means a lay au­di­ence (see our fea­ture on se­ri­al­ism, p48). De­bussy, by con­trast, had a lay au­di­ence from the day his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune had its first per­for­mance in De­cem­ber 1894. The piece was en­cored, and there­after De­bussy’s rep­u­ta­tion as a cre­ator of things of beauty has never been se­ri­ously threat­ened. Of course there were pot­boil­ers, though his most out-and-out pop­u­lar pieces – ‘Clair de lune,’ ‘Gol­li­wog’s Cake­walk’ – are not that, but minia­ture mas­ter­pieces. La Mer, a fan­tas­ti­cally sub­tle piece of writ­ing over which De­bussy laboured many months, is in ev­ery orches­tra’s reper­toire and in most CD col­lec­tions, though melod­i­cally elu­sive and de­void of grand­stand­ing ges­ture.

De­bussy’s com­bi­na­tion of the ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to the right­ness of ev­ery sin­gle sonor­ity and the in­sis­tence on lucid, bal­anced form was un­usual, to say the least. Stravin­sky, too, was par­tic­u­lar about the sound of his mu­sic, but wasn’t afraid of the stri­dent or pen­e­trat­ing. His sin­gle favourite chord seems to have been the one that opens Les No­ces, es­sen­tially a bare aug­mented oc­tave (though he also loved the di­min­ished oc­tave that colours the start of The Rite of Spring). De­bussy would have wanted these sounds smoothed into sev­enth or ninth chords, with the thirds filled in. But while his sound is more be­guil­ing, his think­ing is sim­i­lar: a new kind of dis­course formed out of pat­tern rep­e­ti­tion and dis­con­ti­nu­ity, a dis­course that, in its quiet or noisy way, lies ‘at the out­set,’ as Pierre Boulez put it, ‘of the mod­ern move­ment.’ And Boulez, who was a lot less im­mune to charm than might be thought (and had plenty of his own), also had it right when he con­cluded that ‘De­bussy wanted it to be un­der­stood that it was nec­es­sary to dream, as much as con­struct, one’s revo­lu­tion.’

The Prélude à l’après-midi was en­cored at its first per­for­mance

Rock mu­si­cian: De­bussy re­laxes in his chair, 1895

Pi­o­neers in Paris: De­bussy and Stravin­sky in 1910; (be­low) Arnold Schoen­berg

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