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?