claude debussy died a century ago, but his music hasn’t aged. tied only loosely to the past, it floats in time. as it merges, measure by measure, it seems to improvise itself, which is the effect debussy was after. after a rehearsal of his orchestral suite “images,” he said with satisfaction, “this has the air of not having been written.” In a conversation with one of his former teachers, he stated, “There is no theory. you just have to listen. pleasure is the law.”
To mark the centenary of debussy’s death, which fell in march, two beautiful box sets of his collected works have been released. they suit a man who treasures beautiful things. One, labeled Deutsche Grammophon, is decorated with the composer’s portrait of Jacques-Émile Blanche, in which he strikes an aristocratic pose, clutching his lapel. the other, from warner classics, shows hokusai’s woodcut “the great wave off kanagawa”, which, at debussy’s request, was reproduced on the cover of one of his most celebrated scores, “la mer”. Physical recordings are no longer a fashionable way to listen to music, but you’ll probably get closer to Debussy if you shut down the internet and throw yourself completely into his world. the dg set has the libretto of his only completed opera, “pelléas et mélisande”, and the texts of his great production of songs, necessary resources to get closer to an acutely literary composer whom Stéphane Mallarmé and Marcel Proust recognized as a the same.
better to start where pierre boulez said modern music was born: with the first ethereal notes of the symphonic orchestral poem “prelude to ‘the afternoon of a faun’”. Debussy wrote it between 1892 and 1894, in response to Mallarmé’s famous poem. the score begins with what looks like an uncertain scribble on the composer’s part. a solo flute slides down from C sharp to G natural, then slides up; the same figure is repeated; then there is a sung turn around the notes of the triad in E major. however, in measure four, when more instruments enter—two oboes, two clarinets, a horn, and a billowing harp—they ignore the flute offering of e. Instead, they recline into a beautiful chord out of nowhere, a half-diminished seventh of the sort Wagner placed at the beginning of “Tristan und Isolde.” this leads to a lush B-flat dominant 7th, which should resolve to E-flat, but doesn’t. distant harmonies intermingle in an open space. the most striking thing is the presence of silence. B-flat harmonies are framed by gaps for a bar length. this is sound at rest, listening to its own echo.
debussy achieved something that happens very rarely, and not in every lifetime: he brought a new kind of beauty into the world. In 1894, when she first performed “Fauno”, her language was surprising but not shocking: it caused no scandal and was accepted by the public almost immediately. debussy designed a velvet revolution, overthrowing the existing order without agitation. Her influence turned out to be enormous, not only for successive waves of twentieth-century modernists, but also for jazz, popular song, and Hollywood. when both the stern boulez and the suave duke ellington cite you as a precursor, you have done something singular.
Music is easy to love but hard to explain. the shelf of books on debussy is not large, and every scholar who turns to him is faced with the challenge of analyzing an artist for whom analysis was abhorrent. The latest addition to that shelf is Stephen Walsh’s “Debussy: A Painter in Sound” (Knopf), which places just the right emphasis on Debussy’s myriad links to other art forms. the composer may have been the first in history to become a fully modern artist, joining a community of writers and painters, borrowing ideas and lending them back. it is true that before debussy there was wagner, whose impact was seismic enough that the term “wagnerism” was coined to describe it. with wagner, however, the influence tended to go in one direction: outward. debussy was receptive. he saw, read, reflected and transformed the ineffable into sound.
“He was a very, very strange man,” said soprano Mary Garden. With his piercing eyes and bulging forehead, he could make a harsh first impression, like “a proud Calabrian bandit,” according to pianist Ricardo Viñes. François Lesure, the author of the definitive French-language biography of Debussy, portrays him as “withdrawn, unsociable, taciturn, skittish, touchy, aloof, shy.” it was said that he was “catlike and lonely”. he “lived in a kind of haughty misanthropy, behind a wall of irony.” he had a tendency to lie in his professional and personal relationships. he was sufficiently aware of his limitations: “those around me persist in not understanding that I have never been able to live in a real world of people and things.”
debussy was born in the suburbs of paris in 1862, into an impoverished family. His father, Manuel, worked a series of jobs, including china shop owner, street vendor, and print worker. his mother, victorine, was a seamstress. at the time of the paris commune, in 1871, manuel served in the revolutionary forces, as a captain, and when the commune was defeated he spent more than a year in prison. coincidentally, when manuel told charles de sivry, another intern, about his son’s musical interests, sivry mentioned that his mother, antoinette mauté, was a pianist. Mauté, a well-connected woman who is said to have studied with Chopin, began teaching the boy, and helped arrange his admission to the Paris Conservatoire, in 1872. Another notable thing about Mauté is that his daughter Mathilde had the misfortune to be married to paul verlaine. At the time, this unfortunate couple was living with Mauté, and Arthur Rimbaud, soon to become Verlaine’s lover, was a growing source of tension. Although Debussy never spoke of meeting Verlaine or Rimbaud, he must have been at least dimly aware of the chaos at home.
