Debussy, the most talked about of all modern French composers, was born at St. Germaine-en-Laye, August 22, 1862.
He was educated at the Paris Conservatoire, and on leaving the class of E. Guiraud obtained the Grand Prix de Rome in 1884 with a cantata L’Enfant Prodigue.
From Rome Debussy sent a setting of Rosetti’s “Blessed Damosel” for solo, female choir and orchestra, which was refused by the Section des Beaux Arts owing to its extreme modern tendencies. In spite of this rebuff, however, Debussy held to his opinions – which include the somewhat startling one that modern music should include no melody, which, he says, “is anti lyric and powerless to express constant change of emotion or of life.”
His greatest success so far has been “Pelleas et Melisande”. This work, which is set to an adaptation of Maeterlinck’s play, has created a most extraordinary amount of discussion, and was first produced in Paris, April 30, 1902.
The interest it aroused in Europe was equaled on its production at the Manhattan Opera House, in New York, February 19, 1909.
Debussy undoubtedly has the very highest gifts, and much may be expected of him in the future. He lives in Paris, where he is highly regarded by contemporary musicians, and his reputation as a composer is probably second only to that of Richard Strauss.
A young composer once submitted to Rossini a new work of his requesting him to give an opinion on its merits. The master after having perused the composition remarked in his usual sarcastic way: “I notice in your work much which is beautiful and much which is new, bit I am sorry to say the beautiful is not new and the new is not beautiful.”
With these words Rossini gives to all musicians a wonderful guide for their artistic pursuits. That means in substance: Seek only the beautiful which is not borrowed from your predecessors and the new which is not at the same time ugly and repulsive.
Claude Debussy is one of the very few who to a certain extent fulfilled in his works the two requirements, as well in the attainment of ideal beauty as of novelty and originality. In fact one of his most striking traits is his love of liberty and freedom. He is adverse to all the time-honored laws, whether concerning melody or rhythm or harmony or form. His melodies are bare of symmetry, they are evasive, elusive, like “iridescent vapor.” Harmonically he obeys no rules; consonances, dissonances are blended, juxtaposed without the smallest regard for tone relations. He recognized no boundaries whatsoever between the different keys; the same tonality is seldom maintained beyond a single measure. He uses key signatures but he could as well dispense with them, like some of the ultra-modernists (for instance, the Viennese Schonberg). Somebody said that Debussy puts them in place yielding only to an amiable and indulgent prejudice.
“I prefer,” said Debussy, “to hear few notes of an Egyptian shepherd’s flute, for his is in accord with his scenery and hears harmonies unknown to your treatise. Musicians will listen only to music written by experts. They never turn their attention to that which is inscribed in Nature. It would benefit them more to watch a sunrise than to listen to a performance of the Pastoral Symphony.” A French writer has characterized him as “le tres exceptionel, tres curieux, tres solitaire M. Claude Debussy.”
In his search after something different, novel, unaccustomed, he is not satisfied with the modern scale system; he reverts to the mediaeval choral modes with their far greater latitude and variety. He is especially fond of the “authentic” modes Lydian (f g a b c d e f) and Dorian (d e f g a b c d) which he often uses in his opera Pelleas et Melisande. The whole tone scale which Debussy employs also extensively is not his exclusive invention. Russian composers have used it before him and French masters have used it contemporaneously. But it must be said that Debussy has introduced it in many of his works with particular charm. The absence of a decided tonality, of harmonic repose, make it particularly fit for the evanescent, vaporous ideas of Debussy.
One finds of course a perfect concordance between the ideals of Debussy and the means chosen by him to reach them, and that is what interests us most. “How to arrive?” We have here a nature which strives to free itself from all scholastic, academic restraints. As a true artist he shams repetition, plagiarism, not only the outlines of his melodies by also in the combination of chords, in rhythm, in the accepted forms of composition. A radical sweeping change was necessary. The melodic contours had to be almost obliterated, dissonances, which were formerly carefully avoided by the classicists, had to become the most momentous part of his harmonies. Consecutive fifths, seconds, octaves became with him daily bread. Forms had to be thrown on the dust heap. But where to find substitutes? As we have already noticed, the Gregorian modes, the whole tone scale, the equivocal single chord (the augmented triad) and similar devices furnished him the necessary material for his unique, quaint edifice.
