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Done With Debussy
December/January 2016/17

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.

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January 4th, 2017
10:01 AM
Music evokes experiences and emotions; it does not make statements. Most people find Debussy's music to be very evocative. Mahler was a master of the obvious; Debussy preferred understatement. It is true, Debussy had no theory of what music should be. He said, "Pleasure is the rule, you have only to listen." He would have been astounded to be told that he had a moral obligation to explain the human condition to victims of concentration camps. That is the province of religion or politics or philosophy. If Debussy's music is meaningless then so is most aesthetic experience.

Stefan Ehrenkreutz
December 7th, 2016
7:12 PM
"Des pas dans la neige"; "La Cathedrale engloutie", the joy of life expressed in Iberia and the 2nd nocturne for orchestra, the appreciation of, and presence to, existence in "La Mer"--no meaning in Debussy? Simply nonsense! The utter charm of the Prelude to the Afternoon...

Leslie Barcza
December 5th, 2016
9:12 PM
You're entitled to your opinion. I understand your irritation, considering that Debussy's star has been in the ascendancy for the past half century and continues to rise (insert curses!). I can't forget the reductive dismissal of Meyer (Music the Arts & Ideas) who claimed that Beethoven's Ninth is deep while the Prelude to the Afternoon of a faun isn't. Check it out, as i think you'll love his dismissal. I am only bothering to reply because you seem to make an intellectual argument consigning Debussy to the bin (but it's yours alone, not history's). There are two concerns, that i believe fuel your anger, and both are misconceptions. 1) The very popular epithet "musical impressionism" is a misnomer tossed into the academic trashbin decades ago, yet still alive due to the laziness of so many musicians (who practice their violins, maintaining their technique but alas, not progressing beyond what they heard in the conservatory at the age of 13: for example much as i love Peter Oundjian of our Toronto Symphony, he cited the same half-baked concept. I forgive him) It's laziness Mr Lebrecht, but hey, when you're expected to know everything, how can you possible avoid the occasional pratfall?. I don't suppose for an instant that you're going to suddenly "get" Debussy. But don't dismiss him while misunderstanding him. Impressionism is based on an almost extemporaneous approach to the composition of a painting, the roughness of the brush-work being the essence of the term (look it up): which was understood to be unfinished, a mere "impression". It's a feeble analogy to music, given that for all the colours, one doesn't just toss off a sketch employing an orchestra of 100 players. Debussy? he is as spontaneous as one of those 20 second videos showing 10,000 dominoes falling. At times he makes something appear spontaneous, but it's all contrived and very hard to set up. His ideal was the surface beauty of a score by Bach on the page. He used the word "arabesque" to speak of the graphic design of music, not (as some mistakenly assume) in echo of something from Degas. Again, forget the impressionist connection, it's false. 2) later in the essay you focus your anger on "His denial of meaning". I guess you want the music to "do something". I recall Douglas Chambers (a prof in my undergrad) mocking students who were embroiled in discussions of what a poem "means". A poem is a made thing. Its meaning is that it EXISTS. Think of a piece of music or a painting or a poem as a made thing, and yes there is signification, there are meanings we decode. But we err when we stray too far down the pathway requiring art to mean something. The irritating thing of course is that Debussy and Satie and a few others defy classification, loved by classical fans & the unschooled. When i play clair de lune, people still gasp over a tune as simple as something by Mozart or Bach, Lennon or McCartney. I used to resist, to find it suspect. But now i just breathe deeply and let it all go. He doesn't need my defense.

Michael Morse
December 3rd, 2016
9:12 PM
My Dear Fellow, Unintentionally, surely, you've landed up in the same berth as Adorno and Schoenberg. Their anti-Debussyan grumbling is a tad more technically developed, but comes to the same thing. And for them as, sorry, for you, too, that thing is: Debussy is no Beethoven [/Wagner/Mahler]. His music is meaningless, because it doesn't "develop" thematically. De gustibus, and all that. Debussy requires new ears. But if any composer justifies the arrogance of such a demand, it is CD. No feeling? Hommage a Rameau? No meaning? Pelleas, despite the more than slightly ludicrous libretto--which defect, let us not forget, applies in equal measure to much Mozart and all but 2 or 3 Verdi operas, too. No animation? The overwhelming Passepied of the Suite Bergamasque, a noble tribute to music past and a magnificent incarnation of music present. And what of the supreme melodist of L'Apres-Midi, Girl with the Flaxen hair, and the sonata for flute, viola, and harp? There are animadversions we feel that seem entirely reasonable, and gut level, and so justifiable. But the wiser counsel of our souls gnaws away telling us: "it ain't him, buddy, it's YOU what ain't right." Listen to that voice, dear fellow, and trust it..

