Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Radical M. Debussy

Let's have another look at Tom Service's comments on Debussy that we quoted yesterday:
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:


Will Wilkin said...

Good grief indeed!

"Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" was the first Debussy music I ever heard, and it changed my ear. I was naive to classical music, an 18 year-old rocker just setting out in exploration. As with all Debussy music I've heard in the decades since, my first and lasting judgement is "beautiful, interesting, and perfect."

Debussy has transformed me into a fish exploring a sunken cathedral, a wind swirling over vast seas, a snowflake gently falling, a ripple on a clear pond....

Bryan I totally agree with your critique of contemporary criticism, your insistence that aesthetics be returned to criticism and, more importantly, to music, and that Debussy was indeed a great innovator and aesthete. Even the most virtuosic Debussy piano music I've heard performed on stage, however fast and emphatic, was never "violent" or "nightmarish." And wasn't La Mer itself originally a piano composition? I've heard both versions performed on stage, and both were exquisite experiences.

Bryan, there are reasons why you are the only "critic" I read regularly. Partly it's because I mostly share your aesthetic judgements (our differences on Steve Reich and Philip Glass confirming my otherwise general agreement is real and not just an affect of your writing power), including your disdain for politicizing music. And partly because you are more than a critic, but rather also a composer who offers enough technical analysis just beyond my immediate understanding so as to give me a learning agenda (ex: "pedals in all voices"). And finally you are a musician who understands what it takes to master an instrument and it's use as an expressive extension of the person.

Will Wilkin said...

I can only wonder what the Great Maestro Handel would have thought if he could hear the Band of Gypsies! It is easy for me to love the music of both these composers, despite the passing of 2 centuries between them having so changed our musical parameters. And if our Great Maestro Handel had miraculously traversed the centuries to listen and talk with us (and after giving him some time to digest his impressions of the vast changes), I wonder what on the giant accumulated menu would appeal to him?

One other thought on this ahistorical musing....the more I listen to music from the medieval to present day, the more I appreciate that the great composers were, in their own time, quite new and innovative. Even the great Handel and Bach, however learned and respectful and continuers (yes that's a word) of the traditions before them, were not "stuck" in the past but rather taking us to new soundscapes. And certainly that is how I feel when entering Electric Ladyland.

This combination of old and new is fundamental to what I look for in art. When my politics were still radical left, and my reading of history still stuck in a presentist perspective, it was this insight into how the best art works that first opened my eyes into what is most valuable and powerful in the "conservative" perspective I have come to incorporate into my thinking. Ultimately it is not a political perspective (though it can certainly color one's political thought) but rather a sense of time in human culture and seeing that our own lives and social context are like short fibers woven into much longer strands in a wide tapestry.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, we have missed your eloquent observations! Thanks so much for your kind words about my approach to criticism.