Views from the stage
Three great Debussyans on the composer’s allure
Steven Osborne pianist
Debussy’s music feels lovely to play, physically and viscerally. There’s so much subtlety that you become very aware of the touch and weight of the keys. He was one of the most daring composers; it’s not that his pieces are formless, but he’s often willing to hold judgment and see what happens. It’s extremely difficult to write in his seemingly open-ended improvisatory style and make it still seem vivid and strong, but he manages to sustain the importance of each moment. He’s got a great instinct in finding meaning in very little gestures, which is somehow bound together by a broader shape that never feels prescriptive. His music fits beautifully into a lot of different programmes, and he is one of the greatest composers for creating a sense of immersion – it’s the sense of stillness he creates in a concert hall setting that’s so intimate.
Colin Matthews composer
You can’t put your finger on what makes Debussy’s music so effective. It has an improvisatory quality and you never know where it’s going next. I’ve never analysed it in depth because I don’t want to find out what’s happening. Even in orchestrating the piano Préludes, I took
them as given and didn’t look too closely at how they were organised. There’s something so magic about it – the chord progressions, the way things are voiced. I’m still surprised by what comes next: it’s like a mad jigsaw puzzle. I’ve never known an audience that was hostile to Debussy – I know critics were quite rude about Pelléas et Mélisande at the first performance, but that’s perhaps the only exception. He makes people feel they’re being adventurous.
Claire Jones harpist
Debussy’s writing is very imaginative and dreamlike and his melodies are easy to remember and tuneful. I always schedule Debussy in my concert programmes, because it appeals to people who are serious about music as well as those who know nothing about classical music – it’s very accessible. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane is the piece that people most associate with his writing for harp. It’s demanding because of its chromaticism and pedal changes, but there are also very simplistic elements, and that contrast is beautiful. The double-action harp was invented at the same time Debussy wrote this piece, which allowed the use of all chromatic notes, so Debussy showed off the harp’s new capabilities really well. He’s very specific with his markings which makes it easy for artists to see what he wants.
Steven Osborne plays Debussy at St John’s Smith Square, 2016