at the conservatory, debussy was a restless student, exasperating his teachers and fascinating his classmates. when he was confronted with the fundamentals of harmony and form, he asked why any system was needed. He had little trouble mastering the academic exercises and, after two attempts, won the Prix de Rome, a traditional springboard to a successful career as a composer. but in his first vocal pieces and in his legendary hypnotic piano improvisations, he broke with the rules that had been in place for hundreds of years. familiar chords appeared in unknown sequences. the melodies followed the contours of ancient or exotic scales. shapes dissolved in textures and moods. an academic evaluation accused him of indulging in impressionism, a label he stuck to.
perhaps debussy’s central idea was about the restrictive effect of the standard major and minor scales. why not use the old modes of medieval church music? Or the differently arranged and tuned scales found in non-Western traditions? or the whole-tone scale, which divided the octave into equal intervals? Debussy was especially fond of the natural harmonic series, the spectrum of harmonics that arise from a vibrating string. if you pinch a tight string in the middle, its pitch goes up an octave. if you pinch it up into successively smaller fractions, the basic intervals of conventional Western harmony emerge. so far, so good: but what about the notes later in the series? these are more difficult to assimilate. in the chain of intervals derived from a C, find one tone somewhere near B flat and another in the vicinity of F sharp. Debussy preferred a mode known as the acoustic scale, which imitates the series of harmonics by raising the fourth degree (F sharp) and lowering the seventh (B flat). That those notes correspond to blue notes helps explain Debussy’s appeal to jazz musicians.
debussy had the typical prejudices of his time and never gave much thought to the cultures he sampled. however, he knew how to look for food outside the classical sphere. At the Paris Exposition of 1889, he heard a gamelan ensemble, which made the Western harmonies sound to him like “empty ghosts of utility to clever little children.” those opening bars of “afternoon of a faun” capture debussy’s broadmindedness: first the faun’s song, which feels primitive and uncomposed, and then that sumptuous B-flat chord, which you don’t need to resolve, because it’s complete in itself, a chord of harmonics supported by its fundamental.
Debussy’s rejection of the musical status quo was fueled by his zealous love of poetry and painting. The most revealing experience I’ve had with the composer in recent years was not in the concert hall but in a museum: an exhibition entitled “Debussy, music and the arts”, which was set up at the musée de l’orangerie, in paris, in 2012. going from the manuscript of “faun” to a copy of mallarmé’s poem, and then seeing a whistling marine on the walls and the “great wave” by hokusai, was like feeling the synesthetic kick of debussy. for him, music had been left behind: it had nothing to rival free verse in poetry, the drift towards abstraction in painting, and the investigation of mystical spheres that was taking place in the arts.
poetry drove debussy’s early breakthroughs. his individual voice is embodied in settings by paul bourget, théodore de banville, baudelaire, verlaine and mallarmé, poets ranging from parnassian classicism to symbolist esotericism. Like a hunter pursuing elusive prey, Debussy repeatedly sought to capture the haunting stillness of Verlaine’s “en sourdine”: “calm in the gloom / made by the high branches, / let our love permeate / with deep silence.” . As Walsh notes, Debussy’s early attempts, beginning in 1882, are replete with Wagnerian harmony. a version from a decade later is spare and penetrating, all excess erased. debussy is ready to compose “the afternoon of a faun”, which arose when mallarmé asked him to collaborate on a theatrical version of his poem. (No production resulted.) “Inert, everything burns in this savage hour,” the poem says, making an oblique mention of “he who seeks the la”—the note a. this is the atmosphere of debussy’s opening, with its charged stasis and the resonant chords of it.
The visual arts proved an equally important source of inspiration, although the impressionist label has perpetuated the mistaken notion that debussy tried to do in music what monet, renoir and degas did in painting. those artists were in his field of vision, but the avalanche of brushstrokes that defines impressionist painting—the erasing of the clean line in search of a hazier reality—is alien to debussy’s crystalline technique. elusive but never vague, it is closer in spirit to the symbolist movement, with its vivid evocations of unreal realms, and the brilliant fabled world of les nabis. He also looked to the Pre-Raphaelites — “La Damoiselle Élue,” a seminal early cantata, is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “The Blessed Maiden” — and to the semi-abstract seascapes of J. subway. w. turner, who predicted the riot at “la mer”.