The Debussy legacy

Mark Pullinger
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

His use of colour influenced composers from Stravinsky to Boulez, but to call him an Impressionist misses the point finds Mark Pullinger, as he talks to musicians a century after the composer’s death

Claude Debussy (photo: Tully Potter Collection)
Claude Debussy (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Browse for Debussy on disc and you’ll often be faced with two types of cover art: Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa or paintings by Claude Monet and any number of Impressionist or neo-Impressionist artists. At least the Hokusai is pertinent; Debussy had stipulated that the woodblock print appear on the cover page to the score of La mer. Warner Classics employs it on the box of its whopping 33-disc set of the complete works, recently released to mark the centenary of his death. Indeed, the cardboard sleeve of each disc features Japanese art, barring the last disc of recordings which has Debussy himself at the piano.

The composer would perhaps be less happy about the Monet, Seurat and Signac cover images which often bind his music to that of the Impressionists, although it was the term itself to which he objected. In a letter to his publisher about his orchestral Images, Debussy wrote: ‘I am trying to do “something different” ... what the imbeciles call “impressionism”, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics who never cease lumbering Turner with it!’ Impressionism was a term coined in a satirical sense in an 1874 review by Louis Leroy in Le Charivari, drawing its name from Monet’s early Impression, Sunrise. Did Debussy protest too much? How far can his music be described as Impressionist? What qualities of his music are most admired today? And, a century on from his death, what is Debussy’s legacy? I requested the views of some leading performers and composers to help seek some clarity.

The Impressionist tag

Composer Colin Matthews, who has orchestrated both books of Préludes, points out that the Impressionist painters were none too happy themselves with Leroy’s tag. ‘When we published the scores, I very deliberately used a painting by Whistler because I didn’t immediately want to draw that parallel!’ Fellow composer Robin Holloway describes the Impressionist tag as a ‘red herring’, explaining that ‘Debussy tries to evoke, by metaphor and symbol and by sonorous image, a cloud or a seascape or a sultry Spanish night. He’s not doing an impression. He thought that was cheap.’

In a Parisian café, pianist Philippe Cassard shows me a lavishly illustrated hardback volume entitled Harmonie en bleu et en or: Debussy, la musique et les arts by Jean-Michel Nectoux, a catalogue of every kind of object – paintings, books, poetry and music – that Debussy encountered or collected. ‘The proof is there!’ Cassard exclaims. ‘He saw some of Monet’s Waterlilies and he didn’t like them. But when you see the Rouen Cathedral series or the Nymphéas, connections do have to be made by an interpreter because Monet and Debussy had the same vision of the world. What is colour? How do you translate it into music? How do you depict nature or weather in art? Debussy questions these things in his music, but it’s not the reason to call him Impressionist. That just reduces the greatness of Debussy.’

Yet, conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is quick to point out that Debussy was ‘an exceptional painter in music, striving to find the combination of colour, form and line for every poetic idea he was trying to express.’ She continues: ‘The Impressionist tag must have felt too narrow for him; he was searching for something more global. I think one of his goals was not to stick to any rules or to any school or one style of musical language, but to search for beauty.’

If anything, Cassard feels that Debussy was far closer to the Symbolists than the Impressionists. ‘Look at the connections: his relationships with Stéphane Mallarmé [from his musical depiction of the poem L’après-midi d’un faune] and Maurice Maeterlinck [Pelléas et Mélisande]; Nocturnes is inspired by Whistler’s paintings of the same title; and there there’s Charles Baudelaire – who was at the origins of the Symbolist movement – and whose poetry Debussy set. Baudelaire was also the translator of Edgar Allan Poe, and Debussy knew every text.’ Other influences include Debussy’s affinity with the English Pre-Raphaelites, manifested principally in his cantata La Damoiselle élue, which is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem The Blessed Damozel.

‘Useful terms of abuse’

In a letter of 1911 to Edgard Varèse, Debussy confessed: ‘I love pictures almost as much as music.’ And towards the end of his life, he wrote to Émile Vuillermoz, the editor of La Revue musicale thus: ‘You do me a great honour by calling me a pupil of Claude Monet.’ Many of his titles are distinctly pictorial – ‘La soirée dans Grenade’, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ – almost inviting us to see with our ears. Debussy’s writing, though, rarely has the blurs and smudges of Monet. A glance at the composer’s neat manuscript scores and you’ll see precision in every bar, teeming with fastidious detail and myriad dynamic markings.

‘Anyone dislikes being pigeon-holed. He might have disliked the label “Impressionist” because it took away from the precision,’ suggests Stephen Hough. ‘Impressionism suggests something imprecise in the way it’s been used. Look at late Monet paintings with their washes of colour. I don’t think Debussy was about a wash, he was about a lot of detail.’

