Laudable Claude: Blair celebrates Debussy’s sesquicentennial year with a concert

In 1909, a young and still relatively unknown composer named Béla Bartók traveled to Paris, where he hoped to make the acquaintance of his hero Claude Debussy. Isidor Philipp, the noted French pianist, offered to introduce Bartók to the cream of the city’s musical society. In Philipp’s opinion, however, the pick of Paris did not include the boorish Debussy.

debussysmokingSo Philipp suggested they visit Camille Saint-Saëns, then the most famous musician in France. Bartók declined. Perplexed, Philipp next proposed they meet with Charles-Marie Widor, a solidly respectable composer of the second rank. Bartók again declined. American critic and composer Virgil Thomson was privy to the conversation that followed, and he reported that a frustrated Philipp finally asked Bartók if there was anyone in Paris he actually did want to meet. “Debussy,” said Bartók. Philipp was aghast. “But [Debussy] is a horrid man,” said Philipp. “He hates everybody and will certainly be rude to you. Do you want to be insulted by Debussy?” “Yes,” said Bartók.

Bartók’s blind enthusiasm for Debussy was hardly surprising, since he was already aware of the fundamental truth, namely, that the French composer’s innovations had forever changed the course of Western music. Debussy’s embrace of pentatonic and whole-tone scales – modalities he first heard played by a Javanese gamelan ensemble at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris – had all but unmoored contemporary music from traditional tonality. Moreover, Debussy’s emphasis on timbre and texture over melodic development had completely altered our perception of musical time. Western music, from Monteverdi through Wagner, had always been goal oriented, with notes moving inexorably through time from one point to the next. In Debussy’s music, time often seems to stand still.

debussyheadThis Wednesday, Aug. 22, marks the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, and so festivities are in order. For its part, the Blair School of Music is planning a major bash, which it’s calling, appropriately enough, “In Laude of Claude.” The free concert at Ingram Hall, which has been organized by Blair associate professor of piano Craig Nies, will feature both collegiate and pre-college students performing piano solos along with duos for piano, flute, clarinet and voice. The program will include such popular early salon confections as Clair de lune and Deuxième Arabesque. It will also boast such mature works as Jardins sous la pluie, La Cathédrale engloutie and L’isle joyeuse.

“It would be impossible to imagine modern music without Debussy,” says Nies. “So naturally we had to have a concert.”

Debussy’s music is so closely associated with Impressionist painting that it also made sense to celebrate his sesquicentennial with an art exhibit. Wednesday’s concert is being staged as a benefit for the homeless advocacy group Room in the Inn, and the artwork of the group’s residents will be on display in the lobby. Donations will be accepted but are not required.

The term Impressionism was derived from Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise,” which was famously displayed at the 1874 exhibit of the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs. In his hostile review of the show, the art critic Louis Leroy referred to Monet, Manet, Cézanne, Renoir and the other members of the Société collectively as the impressionists. “Impressionism was originally used as a derogatory term,” says Joy Calico, an associate professor of musicology at Blair who will give a pre-concert talk on Debussy at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday. “Debussy actually didn’t like the term to be applied to his music.”

In fact, Debussy was more partial to the Anglo-American painters Turner and Whistler than to any of the Impressionists, whose art meant little to him. He found even more inspiration in the Symbolist poets – Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Maeterlinck. It was Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “The Afternoon of a Faun” that prompted Debussy to compose his breakout work.

Written between 1892 and 1894, Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”) opens with one of the most famous passages in the orchestra repertoire. A solo flute plays a C-sharp that languidly descends down a tritone to G natural and then back up to C-sharp. This melody, with the ambiguity of the tritone pulling at the seams of tonality, repeats as dreamy harmonies in the orchestra shift and evolve. The piece climaxes with an intensely lyrical theme in D-flat major before the faun disappears into a soft harmonic mist. Pierre Boulez once threatened to burn the mist off of Debussy. Needless to say he failed, since that cloudy haze of sonority turned out to be integral to the composer’s music.

Debussy’s familiar harmonies will be heard throughout Wednesday’s program of piano and chamber music. The piano was central to Debussy’s thinking, and he arguably did more than any composer since Chopin to expand the instrument’s expressive range. Above all, Debussy believed that the piano should never sound like a percussion instrument. He envisioned it as an “instrument without hammers.” So he invented new fingerings, spacings and sonorities for his piano works. Chords now seemingly floated in air as the composer’s trademark pentatonic and whole-tone scales flowed through the vaporous, suspended harmonies.

debussyumbrellaSome of Debussy’s early piano pieces, such as the miniatures from the Suite Bergamasque (which will appear on Wednesday’s program), are often dismissed as insubstantial fare. But this criticism seems to overlook the perfect proportions and beautifully idiomatic writing found in such pieces as Clair de lune and Deuxième Arabesque. It also fails to see that for Debussy, the French values of clarity, grace and elegance were often just as important as deep substance.

The mature works on Wednesday’s program – selections from Estampes, Preludes Books 1 and 2, Children’s Corner, L’isle joyeuse – are all masterworks in miniature. La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), from the first book of preludes, is essentially a tone poem for solo piano. The piece was inspired by the legend of the Cathedral of Ys, which was sunk beneath the waves of Brittany 1,500 years ago as a punishment for sin. Every morning, the cathedral rises briefly from the water to remind the people of their crimes. In the opening of La Cathédrale engloutie, Debussy submerged medieval-sounding intervals of a fourth and fifth beneath an ocean of sustaining pedal, creating the effect of church bells beneath the waves. The cathedral eventually emerges in glorious, sunlit and double-fisted C-major chords.

L’isle joyeuse (The Happy Island) is one of Debussy’s most overtly and unapologetically virtuosic pieces. For the unapologetically virtuosic Nies, that’s reason enough to include it on the program. “You just can’t have a proper Debussy recital without L’isle joyeuse,” he says.

If you go


Blair School of Music celebrates Debussy with a concert of piano and chamber music. Blair musicologist Joy Calico will speak at 6:45 p.m., and the free concert begins at 7:30 p.m. at Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. Cake will be served afterward. The concert is a benefit for the homeless advocacy group Room in the Inn, and the artwork of the group’s residents will be on display in the lobby. Donations will be accepted but are not required.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.