Debussy: Playing with Colour
Debussy emancipated the orchestra, capitalising on its colours and freeing up its expressive potential. As the composer’s 150th birthday is celebrated at the Proms, Geoffrey Norris talks to some of today’s leading Debussy interpreters about the ongoing resonance of his music
Think Paris 1913. Think music and scandal. And surely the first thing that springs to mind is the cause célèbre of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The catcalls, the ribaldry, the fisticuffs – the whole maelstrom of that unruly May night in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées has become the stuff of legend. But only a fortnight earlier, in the very same theatre, the Parisian audience had been given another shock to its system at the premiere of Debussy’s ballet (or ‘poème dansé’), Jeux. There was some vociferous ribbing from the stalls, but the main reaction was one of bewilderment. What to make of this 18-minute piece with its inconclusive music, flimsy scenario and weird choreography? Indeed, were the amorous frolics of three young tennis players – two girls, one boy – entirely proper entertainment for well-heeled Parisian patrons? If the members of the audience had gone along simply to enjoy the athletic virtuosity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and of Vaclav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in particular, they were to be disappointed. Nijinsky’s own choreography for Jeux left even Debussy bemused. As he wrote a couple of weeks after the first performance, ‘Among recent pointless goings-on I must include the staging of Jeux, which gave Nijinsky’s perverse genius a chance of indulging in a peculiar kind of mathematics. This chap adds up triple crotchets with his feet, checks them on his arms, then suddenly, half-paralysed, he stands crossly watching the music slip by. It’s awful.’ As the critic of Le Figaro put it, ‘Composer and choreographer take absolutely no notice of each other in this ballet.’
A year earlier, in May 1912, Diaghilev had launched his artistic relationship with Debussy by getting Nijinsky to choreograph, and dance, a ballet based on the orchestral Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the work that had truly put Debussy on the French musical map in 1894. This interpretation by Nijinsky had also ignited a furore, or at least it had caused ladies’ fans to flutter in embarrassment, on account of the faune’s erotic dealings with his elusive nymph’s scarf. If this particular ballet was conceived to an already existing work, Jeux was a completely new collaboration, and as such was even more significant, but it disappeared from the ballet repertoire almost as soon as it had been staged. The chief reason was that the sensation surrounding The Rite of Spring only two weeks later was so luridly newsworthy that it obliterated the mere incomprehension that had greeted Jeux. However, like The Rite of Spring, Jeux was to enjoy a long life outside the narrow confines of the ballet theatre. Moreover, it was to become recognised as one of the most inspired, ingenious and tantalisingly enigmatic of Debussy’s orchestral works, a classic of early-20th-century art that fully justifies its inclusion in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Prom on August 30, as part of a special focus on Debussy to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Debussy was not unfamiliar with controversy. His opera Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck and first staged in 1902, excited contradictory opinion from the start. Camille Bellaigue, music critic of the Revue des Deux Mondes, found in it the ‘germs and decadence of death’. More positively, the composer Paul Dukas commented that ‘each bar exactly corresponded to the scene it portrayed…and to the feelings it expressed’. Vincent d’Indy similarly viewed Pelléas as an opera with ‘simply felt and expressed human feelings and human suffering in human terms, despite the outward appearance the characters give of living in a mysterious dream’. There are, to be sure, opera-goers who still shy away from Pelléas, just as there are those who find Wagner an unnecessary haul, but the crucial factor about both the opera and Jeux is that Debussy was expressing himself with a distinctly fresh voice in French music, a fresh voice that could speak through the medium of opera and orchestral music or in the realms of the piano and song. As is generally the case with anything new, there were hostile opponents to what Debussy was doing, the critic Pierre Lalo writing in Le Temps that ‘ordinary musicians, in imitating him, are on the road to ruin. May they beware of the prince of darkness, of his pomps and of his works.’ But the innovations of Debussy’s music, in matters of harmony, orchestration, texture and structure, were to have significant resonances throughout the 20th century and beyond, impacting on Stravinsky and Ravel among his slightly younger contemporaries and on such leading lights as Bartók, Webern, Messiaen, Dutilleux, Boulez and Takemitsu in the decades to come.