Impressionism? Symbolism? In a 1901 journal entry Debussy admits that these were ‘useful terms of abuse’. Hough concedes that labels can be useful and that ‘it doesn’t feel totally wrong to talk of Debussy as an Impressionist and to link him with all of those painters – and I don’t just mean Monet, but Manet too and the later Fauve painters.’ He elaborates: ‘The innocent childlike figures that you see in Children’s Corner – now, that is a piece that could never be called Impressionist, but to me it’s certainly linked to that world of French painting.’ I remark that in the two books of Préludes, Debussy doesn’t reveal the title until the end of each miniature. ‘Which is lovely,’ he replies. ‘It’s like a perfume lingering after someone’s walked past. There’s a deliberate ambiguity in this music. Debussy asks the questions and just leaves them hanging in the air.’

Awakening the Faun

Pierre Boulez cited Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune as a major turning point, the birth of modern music. In his words, ‘the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music; what was overthrown was not so much the art of development, as the very concept of form itself’. Matthews believes that Boulez ‘was certainly thinking in terms of the harmonies and the way that the music floats, but a lot of that is due to the colour which was remarkably individual and new.’

I’ve long loved Faune, both as an orchestral piece and the ballet choreographed to it by Nijinsky. It conjures up images of the faun playing his panpipes, in amorous pursuit of nymphs and naiads in the sultry afternoon heat. Mallarmé was initially irked that his poem was to be set to music, but was completely won round by the first performance, writing to the composer: ‘Your illustration of The Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy.’

The score is a free rather than literal illustration of Mallarmé’s poem. Debussy evokes an atmosphere through motifs, distinctive harmonies, exotic scales (whole-tone and pentatonic), chromatic coils and unresolved chords. Tremolando strings provide a shimmering heat-haze for the faun’s erotic adventures. As Colin Matthews says, the music indeed floats; it seems to lack a pulse, and its improvisational quality is evident right from the opening flute solo, sighing languidly through the range of a tritone.

That flute solo must be, I suggest to flautist Emmanuel Pahud, one of the most daunting in the orchestral repertoire, along with the bassoon solo that opens Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. ‘You wish it would be over!’ he laughs. ‘When you have such a beautiful phrase in an orchestral context, where everybody in the hall – including the conductor and other musicians – are all dependent on how you’re going to play it, that puts you under a lot of pressure. Often conductors do not even look at the flautist in order not to be misinterpreted, they just give us a slight sign when they’re ready for me to begin. This is not enough; the conductor has to give a tempo, to give an upbeat, to give a breath.’

Pahud concurs that Debussy is a gift to flautists. ‘Faune allows us to explore the dynamics as softly as possible and this is something recurrent in Debussy’s music. He very often leaves one or two flutes on their own in order to test how far you can go into the diminuendo or into the silence and it’s that transition which is intriguing and amazingly intense.’

Colour, eroticism … and Ravel

Faune seemed to come out of nowhere and Debussy continued to surprise. Gražinytė-Tyla comments that each work possesses a unique quality. ‘After his opera Pelléas et Mélisande came La mer and everyone was expecting a similar sound world but it was completely different in style. Then he wrote Images and again it was completely different. He had this incredible creativity, never repeating himself.’

With Syrinx for solo flute and the late Sonata for flute, viola and harp, Debussy returned to the perfumed atmosphere of Faune. Pahud, who has recently recorded both, loves the intimacy of the sonata, but admits that performing it in recital presents its own problems. ‘A lot happens between the notes, between the parts, so the rehearsal process is often very intense and rewarding, but having the audience there I often feel trapped, as if they are intruders. The piece transports you to Ancient Greece, somewhere very warm and lazy, and therefore you don’t want modern life to intrude.’

Right from Faune, eroticism featured strongly in Debussy’s palette. Cassard adores L’isle joyeuse, calling it ‘the most sexual piece for the piano!’ In his view, it relates to certain events in the composer’s life: ‘Debussy met Emma Bardac and took her to Jersey and they spent eight days together. L’isle joyeuse is not only the island; it is Emma, the celebration of a woman’s body, and Debussy’s own celebration as a lover. There are three ecstasies in this piece – multiple orgasms – and it is one of his rare purely joyful pieces, without any trace of sadness or nostalgia.’

Colour also frequently comes up in my conversations, be that orchestral or instrumental. ‘Debussy was so original in the way he laid out textures and composed upon textures,’ remarks Holloway. ‘“Jeux de vagues” is conceived on the orchestra. You can imagine the other movements of La mer being composed at the piano and then orchestrated, but “Jeux de vagues” – and the ballet Jeux – are absolutely conceived on their instrumentation.’

Pagodes’, muses Hough, ‘is just like he found a new colour that hadn’t been found before, like Yves Klein finding his International Blue. Those opening chords give me a shiver every time I hear them.’ For him there are two factors which combine to make Debussy a great composer: ‘One is this sense of improvisation. You can imagine him sitting down at the piano and just enjoying the wonderful sounds and vibrations he was creating as his fingers moved in these new directions on the keys; but then there is this incredible intellectual rigour in his music. It’s not just doodling around with pretty sounds. Everything is structured and so refined and specific.’

