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Done With Debussy
December/January 2016/17

Determinedly disengaged: Claude Debussy, by Marcel Baschet, 1884


In a Jerusalem book store where past lives gather dust I recently found a memoir of the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. A survivor of four concentration camps, Frankl wrote a best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which contended that those prisoners who made an effort to understand their situation were more likely to survive than those who acquiesced. The search for meaning is, in itself, the very meaning of existence.

If only this persuasive thesis were applicable to modern music. Among composers of the 20th century and beyond there is an irreconcilable rift between those who believe that every note has relevance to the human condition and those who maintain that music is just notes and combinations of notes, with no broader significance. On the one hand you have Gustav Mahler, who sought revelation in every symphony. On the other is Richard Strauss, who said he couldn’t see why he needed to be redeemed.

The schism runs on between Schoenberg, who weighted every phrase with the burden of history, and his student Webern, who pursued symmetry to the exclusion of all else. It divides Shostakovich, who encoded secret messages in his scores, from Prokofiev, who wrote perfect, sometimes vacant, cadences. At its most extreme, it draws a line between the ethereal works of Pierre Boulez and the earthiness of Luciano Berio, György Ligeti and Leonard Bernstein. There is no middle ground: music either has meaning, or it has none.

All of which explains why, try as I might, I cannot love the music of Claude Debussy. There, I’ve said it. Forget about getting a French passport if Brexit casts me adrift. My Légion d’Honneur is no longer in the post. I may be half-French but I’ll never be a Frenchman because I cannot love Debussy. Mostly, I cannot abide him.

A great composer by the definition that his music is unmistakably his own, inventor of “musical impressionism” and the strongest influence on French music from his day to ours (no Debussy, no Boulez), Debussy fails to stir fever in my veins or conflict in my brain. His music has the intellectual nutrition of a Montparnasse meringue, easily bought, consumed on the spot.

His style emerges, fully formed, in the G-minor string quartet of 1893, where an aggressive opening statement is neither developed nor contradicted but vaguely repeated from various angles and left to shimmer away, a thing of beauty and no depth. The quartet pulses with rhythms Debussy acquired in Russia and plinks with hints of a gamelan he had heard at the Paris Universal Exhibition. Since Impressionism was the order of the day, the work was bracketed with the masterpieces of Cézanne, Pissarro, Monet and Seurat, though lacking their disruptive capacity. It was the only string quartet Debussy ever attempted, a vehicle of convenience to establish his maison de mode.

Breakthrough followed with the 1894 Prelude to a Faun’s Afternoon, a work that lit no fires until Nijinsky choreographed and danced it for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912, causing an erotic sensation that drew shameless condemnation from the bourgeois composer.

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L.F.
November 25th, 2016
6:11 PM
One can love him just for this violin sonata. And this sonata was consciously written in a nongerman and nonclassical French idiom as a protest against the German invasion of France. This is still a message. In my humble opinion Debussy cannot be held accountable for the dictatory perversions of the Boulez era.

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