C.J. Sch¨ler
December 3rd, 2016
8:12 PM
I wouldn't go as far as you in your dislike for Debussy, but I have always found Ravel (whom Stravinsky dismissed as a "Swiss watchmaker") more engaged and engaging. Think of the depth of his response to the First World War: the rage of the Concerto for the Left Hand, the grief of Le Tombeau de Couperin, the sound of a civilisation shattering to smithereens in La Valse… It's often though odd that Vaughan Williams should have gone to study with him, but the two men had more in common than their very different musical styles might suggest. Both served as ambulance drivers in that conflict (what horrors they must have witnessed), and both were deeply marked by the experience.

Scott MacClelland
November 28th, 2016
12:11 AM
Norman, You're hung up on the word 'meaning,' or the denial of it in music by some people and some composers who like to tweak folks who can easily be baited into sending out tweets at 3 a.m. Meaning in this case is like getting a new prescription for your eyeglasses: it's totally subjective as any ophthalmologist will tell you.

Lorna SalzmanA
November 26th, 2016
5:11 PM
If you want "pure" music without "meaning" or "Message", try baroque music: Bach keyboard music is exemplary. Or practically any music that the composer hasn't gussied up with some kind of moral or political lesson. One could argue that Debussy was the only truly avant-garde composer. He opened up form, structure and sound that enabled every composer after him to explore all kinds of new ways of using sound and new ways of structuring music. Without Debussy we might still be hearing post-Elgar and post=Rachmininoff until we went insane. As for "meaning" and "message", any listener can make what he or she wants out of a piece of music but what is truly unlistenable are those pieces where the composer (or his supporters) provides us a note by note exegesis of what the composer "intended". Spare us philosophy, morality, ethics and fairy tales; give us music of craft and invention that stands on its own because it is its own language, not one that has been distorted and re-configured to fit what the Philistine considers "true art".

November 26th, 2016
1:11 PM
Your rejection is as dogmatic as it is incoherent. 1) If Debussy sought to abolish "meaning" in music, why did he, more than any other composer, give titles like 'Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune', 'La Mer', 'La Cathédrale Engloutie', 'Masques' or 'La Boite à joujoux'? No one I can think of brought music and poetry - ie. meaning - closer together than he did. 2) When at the end of his life he tells the young Strawinsky he aims towards "pure music", he was understandingly reacting to the now-tiresome clichéd 19th century Romantic abuse of dramatic, litterary and philisophical associations with music, including his own. Like the new generation which he was remarkably open to, - Strawinsky, Bartok, Shoenberg and others -, he is rediscovering J.S. Bach and finding inspiration the bare-bones timeless architectural qualities of his work. (Are you done with Bach as well? He should be your n°1 evildoer.) 3) Whatever Debussy sought only applied to his own work. As you say, he was not a theoretician. So he is in no way responsable for Boulez or whatever ulterior musical tendency came to pass that you do not like. 4) The selected aspects of his biography that you wish to bring to our attention are of stricty no relation to the quality of his music or lack thereof.

Christopher Morley
November 26th, 2016
12:11 PM
You're fortunate to be in the position where you are free to express your own prejudices. Those of us still accredited to print media need to maintain some pretence of impartiality, even when it's Berlioz.

Roo Bookaroo
November 25th, 2016
7:11 PM
Brave, courageous article. And instructive at the same time. Because it doesn't only spell out the dislike (wonderful use of "aversion") of Debussy's music, but it explains precisely why, with clear and cogent reasons. Wish that every article discussing art or aestheticism were as lucid and honest. Instead of serving us, as modern French art critics do all the time, mystical flights of fancy on the mysterious nature of artistic feelings and impressions, where meaning is not just denied, but evaporates.

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