Of course it is unavoidable that, through this constant striving after something never done before, through the uninterrupted refraining from the beaten paths, the work of art must necessarily lose its fluidity, its naturalness. Once cannot force continuously the imagination into unusual moulds without giving birth to something queer and freaky. The composer who gives the reins to his phantasy and allows it to soar unhampered into space cannot always watch like a Cerberus that the scales, the chords conform to new, self-imposed dictates. A natural simplicity, a total absence of affectation, is often more charming than the most elaborate composition which at every moment reveals the fastidious adherence to some new tyrannical rules. It is like falling from Autocracy into Bolshevism.
The same we can notice in life. One sees at times in the country some completely unadorned peasant girl, with her hair just divided in the middle after the old fashion, with an out-of-date but immaculate dress; and he finds her much more charming than if she were clad with expensive silks and laces. I meet often in these mountains of the Berkshire, where I spend my summer, a young girl wearing a framerette suit with pants, driving an old horse and a rickety wagon to the market. I must own that I find her more lovely than the most fastidiously dolled up city girl. By the by, if all women know how much more to their advantage they look attired in a neat peasant garb they would stop wasting money in expensive gowns and fineries.
For the same reason if we listen to a work of Debussy the first impression is less of real artistic enjoyment than of surprise, of amazement. We wonder at the antics, at the skylarks of this unbridled phantasy; we find it even clever, witty; but often we cannot help exclaiming: “the man must be crazy!”
Is that the ideal of art? Is it not rather to touch the innermost recesses of our heart, to have us forget the means with which a powerful effect is attained, and let us enjoy the sublime manifestation of genius undisturbed by considerations of “how” and “why?” So it happens that unbiased listeners are inclined to consider Debussy’s music rather as a product of the brain than of the heart.
I will not assert, however, that his works are deprived of genius. They surely scintillate here and there, but these fulgors are rather scarce, rari mantes in gurgite vasto – too few raisins in the cake. They do not suffice for me; I like a rich cake with plenty of them.
It must be owned that Debussy was not only eccentric in his music, but also in private life. He was unapproachable to strangers; he observed the utmost reticence regarding the intimate details of his career and existence; he sheltered himself from publicity and advertisement. He was of the opinion that “to seers of visions a certain loneliness is inevitable.” “L’ame d’autrui,” he said, “est une foret obscure ou it faut marcher avee precaution.” It was a kind of religion to him to be original above suspicion. “Me thinks,” he said, “it spoils an artist to be in sympathy with his surroundings. I am always afraid of his thus becoming the interpreter of his own milieu. Go not to others for advice, but take counsel from the passing breezes which relate the story of the world to those who listen.”
He disliked unnecessary applause, and he remarked: “Sachez donc qu’une veridique impression de beaute ne pondrait avoir d’aurte effet que le silence. Enfin voyons quand vous assistez a cete feerie questidienne qu’est la mort de soleil avez vous eu jamais la pensee d’applaudir. Vous en avourez que c’est pourtant d’un developpement un peu plus imprevu que toutes vos petites histoire sonores.”
To a pressing request from the editor of Le Monde Musical for his likeness on the morrow of the success of Pelleas et Melisande, he answered: “Willingly, and you receive the only one that has been taken. But I tell you beforehand when I sat to a photographer I was two years old and since then I have changed a little!” The portrait of Debussy generally known is taken from a picture of Blanche, which idealizes very much the rather clumsy and corpulent features of the real Debussy.
His Sound Knowledge
His early training was conventional and academic, and seemingly in no way conducive to the independent ideas he has formulated for himself. Born at St. Germain-en_Laye, 1862, he began his studies at that most conservative institution, the Paris Conservatoire. He obtained medals for solfege and piano playing, and finally, 1884, the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant Prodigue. He said that his music “court le risque de deplaire a ceux qui aiment une musicque, jusqu’a lui rester jalousement fideles malgre ses rides et ses fardes.”
In spite of his revolutionary principles, his critical writings bear testimony of his knowledge and respect for the works of his predecessors.
Apropos of Bach’s Violin Concerto in G he notes the “musical arabesque” contained in it. “From these same arabesques the ‘ornament’ is derived which he names the basis of all art modes. The word ‘ornament’ he adds in parentheses has no connection with the meaning attached to it by the musical grammars. The premitifs – Palestrina, Vittoria, Orlando de Lassus, etc. – he continues, were mindful of this divine ‘arabesque.’ They found the origin of it in the Gregorian chant, and they supported its slender convolutions by means of strong resisting counterpoint.”
