|Illustration by Cat O'Neil|
By Stephen Hough
March 2, 2018
When I strike a chord on the piano, more is heard than those notes alone. The other strings vibrate with sympathetic overtones, forming a halo over every note. Claude Debussy, who died a hundred years ago, was perhaps the first composer to write with this quality specifically in mind, to consciously harness it as part of his creative process.
Although it was Debussy's orchestral work "Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un Faune" that Pierre Boulez described as "the beginning of modern music", it was always at the piano where his revolutionary new approach to form and timbre developed.
With "Pagodes", the first piece of his triptych "Estampes" (1903), we hear something totally fresh. Yes, Debussy had heard Javanese gamelan music at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in the summer of 1889 and had written with great admiration about its complexity and sophistication. But his use of its tonal color (loosely, the pentatonic scale – the black notes on a piano) is not so much a translation of a foreign text as it is a poem written in a newly learned, fully absorbed language.
Composers, especially in France, had regularly utilized exoticism in their works (Saint-Saëns and Bizet spring to mind) but it remained a decorative detail, a picture postcard, a costume. With Debussy the absorption has gone to the marrow. It is a transfusion of blood, flowing in the very fingers which conjure up these new sounds at this old instrument.
Igor Stravinsky commented that he "was struck by the way in which the extraordinary qualities of this pianism had directed the thought of Debussy the composer". Debussy's discovery of new sounds at the piano is directly related to the physiology of hands on keyboard. It is impossible to conceive of most of Debussy's piano music being written at a desk, or outdoors, despite his frequent use of "en plein air" titles.
No, this is music made as molded by playing, as dough is folded with yeast to create bread. As the fingers reach the keys, sound and touch seem to fuse into one. The keyboard has ceased to be a mere function for hammers to strike strings, and has become a precious horizontal artifact to caress. This is music of the piano as much as for the piano. The poet Léon-Paul Fargue, having watched Debussy play, wrote that he "would start by brushing the keys, prodding the odd one here and there, making a pass over them and then he would sink into velvet".
"He gave the impression of delivering the piano of its song", Fargue added, "like a mother of her child".
Debussy's piano music is perfectly conceived for the instrument. But it isn't just that it fits beautifully under the hand or sounds wonderful as the vibrations leave the soundboard and enter the ear. To play the opening of "Reflets dans l'Eau" (from "Images", Book One) feels as if the composer has transplanted his fingerprints onto the pads of your digits. The way the chords are placed on the keys (flat-fingered on the black notes) is not so much a vision of reflections, whether trees, clouds or water lilies. It is as if each three-padded triad is an actual laying of a flower onto the water's surface.
Later in the piece, as the waters become more agitated, the cascading arpeggios are like liquid running through the fingers, all shimmer and sparkle. In "Poissons d'Or" (from "Images", Book Two), the opening motive, a darting duplet of double thirds, is like trying to catch a fish's flip as it slips out of the finger's grasp. And in the central section, the slinky tune slithers with grace notes as the hand has to slide off the key as if off the scales of a freshly caught trout. In the first piece of this set, "Cloches à Travers les Feuilles", the fingers are required to tap the keys (pedal held down, fingers pulled up) as if mallets against a bell.
No other composer feels to me more improvised, more free-flowing. But then the player is conscious of a contradiction as the score is studied more closely: Music that sounds created in the moment is loaded with instructions on how to achieve this. The first measure of "Cloches à Travers les Feuilles" is marked pianissimo and contains just eight notes, each of which carries a staccato dot. But the first is also coupled with a strong-accented whole note; the fifth has an additional dash; all the notes are covered with a slur; and, if that were not enough, Debussy instructs the pianist to play "doucement sonore" ("sweetly resonant").
His suite "Children's Corner" may be like so many toys in his daughter's nursery, but the workmanship behind every join and seam is of the highest fastidiousness. All of his pieces sound spontaneous, but every stitch (every dot, dash, hairpin or slur) is specific. This is not mood music, pretty sounds assembled at a dilettante's whim. Behind the bells and the water and all the poetic imagery is an abstract musical mind of the utmost intellectual rigor – an architect of genius, despite the small scale of the buildings.
If most of his piano music has a feel of improvisation about it, the two books of "Préludes" celebrate this in a special way. Until well into the 20th century, a pianist would rarely begin to play a piece cold. A few chords, an arpeggio or two, served as a warm-up as well as allowing the audience to settle down. This was known as "preluding", and Liszt spoke of it as a technique to be learned by any aspiring pianist. Debussy's "Préludes" are perfectly crafted jewels, conveying more in their few minutes' duration than many an opera, yet they can also seem as intangible as mist – with titles, tacked on with ellipses at the end of each piece, like mere trails of perfume in the air.
Debussy began piano lessons at the age of 7 in Cannes as an evacuee from Paris at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, and he died during the final year of World War I, unable to have a public funeral because of the aerial bombing of the French capital. The circumstances of his life, framed by his country's enmity with Germany, seem an apt symbol for his music's rejection of a kind of German aesthetic.
His instinct to steer clear of classical structures; his elevation and celebration of small, ephemeral forms; and his delight in the atmosphere of beautiful chords for their own sake, with no desire to find a specific function for them, was an audacious challenge to some more self-consciously serious German intellectual fashions of the time. Indeed, the "Golliwog's Cakewalk" (from "Children's Corner") is a direct hit, with its cheerful celebration of popular culture and the cheeky quote from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde", followed by the minstrel's scoffing sniggers.
When assessing a composer's place in history, there's always the question as to whether he or she leans backward or forward. But despite the opinion of Elliott Carter that Debussy "settled the technical direction of contemporary music", and despite the impossibility of the existence of the piano music of modernists such as Messiaen or Ligeti without him, I think the secret to playing Debussy's music lies in its Chopinist roots – he edited the Polish composer's works for Durand – and in his ties to his older, old-fashioned compatriots Massenet, Delibes and others.
|Claude Debussy (Hulton Archive)|
Although his taste for popular styles found expression in ragtime takeoffs such as "Minstrels" and the "Golliwog's Cakewalk", it was his more serious music that later had an immense influence on jazz composers like Gershwin, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch. And not just because of a shared sense of improvisation: The repeated patterns, the piling up of sonorities and the way Debussy would crack open a chord, finding creativity in the very color of its vibrations, found its way into their very DNA.
And if the ghost of this Parisian ended up haunting every American jazz bar, it also found its way east, too. Debussy may have discovered his own pianistic voice after hearing the gamelan, but by the end of the 20th century the inspiration had reversed direction and his impact on Asian piano music is incalculable. Toro Takemitsu, American Minimalists and New Age Muzak – they all owe Debussy virtual royalties. The first "modern" composer, a hundred years after his death, vibrates afresh in every corner of the globe.
Source: The New York Times, March 4, 2018
100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy – All the posts