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
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