Sunday, February 3, 2013

Homenaje a Debussy

The Homenaje a Debussy is a piece for guitar by Manuel de Falla that is, of course, an hommage to Debussy. It was first published in the Revue Musicale along with a number of other pieces in a special issue devoted to Debussy, the greatest French composer since Couperin and Rameau. Here is the piece in a wonderfully sensitive performance by Oscar Ghiglia:

But this post is actually going to be not about the piece by Manuel de Falla, but itself another hommage to Debussy.

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Early on, in 1880, Tchaikovsky commented on Debussy's Danse bohémienne that it was "a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity." This is in a long line of unkind critical comments by one composer about another. From the point of view of Tchaikovsky, this is probably a good description of Debussy's music!

Debussy was perhaps the key transitional figure from the 19th century to the 20th. His music may not seem revolutionary because it is indeed "pretty", meaning charming and colorful, but incrementally it is a huge departure from the structures of 19th century music. Let's hear an example. This is the first of Deux arabesques from 1888 to 1891.

The obvious main influence here is another resident of Paris, Frédéric Chopin, who died in 1849. Debussy studied with a pupil of his. The influence is in things like the grace and charm, the triplets against the regular eighth notes and the delicacy of the piano writing. A lot of the effect of Debussy is hard to capture with mere technical analysis. Once you have noted his use of whole tone scales, pentatonic scales, modes and so on, you have scarcely identified what makes Debussy unique and influential.

As well as writing wonderfully for the piano, Debussy soon showed himself to be a master of orchestral color. His three Nocturnes of 1899 are an excellent example. The opening gesture of the first piece, Nuages (Clouds), captures the amorphous nature of clouds so well. This is just not the kind of thing a 19th century composer would have wanted to do and also the kind of thing that got Debussy branded an "impressionist" even though he hated the term. Here is a performance of Nuages

I wrote a bit about the harmony of Nuages in this post. A few years later in 1903/05 Debussy wrote a "symphonic poem" entitled La Mer (The Sea), the closest he got to a symphony. Here is a complete performance of La Mer:

There are certainly precedents for this depiction of a natural land(sea)scape; we find them in Vivaldi's Seasons, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, Berlioz in various places and Wagner in his depiction of the Rhine. But in Debussy it is a bit more detached, not part of a human narrative. It is also freer, less tied to a conventional musical structure. You might say that Debussy perfects the representation of nature in music.

Another influence on Debussy was his hearing of Javanese gamelan music during the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. His piano piece Pagodes was one result:

A spectacular collection of piano pieces from 1910 was his first book of Preludes for piano. Again, the influence of Chopin is evident. But these are uniquely Debussyesque. A particularly charming example is La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) with its roaming about a minor/minor seventh chord--much too lovely to be a piece of 20th century music?

Debussy disliked too much analysis of music as he thought it tended to kill the magic. He said"Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic." I couldn't agree more. In his last works, such as the Cello Sonata of 1915, he began to write in a more austere, abstract style:

Debussy's music, with its ever-present sensibility and elegance, always seems to have a touch of that mystery and magic...


Shantanu said...

I was listening to Debussy's piano music, and I thought "so some musicians ripped him off and called it modal jazz and cool jazz".

I would say his influence is obvious, if anything, on a lot of popular music from the first half of the 20th century.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, hugely influential on just about every 20th century musician! He is the one composer who demonstrates that being technically progressive does not necessarily imply that the music be ugly or dry.