The centenary is being well marked by BBC Radio 3, launched with a typically provocative edition of The Listening Service from Tom Service, hailing Debussy for his “visceral violence” as a “creator of nightmares” who was “more radical than Stravinsky”, while over recent days Donald Macleod has explored him in Composer of the Week (all available as podcasts and on iPlayer).What is interesting here is the journalistic need to insist that in order for us to fully appreciate Debussy he has to be reconfigured as a "creator of nightmares" using "visceral violence." Tom is using a certain paradigm of progressive composition as a base assumption: progressive music must be avant-garde, it must be radical, violent and nightmarish. Now this certainly describes a number of 20th century composers such as Edgar Varèse, some of Stravinsky, perhaps even some Messiaen and certainly some Schoenberg and Berg. But Debussy? Good grief!
I think the best way to characterize Debussy is that he was astonishingly innovative in a lot of areas such as extensive use of pedals in all voices, parallel harmonies that are more chordal melodies, use of the whole-tone scale, bitonality, echoes of archaic musical techniques such as parallel fifths and plagal cadences, unprepared modulations and so on. But this is all cloaked in an extreme sensitivity to timbre and texture so that what strikes most listeners, even in the early reception of Debussy's music, is the great beauty of the music. You really have to deny your own ears to claim it is nightmarish or violent!
Here is one comment on the premiere of La Mer:
The piece was initially not well received. Pierre Lalo, critic of Le Temps, wrote: "I see no sea, I hear no sea, I feel no sea." The reason for negative reception was partly because of inadequate rehearsal and partly because of Parisian outrage over Debussy's having recently left his first wife for the singer Emma Bardac. But it soon became one of Debussy's most admired and frequently performed orchestral works, and became more so in the ensuing century.Indeed, what separates Debussy from a lot of early 20th century composers is that he was welcomed by audiences almost from the beginning. Even though his diaphanous colors and textures took some getting used to, audiences responded with enjoyment.
So why does Tom Service struggle to make Debussy into some kind of fire-breathing radical? Because that is the only model for a great composer in the 20th century that he has. When we eliminated aesthetic judgement and therefore aesthetic quality from our critical vocabulary, we also eliminated anything other than sociology from our evaluations. If a composer outrages nice bourgeois audiences, then he must be good.
Let's listen to a fairly early piece by Debussy. This is his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which dates from 1894 so it isn't even 20th century yet. The performers are L'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit: