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Why Debussy is France’s Greatest Composer


Montreal is only 320 miles to our north, but it is a significant foreign experience for American visitors; as the second-largest city in Canada and the second-largest Francophone city in the world, it is a big slice of Paris right in North America, with thriving bilingual culture, world-class universities, fine architecture, excellent cuisine, a wide distribution of the arts and sciences, and everywhere a delight to visit even in midwinter. I was there for a four-day conference, “Claude Debussy’s Legacy: Du Rêve for Future Generations,” hosted by the Observatoire Interdisciplinaire de Recherche et de Création en Musique at the University of Montreal.

Your correspondent spoke about Debussy’s absolute pitch and the choice of keys in his different works, but this was only 20 minutes in the four days that included no less than 42 formal papers, 19 of them in French. Most of today’s leading authorities on Debussy’s life and work were present. For some decades, the main efforts in Debussy studies have been put forward by scholars in England and the United States, and most of that elder generation were on hand to assure musicology that Debussy studies are more lively today, 150 years after the composer’s birth, than ever before; at the same time, one could find reassurance in the large number of younger scholars carrying on the work of the older. There were some notable tributes to notable pioneers, such as Edward Lockspeiser (1905-1973), whose two-volume study, Debussy: His Life and Mind (1962, 1965), remains a landmark work of biography enriched by a wide-ranging analysis of Debussy’s cultural background and literary and artistic influences; and François Lesure (1923-2001), a later biographer (Claude Debussy, 2003) and a prime mover 30 years ago in the founding of the Debussy Œuvres complètes. Nearly all of today’s ongoing documentary research is centered in this edition, the first critical edition of the works of any composer ever to be published in France under modern standards of scholarship.

The academic side of the conference was augmented by some notable live music. Particularly outstanding was a performance on Thursday evening, in the handsome Salle Claude Champagne at the Faculté de Musique, of Pelléas et Mélisande with student cast and orchestra, impeccably sung and played by all hands. (There was one guest performer, Joseph Rouleau, 83 years old, who has sung the role of Arkel ever since 1955.) This production was semi-staged, but very little scenery is essential for this opera, and the scrim and the lighting took care of what was needed. Another operatic surprise, in the same hall, was Diane au bois, Debussy’s first operatic attempt, in the form of two scenes from Théodore de Banville’s droll “comédie lyrique” that Debussy had set in 1885; this 15-minute fragment was staged on Friday night, accompanied by piano, from Debussy’s carefully-notated particelle. A performance is scheduled later this year in Paris, using Robert Orledge’s orchestration. The Friday concert also featured another of Orledge’s reconstructions from Debussy’s scattered sketches, a Sérénade for violin and small orchestra; the degree of authenticity, or faithfulness to Debussy, hardly seemed to matter, because this short, lyrical piece was above all else a lovely work that violinists surely will welcome to the repertory. On Tuesday, in a smaller hall a mile away, at the Centre des Arts Crowley, Orledge’s reconstruction of Debussy’s Le diable dans le beffroi, in part the composer’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s strange story, received a first performance anywhere. As Orledge explained, Debussy, in writing out a few sketches in 1905, was determined to make this new opera as utterly unlike Pelléas as possible. It is hard to give a just account of a single hearing of a completely new work that is full of parodistic elements, but this was convincing enough to make one want to hear it again several times, and there were some good melodies in it, too.

The whole affair in Montreal was a real festival, one that demonstrated convincingly to all of those present who have known Debussy’s music thoroughly and for decades that his incomparably rich and varied works still need to be better understood. Yet I would go so far as to say that the conference and its performances constituted yet one more confirmation, if any were needed, that Debussy, who died in 1918 at age 55, leaving behind dozens of unfinished works as well as the masterpieces that we all know, remains the greatest of all French composers. In the depth, breadth, and originality of his accomplishment, he surpasses every one of his predecessors in 10 centuries – composers from Machaut to Berlioz, from the Burgundian masters to our own century’s Ravel, another master whose fame has perhaps been even greater, but who admired Debussy to the core. In the 110 years since the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, no composer has been more influential than Claude Debussy, and today, as more of his substantial legacy is heard everywhere, we are more than ever understanding why.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Professor Devoto:

    In the depth, breadth, and originality of his accomplishment, he surpasses every one of his predecessors in 10 centuries – composers from Machaut to Berlioz, from the Burgundian masters to our own century’s Ravel, another master whose fame has perhaps been even greater, but who admired Debussy to the core. In the 110 years since the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, no composer has been more influential than Claude Debussy, and today, as more of his substantial legacy is heard everywhere, we are more than ever understanding why”


    Hear, hear !

