Part II: Debussy and the French Heritage
Although there were many influences from the 19th century that carried over into the 20th, the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the French composers, in a way similar to the German music of Wagner, had a profound influence. “The French,” Debussy remarked, “forget too easily the qualities of clarity and elegance peculiar to themselves and allow themselves to be influenced by the tedious and ponderous Teuton…Couperin and Rameau—these are true Frenchmen. French music aims above all to please.” He called music a “fantasy of the senses.” [Machlis, p. 113] Debussy reintroduced old scales and harmonies, looked to Far Eastern music as a source of influence in his own writing, and piled up notes on chords which led to a trend of towering harmonies which would influence composers all over the world. He also discarded the sonata form as being too confining, and he hated the music-drama of Wagner as he grew older. A man of definite ideas, Debussy was also very French and, in this respect, nationalistic in his desire to go the way of the French rather than the way of the Germans.
Debussy added freshness to his compositions by reintroducing the medieval modes into his compositions. To get an idea of the modes, play a white scale for one octave, beginning on the second degree of the C major scale. This is the Dorian mode. It has a different sound entirely from the familiar major mode, from C to C. Each scale degree begins its own mode; it is just that major (beginning on C) and minor, or aeolian (beginning on A) predominated in the Classic and Romantic eras. Much folk music is written in the Mixolydian mode. Debussy and many of the younger composers toward the end of the Romantic Era looked toward folk sources, which was to be an extremely important trend in the twentieth century. As a great deal of Far Eastern music was written on the whole-tone scale, Debussy, fascinated by the sound of the Asian orchestras he heard at an international exposition, made use of this scale to freshen his music. An example of the pentatonic, or five-note scale, as used by Debussy, is the beginning of La fille aux cheveux de lin, or “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” You can hear a pentatonic scale just by playing the black notes of the piano, C# through A#, but note that there are many kinds of pentatonic, or five-tone, scales. Debussy also looked to the older forms, such as organum, and built chord progressions upon parallel fourths, fifths, and octaves, as in the first bars of “The Sunken Cathedral.” According to eighteenth century harmonic practice, this was verboten. However, we must remember that other pioneers, such as Beethoven, had often broken the “rules” to show that great music could be composed outside the norms.
In his use of chords, Debussy not only added ninths and higher intervals to the triad, but he used dissonances which weakened the “pull to the tonic”. [Machlis, p. 120]. This led to the later development of dissonance almost as an end in itself, as we shall hear in twentieth century “art” music. Many other composers were also playing with harmonies and tonalities; that certainly was true of Mahler and Strauss, the successors of Wagner, as it had been true of Wagner himself. Chromaticism was afoot, and gave a hint of what the “art” music of the twentieth century would be like. [Remember that the triad is the basic three note chord, for example, C E G (tonic, mediant, dominant). Adding the seventh, which was common enough in 18th century harmonic practice, would put a B natural on top, or the dominant 7th, which would be a Bb, in this case. Nine steps up from C would be the D, or, if we were adding to the dominant 7th, we might use a Db. Build this chord on the piano, and notice how the top notes “pull” you toward returning to the top C. 20th-century musicians have resisted the “pull” of the tonic and made 9th, 11th, and even bigger (“skyscraper”) chords.]
Debussy’s life, incidentally, was not easy, since his music was, of course, shocking to his teachers at the Paris Conservatory. He lived next to starvation for the first part, and even had to teach a piano lesson in order to pay for his wedding breakfast. After a longtime love affair and a short marriage, Debussy eloped with a Mme. Bardac, with whom he was very happy. He had a child with her and dedicated his “Children’s Corner” to his dearly-loved daughter. Although he did not like being a cult personality, that is what he became in his later life, and he died just before the end of World War I, the war against the Germans, in which he proudly took the part of the composer of the French. “The funeral cortege passed through deserted streets while his beloved city was being ripped by the shells of the Big Berthas. It was only eight months before the victory of the nation whose art found in him so distinguished a spokesperson.” [Machlis, p. 126]
Debussy brought a Frenchness back to French music that had somehow escaped it, under the prevailing influence of the great Germans. His scope was large, from art songs with a distinctly French style to orchestral pieces (he wrote La mer without ever having seen the ocean!), to piano pieces ranging in style from the descriptive preludes to the brilliant, unprogrammatic “Pour le Piano.” His opera, Pelleas et Melisande was a ground-breaking triumph, which pleased his public and eventually silenced his opponents, although he nearly starved to death before they stopped harassing him and began to give him the honor due him. He loved the sounds of various instruments, including the guitar, and tried to imitate them on the piano (as in the Prelude, La serenade interrompué). He did something else which is indicative of the mood of the times. For many years, composers had given their little instructive notes in Italian. Debussy wrote all of his in French, and they are very precise: soutenu et très expressif, for example. In The sunken cathedral, Debussy wanted the fortissimo passages to be sonore sans dureté (sonorous, without hardness). To understand these precise directions is to know more about the way Debussy really wanted the music to sound. Incidentally, recordings of the composer playing his own works are still in existence.
