Sunday, November 15, 2009

Debussy plays Debussy

(Debussy plays Golliwog's Cakewalk in 1913.)

An awe-inspiring document, in incredible sound. What does it tell us? Nothing for certain, but it's a safe bet that the popular image of Debussy as a maker of a 'piano without hammers' isn't quite the whole truth. Debussy plays the loud sections with Lisztian brio, and even the small sections don't conform to the popular and slightly condescending image of Debussy as a French composer of hyper-perfumed music that does little but shimmer.

(Pierre Boulez conducts the massively exciting central section of Fetes from Debussy's Nocturnes for Orchestra. WTF is with the Hunter Thompson sunglasses?!?)

Pierre Boulez is generally a name to be yawned at, but no musician ever did more to establish Debussy as a great composer rather than a great colorist. Debussy seems to be the only composer Boulez never had an unkind word for, and Boulez seems to conduct his music with a naturalness and affection that he rarely drums up for any other composer. More than the color, Boulez revealed what every musician should respond to: Debussy was complete package of all the elegant things to which every French artist seems to aspire: (quoth Sondheim) order, design, tension, composition, balance, light, harmony. It's debatable whether Debussy was the greatest French composer, but what is not debatable is that Debussy was the most French.

(The hammerless pianist. Walter Gieseking plays Debussy's The Sunken Cathedral in the watery way that most of the world thinks of him. Probably very far from what Debussy actually had in mind, but great pianism nonetheless.)

French music had a comparatively dreadful 19th century. Virtually every European country to their east produced great composers in droves, yet this extremely musical nation produced it at a trickle: feting all sorts of great foreign composers but sending Berlioz abroad for recognition, sending Bizet to an early grave, forcing Franck and Faure to toil in obscurity until their dotages, and refusing to acknowledge Debussy or Ravel's genius for decades. The reasons behind this were manifold and complex, but in a sense they can be boiled down to two words: Saint-Saens.

(One of my least favorite pieces of music in the world. The Organ Symphony by Saint-Saens. Listening to it conducted by the great Charles Munch makes it almost tolerable.)

Camille Saint-Saens was the great white hope of French music from the cradle to the grave. He was polymath active in a dozen different fields, but made his home in music, which he played and composed with greater facility than any other composer in the generation after Mendelssohn. But his impeccably crafted music abolished any originality and he held his contemporaries to the same rigid standards. At the beginning of Saint-Saens's career, Berlioz lamented "Saint-Saens knows everything, but he lacks inexperience." At the end of his career, he left the Theatre du Champs-Élysées after the first six notes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, shouting on his way out that Stravinsky misused the bassoon.

(Would that all his music sounded like the Carnival of the Animals.)

Saint-Saens wanted French music to be like German music, without its ability to grip and challenge. He spent his career crafting perfect neo-Beethoven and neo-Mozart. Aping their structures, aping their harmonies, but filtering both of their originality.

(The ecstatic piece that changed everything. The second half of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The here 90-year-old Leopold Stokowski was definitely of the Debussy the colorist school. But my god...this is the X-rated version.)

A generation afterward, Debussy came along and stripped classical music of all its German contraptions. Gone was the endless repetition, the compulsive restatements of small motifs in every possible pattern, the cud-chewing cliches of development, and the melodramatic bombast. With Debussy, not a single note seemed wasted, construction was so perfect that each note seemed to stand on its own as an equal contributor, every one as important as the one before and the one after.

(Let no one say that Debussy was incapable of writing dramatic music. The last movement of La Mer. Done by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony in 1962. Has there ever been a greater conductor of French music?)

Debussy hated being called an impressionist, and if you listen closely, you can see why. His music isn't just a melangic wash of color, his music is made of contours so perfectly balanced that the color seems all the more vivid. Like Mozart and Chopin before him (his two great idols), he's often accused of being a constructor of 'sissy music.' All three are routinely accused of writing musical china dolls that are incapable of expressing anything that isn't pretty. So much the loss of the people who actually believe that. But what they really express is musical greatness. The battle scars are not proudly displayed but concealed just beneath the surface, devastating anybody who can listen closely to find them.

(Messiaen teaching his students about Debussy's opera: Pelleas et Melisande. Who would ever leave a classroom with a teacher like that?)

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