Claude Debussy at 150: We take his musical revolution for granted

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, one of Western music’s revolutionaries.

As with the varying styles of Impressionist paintings, the long view represents something defined, but the closer you get, the more his compositions start to fall apart into the individual components that our minds work imperceptibly to piece together into meaningful shapes.

The long view is so sleek and seductive that listeners long ago began taking Debussy’s art for granted.

Rather than go into a long discourse, here’s a handful of videos that illustrate different facets of what makes his music special. Note how, despite sounding “beautiful,” the music is not based on traditional harmony or counterpoint. It should sound stranger than it does.

We’ll start with a short lecture by English composer and pianist Percy Grainger from 1948, followed by him playing “Pagodes” (from 1903’s Estampes), inspired by Indonesian gamelan music Debussy heard in 1888:

Debussy was eager to explore orchestral texture and sonority. This included toying with new instruments like the saxophone, as in his 1901 Rhapsodie. Note how the opening sax solo anticipates what Stravinsky does with the bassoon at the opening of The Rite of Spring. Debussy’s piece is performed here 20-odd years ago by Federico Mondelci and the La Scala Orchestra, with conductor Seiji Ozawa:

The colour that Debussy tries to extract is not always instrument-specific, as it relies on our brains to integrate rhythm and overtone into what we perceive. This allows some pieces to be played on very different kinds of instruments.

To illustrate, here is “Ballet” from the 1889 Petite Suite, performed five different ways: chamber, four-hand piano (Debussy’s original), woodwind and piano trio, guitar and percussion:

Then there is the issue of interpretation — definition versus wash. Some of it is a mater of continuing, animated debate among interpreters. What is clear, though, is that the orchestral music doesn’t just happen by itself.

Here are two examples where the conductor has to do some very careful work:

“We need to eliminate all contour from this music,” says French competitor Vincent Renaud to the Brussels Philharmonic at the 2010 International Besançon Competition for young conductors (you may catch a glimpse of Sir Andrew Davis, who was one of the jurors) as he belabours “Nuages” from Nocturnes (1899). In contrast, it’s followed by German legend Wilhelm Furtwängler’s take with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1951 concert in Rome:

And, to say Happy Birthday, I’m sinking the proverbial candles into the sweetest, smoothest, creamiest, fluffiest interpretation of L’Après-midi d’un faune (1894), crafted by the famed Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic, in 1994 :

John Terauds


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