Just as a matter of personal interest, as of 2002, I am 54 years old. At the time Claude Debussy died, my father was serving in the United States Army in Paris. So the beginning of the twentieth century does not seem so very remote! Several of my piano teachers knew the great composers and performers of the late nineteenth and of the twentieth century personally. I remember playing one piece right in Nyack, and having the daughter of the composer, Alexander Skriabin, say, “Thank you for playing my father’s piece.” And then, there was the time I played the Don Quixote songs of Maurice Ravel for the person to whom they had been dedicated, Martial Singher. I’m glad I didn’t notice the dedication before I played them!
MAURICE RAVEL (1875-1937)
“Quick—what’s the difference between Debussy and Ravel?” one of the Juilliard students quipped, just before the entrance examination. Upon a superficial examination, one might say that there were more similarities than differences between the two great masters of French music. However, upon closer examination, important distinctions will be seen to be obvious.
To be sure, Ravel lived in the shadow of Debussy, being thirteen years younger than he, but he was such a brilliant musician and composer that he made his own way. He remained in the Paris Conservatoire for sixteen years. Ravel never married, but seemed to give himself completely to his art. A proud man, he refused the French Legion of Honor award because once he had been refused the Prix de Rome at the Conservatoire. His home was unique; because he was a very short man, he lowered the ceilings and the doorways so that he would seem taller than he actually was. Tall people had to stoop to enter!
Ravel was a composition student of the very respectable French composer, Gabriel Fauré. But he also was influenced by a group of young people who called themselves the “Apaches,” a group of avant-garde poets, painters, and musicians “who believed in his gifts long before those were recognized by the world at large.” “we had more or less the same tastes in art,” one said, “which was lucky for people as hot-headed as we were because, as someone has said, you can’t discuss things except with people of your own opinion. Ravel shared our preference, weakness or mania, respectively, for Chinese art, Mallarmé and Verlaine, Rimbaud, Cézanne and Van Gogh, Rameau and Chopin, Whistler and Valéry, the Russians and Debussy.” [Machlis, page 134] Although the music of Ravel was sharply criticized at first, he became one of the greatest of the exponents of nineteenth/twentieth century music, but that which was particularly French.
It is important to note that besides being influenced by the artists and composers mentioned above, Ravel also came to America and fell in love with American jazz. The instruments used in jazz music, especially the saxophone, and the driving rhythms influenced him profoundly. For the last part of his life, he did little but listen to recordings of American jazz. He was a great orchestrator, and his setting of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is so famous that one hardly remembers that it was composed originally for piano. It is convincing, even though, at one point, he oddly uses violins to portray the sound of Russian bells! Of his orchestral compositions, none is more famous (though it was very controversial in its day) than his Bolero, which is based upon the Spanish dance and was written on a dare that he could actually write something on a rhythmic ostinato that would be acceptable. A tone-poem, Daphne and Chloe is also an extremely important orchestral composition.
Of his vast array of piano music, much of it very difficult, one of the most remarkable compositions is the Concerto for the Left Hand Alone, a piece for which certain pianists, unable to use their right hands, have been very grateful. It is a brilliant and original work. Interestingly, it is easier to use the left hand alone than to use the right hand alone, because the strongest part of the hand is the thumb, which, of course, is on the “melody side.” (Quite a few late Romantic composers wrote for the left hand alone, but I believe Ravel’s is the only extant piano concerto of that kind.) This may show Ravel’s indebtedness to the Russian Alexander Skriabin, who wrote two lovely pieces for the left hand alone.
Ravel, unlike Debussy, did not despise the classic forms; in fact, he was, in that regard, something of an heir to the classical tradition. He was a witty, precise, and elegant composer, who dared not only to challenge the traditions of the nineteenth century, but to be himself in the twentieth century. He composed alongside some very radical people, who tended to look down upon him, but he could only be himself—which is precisely why he is honored as one of the great composers today.