On another occasion he writes: “From Bach’s works a somewhat striking analogy forces itself on the mind. Bach is the Graal and Wagner Klingsor (the evil magician is Parsifal) who would destroy the Graal and usurp the homage given to it. Bach exercises a sovereign influence in music, and in his goodness and might he has willed that we should ever gain fresh knowledge from the noble lessons he has left us, and thus his disinterested love perpetuated. As years roll by Wagner’s sombre and disquieting shadow lessens and grows dim.” It is remarkable that paying a tribute of veneration to Bach, Debussy avails himself of figures created by Wagner.
Of Wagner himself he says; “Wagner has left us an inheritance of certain formulas for the union of music and drama, the insufficiency of which will some day be recognized. It is inadmissible that for his own particular reason he should have invented the leit-motif itinerary for the use of those who cannot find their way in a score, and by so doing he expedited matters by himself. What is of more serious import is the fact that he has accustomed us to making music responsible for the protagonist. Music posses rhythm, and this inner power directs its development. The movements of the soul have also a rhythm; it is more instinctively comprehensive, and it is subordinated to a multitude of different circumstances and events. From the juxtaposition of these two different rhythms a continual conflict issues. The twain do not amalgamate. Either the music gets out of breath running after the protagonist, or the protagonist has to hold on a note in order to allow the music to overtake him. There have been miraculous conjunctions of the two forces, and to Wagner the need of praise is due for having brought about some of these encounters. But these fortuitous occurrences have been due to chance; which more often than not shows itself unaccommodating or deceiving. Thus, the symphonic form to dramatic action, instead of helping it, as was triumphantly asserted in the days when Wagner reigned over lyric drama, is liable to injure it.”
Grieg’s music gives him the charming and bizarre sensation of eating a pink bonbon stuffed with snow.
Of Beethoven he writes: “The right lesson to be learnt from him is not to hold fast to ancient formulas. Neither is it necessary to follow in the tracks of his early footsteps. But it is of greater importance to look out of the open window to the free sky beyond.”
The bulk of Debussy’s works is not very large, owing also to the fact that he died in his 56th year (1918).
The most widely known among them is his opera, Pelleas et Melisande, after Maeterlinck’s play. The subject of the opera is vague and full of fathomless mystery. Maeterlinck’s man – as de Soissons says – is a being whose sensuous life is only a concrete symbol of his infinite transcendental side. The libretto contains scenes of exquisite beauty. To give a single instance of the delicate poetic perfume pervading the whole work, I shall mention the opening scene of the third act, in which Pelleas entreats Melisande to lean further forward out of the window of the tower, that he may see her hair unbound and touch her hand. Suddenly her long tresses fall over her head and stream about Pelleas. He is enraptured. “I have never seen such hair as yours, Melisande! See! See! Though it comes from so high it floods me to the heart! And is sweet, sweet as though it fell from heaven! I can no longer see the sky through your locks… My two hands can no longer hold them…They are alive like birds in my hands. And they love me, they love me more than you do!” Melisande begs to be released. Pelleas kisses the enveloping tresses…”Do you hear my kisses? They mount through your hair…”
What enchanting vision, wonderfully expressed by Debussy by a precipitate descending series of seventh chords built on the whole tone scale.
In the limited space allotted to these articles I can only mention briefly some of the other works of Debussy which have become popular, as, for instance, his Sting Quartet, his pianoforte pieces: Jardin sous la pluie, Reflets d’eau, Deux Arabesques, and the song Ariette oubliee, Le Flute de Pan, built on the Lydian mode, and Sa Chevelure, in which we hear the whole tone scale.
Debussy has not classified his works under opera numbers.
Resuming, we find in Debussy’s career the following salient points:
The continuous striving after originality which became with him a kind of obsession. It resulted in imparting a decided novelty and bizarrerie to all his creations, but at the same time depriving them of that spontaneity and naturalness which alone can make the work of art enjoyable, unequivocal, intelligible to the majority of the listeners.
He was, as well in his art as in his life, strictly consistent and faithful to his principles. He made concessions neither to tast nor to fashion, nor to narrow mindedness and pedantry. Like his illustrious predecessor, he was a knight “san peur et sans reproche.”
The great lessons he tried to obtain from the observation of nature in its most sublime manifestations. “If you will learn to know nature do not listen to second hand reproductions like the Pastoral Symphony, but go directly to the original.”