Done With Debussy

The French composer failed to understand the marvel of music — that notes can convey meaning

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.

The opera Pelléas et Mélisande, a shocker in 1902, took its hair fetish from Parsifal while stripping textures to negligée suggestiveness, devoid of Wagner’s heavy breathing. Along with the rippling La Mer (1905), these fin-de-siècle works are the foundations of Debussy’s fame. At no point does Debussy conceive a theory of music. What he seeks, he tells Stravinsky, is “pure music” — music that is uncontaminated by engagement with human beings and ideas. Music without meaning.

In the great controversies of his lifetime Debussy was determinedly disengaged. In the Dreyfus trial, when every other French composer took sides, mostly the wrong one, Debussy’s only known comment was to complain that it impinged on his personal comforts.

A serial philanderer with women of lower class, he finally settled down with a banker’s wife who had been Gabriel Fauré’s mistress. He had few musical friends, savaging many of his colleagues in newspaper reviews, saving special venom for Maurice Ravel, who gave him nothing but respect. Like many great composers, he was an egotist of a high order and not a very nice man.

If he has a saving grace, it appears in 1917 when, dying of rectal cancer, he wrote a sonata for violin and piano that yearns for lost things, a remembrance of temps perdus. Along with parallel sonatas by Elgar and Janáček, it is one of the most honest accounts of a citizen’s helplessness in war. Debussy died in Paris in March 1918, the crump of long-range German guns his last conscious sound.

Invitations have begun to land for the centenary year and my wastebin is bulging. Wild fauns will not drag me to Garsington Opera’s new Pelléas production in June, nor to the Vienna State Opera’s revival that same month. If I take the sea air at Eastbourne, I shall give a wide berth to the Grand Hotel, where Debussy wrote most of La Mer. On the Bois du Boulogne, his final home, I shall pay no respects.

My dislike of Debussy — more pronounced than of any other important composer — is as much analytical as it is aesthetic. His denial of meaning is the antithesis of Frankl’s search for meaning, a complacency so far removed from my view of the world that I can do nothing but acknowledge it and move on. Pure music, which begins with Debussy, infects the modernist mainstream to the point where it becomes impermissible to express any message in music. You had only to hear Boulez denounce Shostakovich as “reactionary” to understand how effectively Debussy sanitised music of the possibility of meaning.

And it’s not just composers who deny meaning. In a video homily the other day Daniel Barenboim recalled hearing Edwin Fischer analyse the finale of Beethoven’s seventh piano sonata (Op 10/3) as the acme of humour, while Claudio Arrau considered it the depth of tragedy. That being the case, Barenboim concluded, music can have no intrinsic meaning beyond its notes.

I find that so wrong. The marvel of music, as Mahler discovered, is that one phrase can convey multiple, contradictory meanings, a mirror of human psychology. Debussy denied that. I’m done with Debussy.