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Paintings, Words and Wines: Blurred Reflections of France and Debussy

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Alabama Birmingham
Birmingham, AL, USA

The 20th century marks an epoch of phenomenal progress in virtually every aspect of Western society, including the genesis of heart transplantation and birth of the ISHLT. With music as a mirror, musical style has also gone through a period of accelerated change during the 20th century. Many turn to concert music as a refuge from the complexities, ironies and difficulties of modern life with much that might appear to be ugly, confusing and incomprehensible. To those who feel this way, would they prefer vanilla over chocolate; coke over a 100 year old single malt; scrambled eggs over caviar or a Ford over a Ferrari? Most of the best things in life, including the music of the 20th century, are acquired tastes. If this were not true, then every child would be as sophisticated as every 50-year-old, which is an abomination. Something must set the aged apart from the youngsters. The youth may have their teeth, their eyesight, their hearing and their knees, but the refined aged can distinguish the finest wines from grape juice and the great cuisines of France. Life experience counts.

Into the early 1900s, the average listener had a problem with most 20th-century concert music and most 20th-century concert music had a problem with the average listener. For example, Johannes Brahms's Symphony no. 1 in C Minor, op. 68 of 1876, music had become a mainstay of the orchestral repertoire. This symphony premiered in Boston on January 3, 1878, with local critics who didn't sugar-coat their rejection. The Boston Courier wrote, "The Brahms C-minor symphony sounds, for the most part, morbid, strained and unnatural, much of it even ugly." Not to be outdone, the Boston Gazette wrote, "The symphony is an ungraceful, confusing and unattractive example of dry pedantry without a glimmer of soul." These bad reviews are not the sort we would send home to our parents to validate our questionable career choice. Examine the book entitled, Lexicon of Musical Invective, assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky. It's a compendium of the worst reviews of many great composers. We read these reviews and wonder how someone would write such things about Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and so many others. The same thing that makes a piece of art new and exciting also makes it different. Lacking a context to understand its differences, a contemporary critic will lash out and dismiss such works even when what he should be doing is lashing out at himself for not having the insight or tools to understand it. The critics of Brahms' time had no context to comprehend his first symphony, never having heard it before. Some, did what stupid critics have done from time immemorial. They attack when faced with the unknown. Ideally, a critic would reserve any critical judgment of any piece of new music until he or she examines the score, attends rehearsal and hears the piece performed several times.

How we approach the music of the 20th and the 21st century tells us that we should treat such music carefully and with as much respect as we can muster because what is new, different and difficult in a piece of music is very often what makes it original, powerful and enduring. This means we must be patient with ourselves with anything new such as the innovations in heart or lung transplantation. We shouldn't expect to fully understand a new piece of music when first heard, any more than Brahms, Bach's, Mozart's and Beethoven's first listeners experienced. Admittedly, what is new is not necessarily good, but it is often different, and within its differences might lie a world of expression and experience previously unexplored.

Across the span of western musical development, music served the spirit and the church, both Catholic and Protestant. Music, at different times and places, served the intellect, the spoken word, the stage, the aristocracy and the middle class. Music was also intended to entertain or enlighten or educate its listeners. It wasn't until the early 19th century when the principal aim of concert music was to serve the emotional and self-expressive needs of the composer himself. Glorification of the individual marked the Enlightenment, along with the growing social and economic power of the middle class, the profound societal disruptions caused by the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic age-these and various other circumstances combined to create the preconditions for an expressive musical revolution, a revolution that would see one or more middle-class-born composers, unwilling to maintain the musical status quo, and assert that musical expression "must serve the individual," meaning the composer himself.

The late 19th and early 20th century was the time for incredible intellectual, scientific and technological advancements. If music is a mirror, then we would expect the evolving environment at the turn of the 20th century to have influenced the cutting-edge composers. With the first big break at what we might consider the German-Australian-Italian tonal tradition occurring in France, let's examine the setting on how both French art and music evolved during the second half of the 19th century.