So, in what ways did this originality manifest itself in Debussy’s music? No composer works in a complete vacuum, and Debussy was as susceptible to inescapable forces from other composers as anybody else, but, to take Pelléas et Mélisande as an example, he was intent on creating a new type of French opera, influenced by the literary Symbolist movement of which Maeterlinck was a prime representative and couched in a musical language that was both personal and progressive. Before Pelléas et Mélisande the most recent Paris premieres of operas by French composers had included, in 1900, Fauré’s Prométhée and Charpentier’s Louise, and, in 1901, Massenet’s Grisélidis and Saint-Saëns’s Les Barbares, all of them with roots planted firmly in 19th-century traditions. As Debussy himself once said, Saint-Saëns wrote operas ‘with the soul of an unrepentant old symphonist’, and in Pelléas et Mélisande, set in the allegorical kingdom of Allemonde, his aspiration was to branch out into regions that neither Saint-Saëns nor Massenet could have envisaged. In this regard, the label of ‘Impressionism’ has often been attached to Debussy, who viewed the term with suspicion in its application both to painting and to music. ‘Imbeciles’, he called those who dubbed his music Impressionist, and it can readily be argued that the pictures and feelings he conjures up in, say, the orchestral Images or La mer, are of the utmost clarity. Debussy himself regarded them as ‘realities’, part of his aim to do ‘something else’ in music.
However, in order to do so, he had to come to terms with his attitude towards Wagner, whose musical personality was still exerting its inexorable power a decade and more after his death in 1883. Debussy himself held equivocal views about Wagner. On the one hand he was transfixed by Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal; on the other, he was able to write, in 1903: ‘Wagner…was a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.’ Debussy in fact criticised Massenet’s Grisélidis for its heavy reliance on Wagnerian formulae. He even gently lampooned Wagner by imitating the Tristan Chord in his ‘Golliwogg’s Cakewalk’, the chirpy final piece of his Children’s Corner for piano. While admiring Tristan and Parsifal, there was no reason for Debussy to ape Wagner in Pelléas et Mélisande. Indeed, at the dawn of a new century, there was every reason not to. Pelléas certainly does not call for the weight of Wagnerian voices. It also dispenses with the accoutrements of grand opera and with the element of virtuoso display and the dominance of melody that had been so much a part of the 19th-century operatic milieu.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner has said that the opera is ‘very much a reaction to Wagner, a distancing from Wagner and from over-Germanic discourse’. On the surface, we might ascribe the fluidity and continuity of the music of Pelléas, with its erosion of the distinction between arias and recitatives, to the approach that Wagner adopted in his mature operas. In part, that might be so, but a more direct stimulus came from an ostensibly unlikely source, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. There is some doubt as to precisely when Debussy became familiar with Mussorgsky’s score, but familiar he must have been. Mussorgsky, spurred by the leanings towards Realism manifest in works such as Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest, devised a mode of writing that did not jettison lyricism altogether but which allowed the vocal lines to follow the natural contours of Russian speech. This was the technique that Debussy translated into French for Pelléas et Mélisande. At the same time he rejected the Wagnerian notion of leitmotifs as overt signals for the principal characters, and replaced them with a web of small, intricate rhythmic or motivic gestures that implied states of mind or incidents in the opera’s action.
The new perspective that Pelléas et Mélisande gave to French opera was unquestionable. For much of his life, Debussy was caught up in theatrical ventures, a good few of which failed to come to fruition. Pelléas was his only completed opera. Two subsequent projects on subjects by Edgar Allan Poe – Le diable dans le beffroi (‘The Devil in the Belfry’) and La chute de la maison Usher (‘The Fall of the House of Usher’) remained unfulfilled. A contribution to Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché produced the ever-popular solo flute piece Syrinx, and he did finish two ballets besides Jeux, the Egypt-inspired Khamma created for the Canadian-born dancer Maud Allan, and the children’s ballet La boîte à joujoux (‘The Toybox’). Neither of these created quite the stir of Pelléas or Jeux, but one of Debussy’s other stage works did. In December 1910 he accepted a commission, primarily for financial reasons, to write incidental music to Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (‘The Martyrdom of St Sebastian’), a mystery play to a text by the author, playwright and fervent Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio, one of the most famous writers in the world at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Debussy worked on the score quickly, and the premiere took place only a few months later in May 1911 at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Rather than provoke a succès de scandale, however, Le martyre de Saint Sébastien was a flop. True, there was one incident that might have triggered a certain amount of public interest or curiosity, in that the Archbishop of Paris advised Catholics not to go to see it, because the religious subject of St Sebastian was being portrayed by a dancer and, not only that, by a woman, ‘demeaning, under the most improper circumstances, the story of one of our most glorious martyrs’. Ida Rubinstein was the protagonist, and she at any rate drew a sizeable house for the first night, but the enterprise swiftly slipped from view.