    3 questions:

    1. Do you believe that such an unassuming piece as the Prelude To The Afternoon of a Faun really was a harbinger of modernism in music, as most people say ? Its elasticity aside, the harmonic language doesn’t sound so far removed from things heard in other composers of the generation before Debussy.

    2. Does it surprise you that this immensely sophisticated and supremely beautiful work doesn’t have more of a ‘cult following’ ?

    3. Do you ever get the impression that most people have largely consigned it to the status of dreamy exoticism and cuddly charm ?


    Comment by The Unrepentant Pelleastrian — March 5, 2012 at 8:28 pm

  2. All of those questions are good ones.  I will try to synthesize them as I answer.  First of all, though Faune is a short and relatively quiet piece (“dreamy” is much to the point, because one can regard the Mallarmé poem that inspired it as a kind of dream, the Faun’s constant effort to recall the beauties of an afternoon lost in memory), it is a culmination of Debussy’s harmonic language of the time, a language that sought to associate distantly-related harmonies through their common tones.  Debussy’s jumping-off point, in which this advanced harmonic language was clearly anticipated, was just four or five years before Faune, in his Fantaisie for piano and orchestra and La Damoiselle élue for women’s chorus, two soli, and orchestra, and the most direct influences in turn on these two pathbreaking works were Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  But the individual harmonies, and many of the harmonic progressions, in Faune are no more radical than those of Debussy’s own slightly older French contemporaries, such as Fauré and Chabrier and Franck or even Massenet, or for that matter Chopin, whose music Debussy particularly loved.  Debussy’s influences are many and easy to identify, but they are parfectly absorbed into his own highly individual style.  What makes Faune such a milestone is the synthesis of all of these different tendencies, and the extraordinary and complex melodic unity that binds them.  In fact, though I often use the term “Impressionsim” that Debussy disliked (though he said that Faune was meant to convey an “impression” of Mallarmé’s thought), I think of Faune not as a work that resembles Impressionist brushstrokes so much as Art Nouveau sinuosity of line and coloration.  Debussy’s impressionism really begins historically with a work that is an even more radical leap into the unknown, namely Nuages, the first of the three orchestral Nocturnes of 1899.  In Nuages Debussy brought forth a really reduced tonality, in which neither major nor minor mode predominates and in which the tonic triad is diminished.  (I discuss this in my book, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality, for those who want more details.)  And Nuages is the first piece to which Debussy gave a title that is suggestive rather than narrative or descriptive, i.e., like the “character piece” for which Schumann and Mendelssohn were famous.  
    As for “cult following,” I don’t have a ready explanation for why some music has a cult following and other music doesn’t.  Wagner had his Wagnerians all over Europe for half a century and more, not only because of the obvious impact of his music but because of his genius for creating publicity and his irrepressible penchant for sounding off about everything.  Erik Satie was one of my favorite composers from the early 1950s on, and one of John Cage’s long before that, but he really scored a success with the modern public, not in France but in America, in the 1970s with Blood, Sweat & Tears’s arrangement of Gymnopédie no. 1, and this success goes on today.  On the other hand I know people who adore Bruckner’s symphonies or Korngold’s movie scores and almost no other music.  Debussy’s music, notwithstanding pieces that have become popular all out of proportion to other works of his — I think especially of Clair de lune and Rêverie (Debussy tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress publication of both of these) and Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk — I think is mostly too refined and complex to develop the classical “cult.”  Those who understand and respect and love Debussy’s music generally understand and love much other music as well, even Mozart.   

    Faune will probably not reach the many to whom Beethoven is only the last movement of the Ninth Symphony and a figure on a tee-shirt.  It’s interesting to read criticism of eighty or ninety years ago, such as that “Debussy was a composer of first-class bonbons and you can’t live on bonbons all the time.”  “Debussy made no attempt to create new forms, or to modify, still less enlarge, those familiar to him.”  “Debussy’s music delights, fascinates, amuses.  I have not heard its most ardent admirers claim that in ennobles.”  We have come a long way since these limited pronouncements.  We still have a way to go.  I was saddened when Khamma, promised for earlier this year by the BSO, was taken off the menu.  We haven’t heard the Fantaisie from the BSO since the 1920s, though I heard it live in Montreal last week, as I had heard it live in Oregon in 1967.  But  don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune even if I never can understand Mallarmé’s poem.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 5, 2012 at 11:19 pm

  3. Mid-winter occurs the first week of Fevrier, about 44 or 45 days after the winter solstice on December 21st most years.  Winter is actually the shortest season in the northern hemisphere because, since the Earth is closest to the Sun at that time, the planet moves fastest in its orbit. C’mon, get it right.
    (Just messing with your head because you picked Debussy over MY favorite French composer, Berlioz.  Of course I grew up in the Boston area, home of the orchestra that has done the most to promote Hector, during the tenures of Munch, Ozawa and Levine.  Now I’m having flashbacks to Levine conducting the Requiem and “Les Troyens” in Symphony Hall.)

