June 12, 2011

Composers A-Z: Debussy

I have to admit, since I graduated less than a month ago it's been hard to get myself to think about classical music. I'm clawing my way back though, bit by bit. D is one of the letters I've been dreading, just because there simply aren't as many composers whose names start with D, and of those the number of any real consequence that wrote for piano is even smaller. But hey, if Clause Achille-Debussy is an option, why not take him?

I'll admit right away that I'm not a colossal Debussy fan. I mean, I play his music, and I enjoy listening to his music, but I'll usually seek out other composers when I'm planning a program. And just to make the Debussy-freaks even more frustrated, I have no good reasons for not being completely obsessed with the man. Perhaps it's simply anger at the extent to which Debussy has come to symbolize all of the 20th century on many recital programs. I've written about it before but it has become standard for many concert pianists to program Debussy or fellow Frenchman Maurice Ravel as the sole representative of the post-Romantic repertoire. Not only is this unfair to all of contemporary music, of which there is a bountiful supply, but it is unfair to Debussy, who while firmly in a different era of art-music later than the Romantics, still represents a pre-WWI mentality. Is it really accurate to place a "contemporary" label on a composer who died in 1918?

Alright, onto reasons why Claude Debussy is great. Foremost in my mind was that he set the stage for composers who wanted to do something completely new. His early works (and here I mean extremely early) are fairly pedestrian but through his experimentation with alternate scales, de-emphasis on standard forms, and evocative imagery through music, he altered what art-music could mean. Today he reigns as one of the most popular composers of Western art-music for experts and enthusiasts alike.

Debussy's piano repertoire is pretty wide, but his most famous sets of pieces are the two books of Preludes. Associated with other sets of preludes (such as Chopin's) by name only, each of these preludes is intended to evoke a particular place, character, or image. Debussy specifically placed the titles at the end of each piece so as not to interfere with the listener's (or performer's) own mental image of the piece. We refer to each prelude by these titles though, so Debussy's original intent is pretty much gone. I'd recommend the first book more than the second one. The first one has a bit more accessibility and by the second book the pieces seem to be a bit overly-thought out and have lost some of the novelty and newness that make the first book so engaging. Some of the more popular movements from the Preludes are:

Girl with the Flaxen Hair
Never forget how awkward classical music videos are. And by awkward I mean sexy.

The Sunken Cathedral

Other popular sets by Debussy are his Etudes in which he works out slightly more unusual technical challenges than are usually addressed in etude sets. Children's Corner is another great set that doesn't get played very often, probably because it has "Children" in the title and pianists hate children. That's a joke. Pianists actually hate corners. Not a joke. It does have "Golliwog's Cakewalk" though, which for reasons of painful racial history is often somewhat awkward to place on a program. I once heard a great piano-scholar-who-shall-remain-nameless (he wasn't one of my teachers don't worry) ask a student in a master class what a Golliwog was, and when the student didn't know the teacher-who-shall-remain-nameless lied directly to the student and audience about its origins. NOT COOL.

Some of my favorite sets include the Images, two sets of lesser performed pieces which include some extremely stereotypical impressionist writing including this first piece, "Reflets Dans l'Eau" (make sure you say that with the most American accent you can muster) which really blurs the line (no impressionist pun intended) between Debussy and Ravel...and Griffes for that matter. Here's "Reflets" played by the great Claudio Arrau:

One of my other great Debussy loves is the Suite Bergamasque. This work shows off Debussy's earlier piano style, and a bit of the French love of old styles in the form of Baroque dance titles. The most famous movement of the work is "Clair de Lune" which for some reason I managed to avoid all of my life. You know how sometimes you meet a person who has never seen Star Wars? That's me with "Clair de Lune", it's the piece that every classical musician knows except for me. There must be a support group out there for people like me. Here's a really fun piece from the short set, the Baroque-flavored "Passapied". And hey, why not have it be played by a little girl who's really good at piano?

In addition to transforming works for the piano, Debussy was also a master of orchestration (he was French, we would expect no less) and his orchestral pieces remain some of the most beautiful and inspiring in the repertoire. 

And so I will end my article on Debussy. What other D composers didn't make the list?
  • David Diamond - Both of his names start D and I like his orchestral music but know nothing of his piano music, but that will change.
  • Antonin Dvorak - Again, I don't know enough of his music to write about it, but I've played the Slavonic Dances arranged for four hands and those are pretty kickin.
Who will be the composer representing the letter E? Edward Elgar? Klaus Egge? Werner Egk? Yitzahak Edel? Hmmm, actually I've only ever heard of one of those composers...E may be tough.

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