Look for Debussy on disc and – as well as the Impressionist covers – you’ll often find him jostling shoulders with Ravel, something that puzzles many of my interviewees. The clockwork precision of Ravel is a far cry from the improvisational quality of Debussy. ‘Ravel is a fantastic machine which cannot go wrong if you obey the instructions,’ comments Holloway. ‘Debussy, on the contrary, is very difficult to interpret, because you have to keep adjusting the dynamics. All conductors would say the same: Ravel you obey, Debussy you have to interpret.’

The challenges of orchestrating Debussy

With such a wealth of music for piano it is inevitable that composers feed their fascination with Debussy by clothing it in orchestral garb. This comes with dangers, particularly to what Hough describes as the improvisatory quality of Debussy’s piano scores. ‘Eighty people cannot spontaneously improvise. It has to be decided beforehand. And one of the important elements of Debussy’s music to me is this sense that you sit down at the piano and it’s as if you are making it up as each second goes past. An orchestration is in some way frozen, however imaginatively it is done. With these miniatures, there is a certain magic which isn’t lost, but is certainly diluted a little bit.’

How does a composer, then, approach orchestrating Debussy? Colin Matthews confides: ‘I made it a rule not to look at a single one of his orchestral scores during the process of orchestrating the Préludes. Obviously it was not going to sound like me, but I wanted to put my own personal stamp on it with certain changes that needed to be made to make it fit better in terms of key.’ Matthews had long been fascinated with the Préludes. ‘Many years ago I used to play the ones that I could get my hands around and I always thought about the orchestral colours. I found, quite to my surprise, that in some scores I had previously marked in pencil a possible instrumentation!’

In his transcriptions, Robin Holloway also took orchestral clues from the piano scores, without being slavish. For C’est l’extase, his settings of 10 Debussy songs based on Paul Verlaine texts, he reordered the songs, linking them together as continuous music and composing an epilogue (‘the score is my working original. I stick to the notes, but take up hints and suggestions from it.’). When orchestrating En blanc et noir, Holloway had to extend the Debussian palette: ‘It’s a work that was bursting the two-piano medium. It sounds very orchestral but like no orchestral music that Debussy ever wrote. For those first two movements, there was no Debussy prototype, so I had to invent a new orchestral sonority that he’d never written before. It’s so hard-edged and full-blooded, in your face and charged up by the wartime context. It is his most modern music.’

Debussy’s legacy

To mark the centenary, Gražinytė-Tyla has programmed a fascinating series with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in which Debussy’s works are juxtaposed with the composers who were influenced by him. The exotic – especially his incorporation of Javanese Gamelan – leads to ‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ from Ravel’s Mother Goose and the suite from Britten’s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. She pairs ‘sacred’ Debussy – Le martyre de Saint Sébastien – with works by Messiaen; and precedes La mer with Ringed by the Flat Horizon by George Benjamin, whom the Lithuanian conductor dubs ‘the grandchild of Debussy’. Pahud, meanwhile, believes Debussy’s legacy extends to composers such as Varèse and Toru Takemitsu (whose classic work Green, incidentally, features in the CBSO’s series) as well as to contemporary composers Philippe Hersant and Christian Rivet.

‘Stravinsky said that he and most of the composers of his generation owed the most to Debussy’, says Holloway, ‘and he meant himself, Bartók, Falla – every composer who wasn’t German or Austrian! Debussy was a huge liberator, an emancipator for consonance, an emancipator of the triad. Schoenberg emancipated dissonance, Debussy emancipated consonance.’

Hough believes that Debussy’s legacy reaches to the world of jazz, suggesting that ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ can be heard in the harmonies of Bill Evans. Cassard also cites Evans, who had a classical education. In Evans’s extensive solo number In Memory of his Father, Cassard hears hidden quotes by Satie, Debussy and Chopin. He also hears the rhythm of Footsteps in the Snow imitated in Bartók’s Improvisation on Hungarian Peasant Songs No 3.

But what of the great French composers of the latter half of the 20th century, Messiaen, Dutilleux and Boulez himself? ‘Messiaen for me is more related to Ravel,’ says Cassard. ‘The long slow section in ‘Le gibet’ in Gaspard de la nuit? It’s totally Messiaen. If there is a connection between Debussy and Messiaen, then L’isle joyeuse and the love section in Act 4 of Pelléas lead to ‘Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus’, which is probably the most neo-romantic of the Vingt regards. I asked Dutilleux many times about Debussy’s influence on him and, yes, he loved his music but for him, Berlioz, Ravel and Chopin were his major influences.’ Cassard also hears Debussy’s influence in Boulez’s First Piano Sonata ‘but also, strangely, in some of his last pieces Sur Incises and Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet and recorded clarinet. They come after 30 years of dry, disastrous ideological music. Suddenly, the old Boulez returned to this magical sound, curved and not angular.’

Hough concludes: ‘I think Debussy opened up certain ideas that the piano can be colour alone. One mustn’t take away from Liszt who discovered these colours in a tentative kind of way, but nothing could ever be the same after Debussy.’

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to the world's leading classical music magazine, please visit:

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