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — March 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm

  4. Prof. Devoto, I wonder whether you can clarify some of the assertions made in your conference report. On the one hand there is the observation that the academic community seems to agree that Debussy’s ‘incomparably rich and varied works still need to be better understood’. However, there seems to be enough evidence on hand, at least from your own perspective, to confirm that he is the greatest French composer ever. My question is, therefore, what it is that we don’t understand about Debussy’s music and that seems to keep eluding scholars. And why is it, despite those important gaps in knowledge, that we are able to assert Debussy’s undisputable greatness? To be sure, I’m totally sympathetic to your claims. But as someone who discovered Debussy only recently (particularly through his late works) and has started to read up on his music and life, I’m rather confused about the stature of his contributions to our musical heritage. Thanks in advance.

    Comment by Philippe Vandenbroeck — March 11, 2012 at 8:06 pm

  5. To answer Mr. Vandenbroeck’s question, I think of Debussy as the most original voice of his time, in harmony, in formal approach, and in sound. In the realm of harmony we have learned not so much a vocabulary of new kinds of chords as new ways of combining them in succession, often through common tones, whereby a chord in one key moves to another in a distantly-related key by means of one or more common tones. (The muted-trumpets section of _Fêtes_ is a good example, in which nine different harmonies — some might count more than that — are all related through the common note Aflat which is a consonant factor in every one of them.) In form Debussy was anxious, most of the time, to avoid classical forms, especially sonata form, while cleaving frequently to three-part (ABA) form which is elementary, and relating the different sections through careful use of motives that often emerge only from the background. In sound, everyone knows and loves the characteristic uses of divided strings, harps, soft textures, and heterophony of small complex details like Impressionist brushstrokes which synthesize in the total texture. These characteristics are all so different from the Austro-German symphonic tradition that it has taken a long time for academic analysts, at least, to recognize them. At the same time, Debussy had various important influences, including Berlioz (Mr. Glavin will certainly acknowledge this), Wagner (whom Debussy affected to deride, but only selectively!), Chopin, Franck, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, French folksong, and his own French contemporaries — these influences are all detectable, but perfectly assimilated under the force of his own unique personality and in perfect taste. I discuss some of these things in my book, _Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on His Music_, and in my article on “The Debussy Sound” in _The Cambridge Companion to Debussy_, and I would also recommend Roy Howat’s book, _The Art of French Piano Music_, which gives a good idea of how Debussy, who began as an excellent pianist, absorbed Chopin and Schumann into his art.

    The stature of Debussy’s contributions to music is undoubted, and they are secure for all time. There’s no other opera in the world like _Pelléas et Mélisande_, although Musorgsky’s _Boris Godunov_ looms in its background. Debussy’s orchestral works, including _Faune_, the _Nocturnes_, and _La mer_ especially but also many other works less often heard, dominate the orchestral repertory of the twentieth century and beyond. His piano music owes something to Chopin, Chabrier, Ravel, even Fauré, but at the same time all of it is _sui generis_ and of permanent value; his songs and chamber music, likewise.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 14, 2012 at 7:45 pm

  6. “In sound, everyone knows and loves the characteristic uses of divided strings, harps, soft textures, and heterophony of small complex details like Impressionist brushstrokes which synthesize in the total texture.”

    A universal proposition is disproved by a single negative instance.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 14, 2012 at 10:20 pm

  7. Oops! Make that “a single contrary instance.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 14, 2012 at 10:21 pm

  8. Prof. DeVoto, thank you very much for your reply to my earlier question which has given me pause. Meanwhile I also had the opportunity to read your very elegant and insightful essay in the Cambridge Companion. Thanks also for pointing out Mr. Howat’s book which I had overlooked.