The humiliating French defeat by Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 drove a huge wedge between France and German-speaking nations. As a result, French culture turned more insular with the nationalist cultivation of everything French already evident for hundreds of years in French culture, it took on a new intensity. The inspiration at the core of this cultivation of things French was the French language. From mid-19th century on, national and ethnic self-identification became for many non-German, non-Austrian and non-Italian composers, an increasingly important mode of personal self-expression. Folkloric nationalism became both a political and an autobiographical statement, "This is who I am, this is where I am from and I am proud of it." Self-expression or the abortive gesture, the increasingly extreme range of Romantic expression required increasingly extreme musical means to depict that expression. The challenge of finding new modes of compositional discourse, of replacing the principles and structures of traditional tonality with new approaches to melody, harmony and rhythm, occupied many of the best musical minds at the turn of the 20th century.

French born, bred and dead, Claude Debussy was a modernist composer who created a nuance of music reflecting French language and culture. He wrote, "I want my music to be as relevant to the 20th century as the airplane." In a new century, dominated by a sea of change, the desire to be relevant was overwhelming. The traditional tonal language had proven itself to be increasingly outmoded, as cutting-edge composers, ever more, had to resort to the abortive gesture to achieve their expressive aims. The time was ripe for a new musical syntax, for new ways to approach melody, harmony and rhythm. Hello 20th century music!

The comparison of music by Brahms and Debussy illustrates the essence of French music and culture during this time. Brahms's music is a manifestation of the German language, with clarity of articulation at every level. [Musical selection: Brahms, Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 77 (1878), movement 3.] Clarity at all levels is obvious: beat, meter, theme, accompaniment, bass line and harmony. Like the German language itself, and typical of almost all German music, this music is nothing if not clearly articulated. It's also music of great intrinsic substance. In contrast, in Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892), there are no clearly expressed beats, groupings of beats and harmonic progression, no expressed themes with clear phrase structures and no clear differentiation between theme and accompaniment. Brahms's music was music of articulation, of consonant whereas Debussy's is music of vowel, music that reflects utterly the French language. Instead of clarity of articulation, we hear blend; instead of individual events, we hear diphthong, we hear blur. What makes up the theme in Debussy's piece is as much as pitch and rhythm, as is the actual sound of the instruments, alone and in combination.

Today, Debussy is one of the most original and influential composers in the history of Western music, he had, of course, virulent critics, but among the younger generation of composers who owed much to him was Igor Stravinsky. A great anecdote, told by Alma Mahler in her biography of her husband Gustav, depicts Debussy accurately-the Mahler's were in Paris in April 1910 for a performance of Mahler's Symphony no. 2. Alma refers to his double forehead saying:

Debussy brought his second wife, who was said to be very wealthy. He sat next to me at dinner and I noticed that he took only the minutest helping of any dish. When Madame Pierné tried pressing him, his face took on a look of pain. Dukas told me in an undertone that when they were schoolboys together and provided, by their mothers, with money to buy their mid-morning lunches, they all selected the largest confections, except Debussy. He always chose the smallest and most expensive, for even as a child he was nauseated by bulk. That evening too, we were told of Debussy's ill treatment that had almost been the death of his first wife. It was a youthful marriage and they were very poor. She couldn't endure her life with him or life without him, so she took poison. Debussy found her apparently unconscious on the floor. He went up to her very calmly and took what money she had on her before sending for a doctor. She heard and saw all of it, for she was not unconscious but simply temporarily paralyzed. She recovered from the poison and was cured too, of her love of Debussy, from whom she was divorced.

The writer, Collette, referred to, "His pan-like head; in his unrelenting gaze the pupils of his eyes seemed to dart from one spot to another, like those of animals of prey hypnotized by their own searching intensity." Like a cat, Debussy thought only of himself. Of Debussy, his friend, Paul Vidal, wrote, "I don't know whether his egoism will ever be subdued. He is incapable of any sacrifice whatsoever. Nothing has any hold over him." We leave the final word on Debussy's character to Harold Schonberg, "The chain-smoking Debussy was a sybarite, a sensualist, an ironist and not the most pleasant of men."

