Sunday, April 7, 2013

Debussy vs Ravel, last part

Up until now I have just been filling in the background and context prior to actually saying something about Debussy and Ravel from the point of view of aesthetic quality. We tend to have a horror of aesthetic judgment in general and looking at the kinds of judgments that are often made, I can see why. So often a discussion starts with some outrageous claim and continues with more outrageous claims without ever trying to justify any of them. This is, I'm afraid, typical. It is a kind of "take no prisoners" journalism. Serious discussions, on the other hand, have the tendency to get lost in the details and avoid coming to any conclusions about quality. One of the main reasons I do this blog is to try and bridge the gap between professional understanding of music and popular perceptions.

We have been looking at and listening to several pieces by Debussy and Ravel. Are you starting to have opinions about them? If so this is good--aesthetic judgments should be neither too final nor too premature and they should emphatically come from exposure to the music and not from an ideological stance. Much of the problems with music and the arts in the last one hundred years come from rigid ideology. Just to get started, I was talking to an old friend of mine a few months back. She is an excellent established harpist. I just threw out the question of Debussy and Ravel to see what she would say. I proposed that while Ravel's music was charming and beautifully put together it was fairly superficial compared to that of Debussy. Her answer? "Yes, of course." She stated it as a foregone conclusion; as if anyone who had spent much of their life playing music by both Debussy and Ravel would come to much the same conclusion.

I agree with her. Let me see if I can find some examples that might demonstrate this. Ravel's music is brilliant and virtuosic, but the ideas are less compelling and less original than those of Debussy. You might go back and listen to all the pieces I have already put up here and here and here. I have previously put up a couple of posts on Debussy preludes, one on "Voiles" that I linked to before and another on "...des pas sur la neige". While there are a lot of similarities between Debussy and Ravel, I think that the closer you look at a piece like "...des pas sur la neige", the more different it will seem compared to music by Ravel. Let's have a listen:


Without getting too analytical, what distinguishes a piece like this from nearly any piece by Ravel is the presence of contrasting levels. There is the haunting little accompanying figure that begins the piece and occurs throughout, but over this Debussy has quite different levels: melodies, streams of harmonies that are rhythmically quite distinct. Ravel's music tends to be more homogeneous. The aesthetic effect is more basic and simple. With Debussy the layers and contrasts make for a more ambiguous and complex aesthetic effect. Many listeners might prefer Ravel for precisely these reasons, of course. And I don't want to suggest that complexity is always better than simplicity. It often is not. Now let's listen to a piece by Ravel for comparison. Here is "Ondine" from Gaspard de la Nuit:

Yes, there are different levels here as well--that is a particular technical strength of the piano, but what I hear is that the levels are well integrated and there is no real contrast of mood or aesthetic content between the levels. The piece is more one-dimensional than the Debussy. This seems to me to be a general difference between them. Ravel can be ravishing, but ravishing in pretty much one way. Debussy has more shades of contrasting effects and ideas.

I'm not setting out an aesthetic ideology here, by the way. I would not make these kinds of comments about, say, J. S. Bach. You can get contrasts sometimes with Bach, but where he reigns is in the effect of sublime inevitability: the music just had to be that way! This was impossible for both Ravel and Debussy because of where they came in music history. Bach inherited a harmonic structure that he could simply use and perfect. Ravel and Debussy came at a moment when harmony in general was becoming very difficult. This is why they sought ways of using harmony that were new such as the whole tone and octatonic scales. But both of these devices are cruder than 'common practice' harmony in that they offer less harmonic direction and variety. I think Debussy succeeds more profoundly (and had therefore much more influence) because his approach was subtle and complex. Debussy explored more new possibilities where Ravel tended to continue a lot of the basic rhythmic and harmonic textures that he inherited.

I could go on, looking for more examples and analyzing them, but I don't think it is necessary. I don't want to 'prove' too much! I would rather you explored a bit on your own. You may come to similar conclusions or you may not. In either case, why don't you tell me about it?

9 comments:

Nathan Shirley said...

For me "Ravel vs Debussy" is nearly impossible. While I would agree Debussy in general was slightly more original, at the same time Ravel was the better technician. Honestly there aren't a huge number of pieces by either composer that I absolutely love... though at their best, they are second to none. (and I could never dislike any of their music, something I can't say about all the great composers)

Without vivid melodies and harmonic progressions, much of the interest of their music begins to fade. The colors are always fantastic and the dramatic effect always nice, but you need more than that. They have their moments though, Debussy with his "Fêtes" and Ravel with his "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and there are certainly a good number of others.