    Prompted by your response, my reflections led me to formulate a hypothesis as to the importance of Debussy as a composer. I’m not a music scholar so maybe I can afford to be a little more speculative. For myself, the importance of Debussy emerges from a layered conceptual space. I’m thinking of it as a hologram in which each distinct, microscopic feature reflects a higher-level order. Hence, the space is characterised by coherence, which

    One layer is related to the micro or meso-level, distinctive (harmonic, motivic and textural) features of Debussy’s musical language, as you helpfully point some of them out.

    Another layer links to the macro-level features of Debussy’s musical language: the very special way in which he has been able to conceive of musical form. In that respect I was fascinated by the reference in your essay to Jean Barraqué’s assessment of Debussy’s formal process as a ‘devenir sonore’, which not only ‘blurs’ exposition and development, but also the emergence of complex form with the production of heterophonic sound (as you point out in relation to Jeux). (Remarkably, I’m reminded here of Laurence Dreyfus’ study on Bach’s ‘patterns of invention’ which, if I remember well, makes a somewhat similar point).

    A third layer involves the controversial linkage between Debussy’s music and the ‘impressionism’ moniker. As far as I understand, Debussy did not want his music to be representational. He did not want his music to be confessional either and certainly he wanted to avoid the redemptive pretensions of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I think there is a fenomenological dimension to Debussy’s music, but in an oblique way. It seems Debussy was able to take an object, a natural phenomenon, a natural process and the associated ambiente and ‘objectify’ these through his music, stressing their ‘otherness’ rather than their familiarity.

    It seems to me that Debussy, in the way he seamlessly connected the most modest musical building block (his fastidious attention to detail is well known) to the large-scale, dynamic and textural complexity of form and sound, to his ambition to produce a cleansed, very ‘modern’ kind of music (as music, and nothing more), positions himself as a visionary artist who grasped ahead to some of the themes and concerns that would emerge only much later in art and society.

    Not sure whether any of this makes sense. You will take this little speculative excursion with a pinch of salt, I’m sure.

    Comment by Philippe Vandenbroeck — March 29, 2012 at 7:18 pm

  9. Mr. Vandenbroeck’s “little speculative excursion” certainly makes a great deal of sense, especially the “holographic” analogy, in which the shape of the small detail reflects, in some way, the larger outline.  I wouldn’t want to carry that analogy too far in the direction of scientific rigor,  but the science does suggest the art to me.   I think Debussy would have enjoyed the idea, too.  I confess to using, even holding fast to, much of the idea of “impressionism” in Debussy’s art which he himself affected to deride.  He did, after all, suggest that Faune was meant to convey an “impression” of Mallarmé’s poem though surely not the narrative details of a program such as some scholars have claimed to find.  

    I think of Debussy’s impressionist titles (from the Nocturnes on) as analogous to Schumann;s titles in his character pieces — and we remember that Debussy greatly loved Schumann’s work.   As far as Debussy’s formal approach goes: the three-part (ABA) form is basic, but also elementary.  Every mature Debussy work, whether three-part or not, is sui generis, autonomous in form, the form being revealed through the tonality above all.  It may be hard to think of a work like La mer as “symphonic”  in the Austro-German sense, but it shows the impulse for symphonic development — through the tonality — as fully as any of the symphonies of Beethoven or Schumann or Brahms.   The subtitle “trois esquisses symphoniques” was Debussy’s.  We know that Debussy, along with other Parisian musicians, was invited to a lunch with Mahler but walked out. 

    Certainly Debussy didn’t understand Mahler (and the Second Symphony, which I recall is what Mahler brought with him, is a less favorable example than others would have been) and probably never could have.  Mahler, however, would surely have understood La mer though quite possibly he wouldn’t have liked it.  (My speculative excursion.   BTW I pointed out in my book that Debussy’s Le jet d’eau of 1889 and Mahler’s Abschied of 1909 end on the same chord, a C major triad with unresolved upper A, the added major sixth degree.)

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 31, 2012 at 9:21 pm

  10. Many thanks for your additional reflections, Prof. DeVoto. I wish I had the musicological expertise to build on your insights.

    As regards Mahler’s visit to Paris, I remember reading a story about Debussy and Dukas walking out of the ‘Auferstehung’ performance because they deemed it “too Schubertian”. However, I haven’t been able to retrace this anecdote. Anyway, Mahler’s Second must have been very hard to stomach for Debussy. Talk about music with confessional and redemptive pretensions! I used to be much more interested in Mahler than in Debussy, but today it’s very much the other way around.

    I’m looking very much forward now to an imminent visit to a Debussy exhibition at the Paris Musée de’Orsay:

    Thanks again for your patient clarifications.

    Comment by Philippe Vandenbroeck — April 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm

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