Debussy may have had the morals of a tomcat, but he had the compositional imagination of an angel. His compositional influences are four in number: and one, the French language, with its blurred edges and infinity of nuance; next, Romanticism: Debussy grew up during the 19th century and the overwhelming bulk of his music is programmatic. The third influence: Romantic literature extolling expression and descriptive images of the symbolist poets, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Finally, French Impressionist painting. Impressionism is a visual manifestation of the French language, an art movement that celebrates light, blended and nuanced color, blurred edges and objects in flux. In Impressionism, the idea of an image is much more important than the image itself. For that reason, there is little Impressionist portraiture, because Impressionist art is not so much about the object being depicted as it is about light, color and the artist's immediate feelings about the object.

The term Impressionism was originally a critical pejorative to Monet's painting, "Impression, Sunrise" of 1874, but the word stuck. For Debussy he hated the word Impressionism and wanted no association with the movement. Frédéric Chopin claimed to have hated Romanticism. Both Chopin and Debussy "protesteth too much" probably. Whether Debussy liked the term Impressionism or not, his music evokes the same water-dominated, brilliantly-colored, subtly-shaded, blurred-edge imagery as an Impressionist painting.

Debussy's innovative approach to timbre, rhythm, melody, harmony and musical form created music to the likes of which no one had ever heard before. In 1889, Debussy wrote, "To a Frenchman, finesse and nuance are the daughters of intelligence." Debussy's music, characterized by finesse and nuance, is the French language in musical action. And while, by the late 19th century, French music had already moved well away from traditional German techniques, the big break with both German and tonal tradition came with Claude Debussy. His music grew from French language with a proclivity for color, nuance and blurred sound. He expressed his musical worldview when he wrote:

I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the masters who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth.

Debussy's Nuages (Clouds) from his Trois Nocturnes for orchestra of 1899 is a musical impression of moonlit clouds scudding across a night sky. When listening to Nuages, we imagine a more impressionistic image than vague, puffy, moonlit clouds scudding across a night sky. As much as anything else, the opening theme consists of the actual physical sounds of the instruments: the undulating winds, the piercing, nasal sound of the English horn, the icy strings and the rolling timpani.

Timbre, instrumental tone color, becomes a thematic element, as important, if not more important than melody, rhythm and harmony. Nuages is stunningly different from anything ever heard in Concert music until the 20th Century. This music organizes time very differently from traditional tonal music. Tonal music organizes time through tonic, subdominant and dominant harmonies, through rest, through departure or subdominant harmonies. There's no such temporal linearity in Nuages, no harmonic urgency, no sense of global harmonic motion from point A to point B and back. Instead, like a series of freeze frames, this music seems to exist out of linear time. Without linear time, this music explores, observes and wallows in the coloristic nuances and infinite details. Like a French meal, we dine. With a German meal, we eat. The point here is not so much to eat but to experience a heightened sensory of reality through the medium of the music.

Debussy does not conceive of the orchestra in the traditional manner, as an instrumental ensemble consisting of four large instrumental families: woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion. Rather, he approaches the orchestra as a huge chamber group consisting of 85 or 90 individual instruments that can be used singly or grouped as sparingly or as grandly as he wishes. Debussy has an entire orchestra of 85 or 90 players sitting there not performing, but listening with the audience to just three players, one violin, one viola and one cello to play the pentatonic theme of Nuages. He is not maximizing the group, like a German, rather he wants the delicacy and intimacy of a string trio, and delicacy and intimacy are delivered. His approach to the orchestra offered him infinite possibilities of instrumental combinations and colors. There's not a single orchestral composer in the last 100 years who hasn't studied Debussy's scores and stolen from them, which is exactly as it should be.

Claude Debussy was, simply put, one of the most shockingly original and influential composers in the history of Western music. Whether the critics or academes liked Debussy's music or not, the next generation of composers saw him as a compositional Moses, as someone who could lead them from the bondage of traditional tonality to a promised land of new music, music relevant to the new truths and realities of the 20th century.

PS: For more great masterpieces of Debussy enjoy:

  1. The quiet chords of opening melody and the rippling arpeggios that follow evoking the silvery moonlight of "Clair de Lune"
  2. The ever graceful and dainty "Arabesque"
  3. The timeless and exquisitely beautiful "La mer" for orchestra; Images, Book 1, for piano. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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