"Elusive, mysterious, intense, absorbed, remote” - these are words I seem to come across most frequently when I read what people have said about the music of Debussy. Yes, it is all those things - by turns - but much else besides. The savage parade of instincts that is ...Ce qua vu le vent d’Ouest, the heady, sunlit gaiety and cocksure cheekiness of ...Les collines d’Anacapri, the knockabout comedy of ...Minstrels. Even one perceived mood, melancholy, for instance, can be registered in such different ways - as utter desolation and loneliness in .. .Des pas sur la neige, as something magnificent and sumptuous in Hommage a Rameau. I know of no music which, from piece to piece, or even within the one piece, is more rich in unexpected departures. It utterly and absolutely refuses to be “pinned down”. Miss one moment and it is gone forever (whilst the piece lasts) for it will not return. If you look through Debussy’s scores one musical instruction occurs over and over again and much more frequently than any other - sans rigueur - “unconstrained”. And that leads me to suggest one word that does describe all Debussy’s music - vagabond. Why? What is he doing, and how is he doing it? What is his music about?
In his own words:
“My foremost ambition, in music, is to produce something that represents as closely as possible life itself.”
“Those around me still insist on not understanding that I have never been able to live with the reality of things or people, hence this unconquerable need to escape from myself into adventures which appear inexplicable because I reveal in them a man whom they do not know and which is perhaps the best in me!”
“I love [music] passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth, an open-air art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea!”
“Music is [the expression of] the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.”
And, in his review of Mussorgsky’s The Nursery, what could be a description of his own music:
“...it resembles the art of an enquiring savage discovering music step by step through his emotions; no particular form, or, rather, one so varied as to be completely unrelated to anything systematic or academic, since it depends on and is made up of successive minute touches mysteriously linked together by the gift of an instinctive clairvoyance.”
Debussy’s music is about ‘life’ - his inner life. However vivid and suggestive his titles are, the pieces are not about “the reality of things or people” - these are but the settings and occa- sions, décors, for his own inner movements. And those movements are as tremulous, fluid, and unpredictable as the wind and the waves. They must be subject to no given law but allowed to roam freely. From them he chooses, and fixes, moments of apprehension rendered with a fabulous precision and refinement, and presents them as a succession which, finally, has the unity and coherence of his own unique sensibility.
It was Debussy’s, and music’s, great good fortune that his emergence as a composer coin- cided with the emergence of the modern grand piano. Nowhere could his ideal of music out-lined above be more perfectly captured than on the supreme instrument of resonance and vi- bration, the instrument which, because of its pedals, enables complexes of sound to hang and swirl and mingle in the air.
Debussy’s absolute genius for titles was tempered by his feeling that any title was already too defining, too suggestive, too evocative for a music specifically designed to be pure of all reference. He probably preferred the more abstract titles Images and Préludes, and in the case of the Préludes placed the titles after the music, and with a preceding ... as if to suggest that these were only his afterthoughts ( in most cases they were!) and of no more validity or relevance than our afterthoughts.
Four Préludes about “the play of curves described by changing breezes”: ...Danseuses de Delphes, the swirling robes of Delphic dancers captured on a frieze; ...Voiles, the veils of the American dancer, Loie Fuller, famous in the Paris of Debussy’s time for her unconventional dancing - she performed in a whirl of shining veils, the scope of which she extended by ma-nipulating sticks; and ...Le vent dans la plaine (Wind on the plain) and ...Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and scents swirling in the evening air) which speak for themselves; ...Les collines d’Anacapri (The slopes of Anacapri), a cavalcade of Italianate gestures - snatches of wild tarantella and popular song; ...Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow), frozen desolation, sadness and regret; ...Ce qua vu le vent d’Ouest (What the west wind saw), raw elemental fury; ...La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with flaxen hair), innocence and grace; ...La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted Serenade), sultry passion and its frustrations; ...La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral), a magnificent chant welling up from and subsiding into the depths (I should add here an editorial and performing note. This Prelude was written by Debussy sometimes in bars of six crotchets [quarter notes], sometimes in bars of three minims [half notes]. At the beginning of the piece he wrote an overall tempo indication [6/4 = 3/2] which did not quite reveal his intention. The latest researches, however, and he wrote this in words on his original manuscript, and he himself on his piano roll plays it this way, show that his intention was that each note, whether crotchet or minim should have the same duration, and this is the way I have performed it in this recording.); ...La danse de Puck, puckishness, mischief, of course; ...Minstrels, flat-footed comedy.
The two series of Images can be summarized in the same way: Reflets dans I'eau, an expression of the movement of the waters; Hommage a Rameau, a pageant of melancholy; Mouvement, pure vortex and swirl.
Cloches a travers les feuilles, the endless tolling of bells, mysterious, clangorous, and deso-late by turns; Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (As the moon sets where a temple once stood), a half-lit, secret ceremony; Poissons d’or (Golden Fish), coruscating, iridescent flashes of light.
© Paul Crossley