Nathan Shirley said...

Oh, and about Bach-

I think we can compare even someone as radically different as Bach. Aesthetically he is (generally) superior to our two Frenchmen. The reason lies in his harmonic progressions, even if they are much more conventional, they are amazing. Most great composers in the late 1800s, 1900s had many moments of harmonic genius, but it was rarely maintained for long, especially when compared to Bach's best work.

It might not be a completely fair comparison, because the harmonic possibilities that opened up later complicated things to a huge degree, so it only makes sense that turn of the century composers wouldn't have had the consistency of Bach. But nevertheless, they didn't. It is this respect that really makes Prokofiev stand out... now more on that old post...

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Nathan. I would love to hear in what ways Ravel was the better technician: in how he wrote for piano or orchestra? In his handling of harmony?

I that both Debussy and Ravel had the problem that, in their moment in history, writing vivid melodies and harmonic progressions was very, very difficult! I say this because the immense success of common practice harmony was starting to wear thin and what Debussy and Ravel both found themselves doing was weakening all the usual harmonic devices--eliminating leading tones, for example. This also weakens the power of melody as that often depends for expressive strength on things like appoggiaturas. You don't get a strong appoggiatura if you weaken harmony!

I think you bring out the exact reason I mentioned Bach: he is a contrast.

Nathan Shirley said...

Well it's really splitting hairs, and it isn't to say anything bad about Debussy certainly, but not many people could touch Ravel's orchestration. It's very different than Debussy's, but the level of perfection and clarity is amazing.

You CAN have very strong and distinct melody in modal, octatonic, tonally ambiguous, or polytonal music. The problem is the possibilities suddenly increased exponentially for these composers, and in some ways they were lost in a sea of new sound possibilities. The composers who handled melody/harmony best with non-traditional tonalities, were typically the ones who grew up hearing "exotic" folk music in their backyards. That was one of the reasons why the Russians burst onto the classical music scene- people were ready for something different. This obviously influenced people like Debussy and Ravel immensely... but it was all foreign to them.

Still, they both stumbled upon great things, and helped open all sorts of doors. I easily prefer Scriabin over either of them, but he too suffered from some of the same issues.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, right. Good points. Of course you can write strong melodies in modal, octatonic, polytonal, etc contexts. Folk music, for example, is based on modal melodies. But composers around 1900 had to shift gears from the basic methods of constructing late-Romantic melodies to the new ones. As you say, the ones most comfortable with this were from the European periphery where they were exposed to more "exotic" musics. Examples: the Russians, Spaniards, Hungarians.

But darn, now you make me think I have to study Ravel's orchestration...

shikamaru said...

The source of your confusion might lie in the fact that Ravel is not an "impressionist" but a neoclassical composer who used harmonies and techniques which were shared by Debussy who was more of a standard "impressionist". Ravel's music is structured and generally rhythmically consistent, unlike Debussy's which often feels improvisatory. You might be getting this mixed up with your vague use of terms like "layers and contrasts".

Bryan Townsend said...

How delightfully condescending! Perhaps the source of your confusion is that you didn't read carefully enough to notice the musical examples I was referring to in my mention of layers and contrasts. Also, the notion that there even exists something you can call a "standard impressionist" is rather askew.

shikamaru said...

Really? I figured the condescension would be to your liking, since your original post on this topic had enough of that directed at another author making a similarly insipid comparison. Judging by that post, I would have expected something perhaps a bit more insightful on your end than selecting two compositions at random and using them to make simplistic and vague conclusions about two composers. Frankly, I think merely repeating your belief that "no piece by Ravel has contrasting levels" is enough of a rebuttal.

If you feel your conclusions are substantial, I suggest this - write an actual analysis comparing Debussy's Images suite with Ravel's Miroirs suite - and try to support your conclusion that Ravel's music is more homogeneous, simple, and without contrasting levels. Better yet, compare Ravel's orchestral Daphnis and Chloe with Debussy's orchestral Nocturnes, or La Mer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan Shirley's comments were productive and illuminating. But yours I find to be no more than a disdainful sneer followed by a third-year theory assignment. If you have spent any time at the Music Salon and especially reading the comments, you will notice that the level of discussion here is rather higher than that.