On an artistic level there is a gulf between what d’Annunzio wrote and what Debussy composed. Debussy had seen none of d’Annunzio’s text when he accepted the job, and it arrived in dribs and drabs. When it was all gathered in, it turned out to be couched in the highfalutin, extravagant manner that had become one of d’Annunzio’s trademarks, and, for all the natural musical flow of its language, it could scarcely have been further removed from Debussy’s more refined idiom. But a job was a job; Debussy needed the cash, and, as with Jeux, the music itself has survived, often restricted to four symphonic fragments but, as at the Proms, sometimes performed complete though without any linking narration. Oliver Knussen will be the conductor of the work on August 25, and he has strong views on it. ‘I personally find d’Annunzio’s text awful’, he says. ‘It’s indulgent, very pretentious and so far over the top that I can’t believe a person of Debussy’s acute literary sensibility could have taken it seriously for more than the few moments he needed to in order to set the relatively few lines that have to be sung. When Debussy does write accompanimental music, his response is on such a different plane of sensitivity that the effect of the words is embarrassing. It’s a pity that such extraordinary music is married to this white elephant of a play, even in fragmentary form. Which is why we are performing it without any spoken text at all. Ernest Ansermet observed that the apparently diverse pieces of incidental music make their own musical sense as a whole when heard in succession, and I agree with that.’
Both Le martyre de Saint Sébastien and Pelléas et Mélisande, not to mention Jeux, raise the crucial question of Debussy’s approach to orchestration and instrumental colour. In contrast to the rich fabrics associated with César Franck or Saint-Saëns, Debussy’s are pellucid. His ear for timbre might well have been tuned by what he experienced in Russia when he was there during the 1880s as a protégé of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patroness, for the qualities he shares with Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Balakirev are lucidity and precision in the choice and combination of sonorities. Debussy, however, developed this art to an even higher level, so that music and orchestral sound seem to be ineluctably linked, the one so naturally a counterpart of the other that they must have been conceived in tandem. There is a fascinating juxtaposition of what he wanted to do, and what he perforce had to do in a hurry, in the score of Pelléas et Mélisande. For the most part, the orchestration, as Sir John Eliot Gardiner says, is ‘wonderfully transparent, diaphanous, more like expanded chamber music’. But at the final rehearsals in 1902 it was found that the score did not allow enough time for scene changes, so, against the clock, Debussy had to create musical interludes which, as again Gardiner says, ‘lean in a more Wagnerian direction’.
Wagner still seemed to be the default position, but, as Debussy gradually managed to wrest himself from the clutches of the Wagnerian aesthetic and had sufficient time to tap and expand on his own inspiration, so he polished his orchestral sound to its familiar luminescence. He emancipated the orchestra, capitalised on its colours, freed up its expressive potential, much in the same way as he did in his writing for piano. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is giving a lunchtime recital of Debussy on September 3, and he talks of the way that Debussy ‘opened up new territory’ for the piano, abandoning the traditional concepts of harmony and dissonance and instead ‘finding exceptional, imaginative ways of creating acoustical situations’. On the broader canvas of the orchestra, Debussy is similarly resourceful. Thierry Fischer, who conducts La mer at the Proms on July 26, says that ‘one of the paradoxes of Debussy is that he uses a large orchestra but it is never thick. In De l’aube à midi sur la mer there is mystery but it is not dark. It’s full of light,’ an effect that, in performance, a conductor has to achieve by getting ‘the violins to play with less pressure, the woodwind with more air, and so on’. Oliver Knussen goes further with regard to Le martyre de Saint Sébastien. ‘Le martyre is scored for the largest orchestra Debussy ever employed, I think – quadruple woodwinds and trumpets, six horns, three harps and so forth. The instrumentation was decided at a very early stage, apparently before he’d seen any actual text, so he must have had a very clear vision of the kind of sound he wanted to make, an ideal of what this mystery play might be. He had to compose a lot of music very quickly indeed, which explains why a great deal of the orchestration is by [André] Caplet, though their orchestral écriture is so similar in every sense that it isn’t easy to tell them apart, and I defy anyone to identify who did what by ear alone. Caplet was a very remarkable musician.’
‘The score’, continues Knussen, ‘is full of striking orchestral inventions – the unique voicing of the woodwind chorale at the beginning, the tremolando double-bass harmonics in the “Ecstatic Dance”, extremely refined multi-divided string textures in many places, and so on. But what is really remarkable about the use of the orchestra, and about the character of the music in general, is its restraint and, for want of a better word, dignity. The big forces are there to give relatively austere sound panels a wealth of subtle, tender shadings.’ This is just as true of Jeux, scored for Debussy’s second largest orchestra and a work that shares with La mer his skill in superimposing different rhythmic patterns, different motifs, different methods of articulation among the various orchestral sections to create textures and structures that are complex yet crystal clear, in a technique that has been dubbed ‘fragmentary coherence’. Whatever it is called, Debussy’s impact on virtually all the music that followed him, as Oliver Knussen says, ‘is incalculable. The likelihood is that if a composer has not been influenced by such a figure, he has deliberately reacted against the aesthetic. I don’t think I have written a single note since I was 18 years old that doesn’t have Debussy hovering somewhere in the background,’ adding modestly, ‘though perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.’
This article originally appeared in Gramophone, July 2012.