Sunday, March 31, 2013

Debussy vs Ravel, Part 2

There are two main streams of modernism in Western European music: the German and the French. Debussy and Ravel, while not the originators, are certainly the first really important generation of modern French composers. It may help to understand what they were up to, to consider the thoughts of one of the theorists of the avant-garde, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 - 1955). He attempted to describe a "new artistic sensibility" in these seven points:
  1. to dehumanize art
  2. to avoid living forms
  3. to see to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art
  4. to consider art as play and nothing else
  5. to be essentially ironical
  6. to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization
  7. to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence
This is modernism opposed to the Teutonic transcendence of Wagner, Mahler and their successors. Ortega y Gasset was writing these points in the 1920s, but, as always, "the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk", Hegel's phrase describing the nature of philosophy: it only describes those things that have already come to pass. Modernism was born long before it was described. By phrases like "avoid living forms" and "dehumanize art" Ortega y Gasset meant that art should be artificial, not sweatily realistic.

The important predecessor to Debussy and Ravel was their compatriot, Erik Satie (1866 - 1925), who, as early as the 1880s was writing eccentric, cryptic pieces for piano that perfectly fulfilled the "new artistic sensibility" as Ortega y Gasset was going to describe it. Here is one example, the Gymnopédie No. 1:

Notice the attenuation of tonality: the two chords that seem to function as 'tonic' and 'dominant' both contain major sevenths. The mood is detached, scarcely human. The melody is remote, far from expressing any romantic ferment. These little piano pieces were scarcely known outside the immediate circle of the composer's friends until one of those friends, in 1896, published orchestrations of them. That friend was Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918). Here is his orchestration of that first Gymnopédie:

One piece by Debussy that shows the influence of Satie (and probably some Russians as well who had been exploring the outer fringes of harmony for quite some time) was the Sarabande from the suite Pour le piano of 1894:

If you wanted to demonstrate the anti-Wagnerian new aesthetic, this would do very well. Somewhat dissonant harmonies, like the half-diminished chord that begins the piece, are not resolved as they should be, but simply moved around. The erotic torment of Wagnerian harmony is that there must be the leading tone, whose inevitable resolution to the tonic is delayed as much as possible. Debussy throws all this aside and simply writes charming sounding chords with no need of resolution--or leading tones, either! The work of art is nothing but a work of art and it is play and nothing else. For a more advanced example of where Debussy's harmonic explorations would take him, see my previous post on the 1909 prelude "Voiles" here.

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