Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Better Know a Composer: Claude Debussy

Pointing out the lack of attention paid to Debussy's 150th birthday (which is today), Anthony Tommasini thinks we take him for granted:
We like to think we know and admire Debussy. Ah, Debussy the great Impressionist! For painting there is Monet. For music, Debussy. "La Mer," how gorgeous. There are the inventive piano pieces, with their watery textures and evocative titles like "Estampes" and "Images." And of coures the diaphanous orchestral beauties of "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." 
Pierre-Laurant Aimard, who has a recording of Debussy's Preludes coming out in October, thinks we don't really know him at all--and probably never will:
We don't always know what it (Debussy's music) is about .... because things are mixed, they are also not completely said. Things remain hidden.
Case in point for Aimard is Jeux:


Debussy wrote Jeux on commission from the Ballets Russes; audiences didn't take to Nijinsky's choreography at its premiere in 1913, and the music even today can be daunting. As Aimard puts it, "we can't find any more rules in terms of orchestration, of form, of harmony, of music-making."

There's a particular moment in the opening of the piece where Debussy repeats a short gesture three times. It's done with such unexpected suddenness, that at first you think it must be a mistake in the recording (like a record skipping). Hearing it live for the first time, in 1913, must have been completely disorienting.

For Tommasini, Debussy's innovation was in downplaying the role of pulse, in writing "whole stretches of static music." With its twists and turns, Jeux shows that what's really special about Debussy is not that his music stops time, but that it moves us through it in so many novel, mind-blowing ways.