Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Debussy vs Ravel

I notice that my post on Bach vs Beethoven keeps attracting readers so that now it is one of the top ten posts. I should do my own list of my top ten posts--hey, that sounds like a good idea for a post...

But since I'm wondering why people are seeking out that post on Bach and Beethoven, I'm going to pick another pair of composers. These two, Debussy and Ravel, are always paired, like Laurel and Hardy or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Now why is that? Just because they are French and lived at roughly the same time? Because they were the leading French composers of their day? Because they both wrote brilliant music for piano? Because they are both known, for better or worse as "impressionists"? Here is one writer pointing out the differences between them:
Ravel has been described as a Swiss watchmaker, such is the precision of his notation, the clear intent of every dot, every line, every slur. Debussy could never be mistaken as a time-keeper. Many of his pieces could lose their barlines or time-signatures without losing their way. You always see the individual drops of rain in Ravel's mists, whereas Debussy invites us to look at the garden beyond, blurred by the moisture.
 This is one of those examples of clever journalism that seems to tell us so much, but actually tells us almost nothing. The problem is metaphor. And by the way, there is no difference between the 'precision' of Ravel's notation and that of Debussy. They are both precise in exactly the way required for the music. The sentence "Debussy could never be mistaken as a time-keeper" makes little sense. All music is about time.

Several years ago an old and dear friend of mine pointed out that a piece of writing I had sent him was littered with metaphors, which he thought greatly detracted. I was very surprised because I had the vague idea that metaphors were a Good Thing. Why, just look at the metaphors in Homer! But in Homer, and much poetry, metaphors are used rather differently than in tossed-off prose such as above. "Swiss watchmaker"? "Individual drops of rain"? "The garden beyond"? The great appeal of metaphor in journalism is that it allows the writer to suggest meaning without actually using any technical terms which might not be understood by everyone. In other words, it makes one seem literary without actually telling us anything.

I want to do a few posts on Debussy and Ravel because as soon as I started researching them I realized that it was going to take a bit more space than I first thought. Debussy and Ravel lie at the beginnings of 20th century modernism, but, unlike many of the other figures in that movement, they are French, not German and so have a different approach to musical aesthetics and construction. Not for them is the Germanic urge to systematization that we see in Schoenberg and Webern. Instead, there is more of a transformation of traditional harmonic practice through the use of whole tone and octatonic scales, through the blurring of harmony and the clarity of orchestration. Let me start off with a couple of examples. First, an early piano piece by Ravel entitled Jeux d'eau which I think I would translate as "play of the water" rather than "water games". It is a brilliant piece of piano writing and next time I am going to dig into how it is put together. Surprisingly it is laid out in standard sonata form with exposition of first and second themes, development and recapitulation. Why it sounds so different from a classical sonata movement is due to the kinds of harmony used. There are virtually no cadences and the leading tone, D#, is used mostly as a decoration of the tonic! I suggest listening a few times to the music with the score to get the flavor of the sound in your ear.


Lovely, isn't it? The crystalline clarity of the arpeggios combines intriguingly with the piquancy of the harmonies. More tomorrow...

6 comments:

Nathan Shirley said...

And it all started with Chabrier- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hFDdveAtBE

Bryan Townsend said...

Sorry I didn't see this earlier! I don't think there is a single composer I know less about than Chabrier! Some lovely music.

But wouldn't you say rather that "it" (modern French music?) started with Berlioz?

Nathan Shirley said...

That's a good point, but I think I would give most credit to Chabrier for starting what we call "impressionism" in music, and influencing Debussy/Ravel.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I see what you mean! But I hear some 'impressionism' in Berlioz as well such as in the third movement of the Symphonie fantastique with the depiction of the shepherd's "ranz des vaches", the wind in the trees and distant thunder.

But Chabrier was closely involved with the impressionist painters so that might be an important consideration.

Leonardo Deshwashwa said...

Impressionism in Berlioz? What? By that logic you can call the dogs barking in Vivaldi's Four Seasons "impressionism"?
No.

Also, as far as the metaphor, I think it really does a good idea to shape up the foggy nebulous aesthetic of Debussy's music, compared to Ravel's sleek and refined textures.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, not sure I even want to get into this debate! Like Debussy himself, I am reluctant to call what he was doing "impressionism", but frankly, being inspired by the sounds of nature (though not dogs) occurs in both Berlioz and Debussy.