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.