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Claude Achille Debussy - 1862-1918

( Originally Published 1935 )



Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun"

(After the Eclogue by Stephane Mallarme)

Debussy's vaporous and iridescent score, which is like unto a dream within a dream, and of which no sonority rises above a moderate forte, is nevertheless a revolutionary document; and the beauty of the revolution is its noiselessness. This is really the first effective revolt against Wagnerism and Germanism in the orchestral music of the late nineteenth century, and it is conclusive. The old regime is out and the new one is in, without a cannon fired! No guns! No soap-box oratory! Debussy goes quietly away from the fuss and turmoil into his tower of ivory. He consults his own spirit and that of his antique culture and civilization. His music, in fact, goes back to a period before Bach and Beethoven ever existed, for it is essentially pagan, non-ethical, unphilosophic, and worshipful of beauty as it was known to the wise of an ancient world. Its workmanship is equally precise and subtle, and it has, in its finest manifestations, the indestructibility of the perfect thought. But Debussy does not pursue the methodical and symmetric ideal of the German symphonists. He develops a theme—yes—and squeezes the juice out of it as surely as ever Beethoven did; but in place of an, ordained procedure, a scheme of architecture, determined in advance, Debussy seems to set his themes free, to let them wing their way untrammeled through space, or float indolently on the current of his deep-tinted harmonies, as if the melody followed a will of its own which had nothing at all to do with the clumsy artifices of man.

Debussy associated intimately with painters, poets and writers of his period. He was sympathetic with the impressionistic painters, and with that outgrowth of impressionism, the "symbolist" school of poetry, of which the leader was Stephane Mallarme. The symbolists sought not only an approach to musical effect by means of rhythm, assonance and rhyme; they sought also something deeper—the evocation, by means of the sounds and of words, of subconscious sensations and ideas. Hence the text of Mallarme's eclogue, "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," is intentionally vague, obscure of meaning, as elusive in its images as Debussy's music. Edmund Gosse's elucidation is generally accepted as a trustworthy interpretation of the poem. This poem, after being rejected by the "Parnasse Contemporain," in 1875, was published in 1876, with illustrations by the painter Manet. Gosse, who spoke of Mallarme's use of words in a manner to "suggest to the reader a mood or a condition which is not mentioned in the text" (the italics are rain), re-marked of the verse:

"To say that I understand it bit by bit, phrase by phrase, would be excessive. But, if I am asked whether this famous miracle of unintelligibility gives me pleasure,, I answer, cordially, Yes. I even fancy that I obtain from it as definite and as solid an impression as M. Mallarme desires to pro-duce. This is what I read in it: A faun—a simple, sensuous, passionate being—wakens in the forest at daybreak and tries to recall his experience of the previous afternoon. Was he the fortunate recipient of an actual visit from nymphs, white and golden goddesses, divinely tender and indulgent? Or is the memory he seems to retain nothing but the shadow of a vision, no more substantial than the 'arid rain' of notes from his own flute? He cannot tell. Yet surely there was, surely there is, an animal whiteriess among the brown reeds of the lake that shines out yonder? Were they, are they, swans? No! But Naiads plunging? Perhaps! Vaguer and vaguer grows- the impression of this delicious experience. He would resign his woodland godship to retain it. A garden of lilies, golden-headed, white-stalked, behind the trellis of red roses? Ah! the effort is too great for his poor brain. Perhaps if he selects one lily from the garth of lilies, one benign and beneficent yielder of her cup to thirsty lips, the memory, the ever-receding memory, may be forced back. So when he has glutted uponA bunch of grapes, he is wont to toss the empty skins into the air and blow them out in a visionary greediness. But no, the delicious hour grows vaguer; experience or dream, he will never know which it was. The sun is warm, the grasses yielding; and he curls himself up again, after worshipping the efficacious star of wine, that he may pursue the dubious ecstasy into the more hopeful boskages of sleep."

I remember well when Debussy's score was first heard in America. It produced an impression of subtlety and evanescence that the ear might not grasp, to say nothing of the mind. "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune"! It belongs 'today to the age of innocence! The pages of music are before me as I write and as clear as a child's mind. Debussy's technic is no longer inexplicable. As for his idiom, one realizes now several perfectly obvious derivations. Franck is not absent, nor Wagner, nor the presence of that Massenet who, said Romain Rolland, slumbers in the heart of every Frenchman. So that, where material and workmanship are concerned, there is no longer mystery concerning the music, or certain of its relations to the immediate past. And yet, even without the orchestra, etched by the black and white tone-colors of the piano, the piece renews its magical and pagan spell. I am confident that this unique composition will hold its place, and—God grant it!—be forever mysterious to us. There will be regressions from Debussy and from the school of musical impres~ionism which he is supposed to represent. But in the first place, as I have implied, this apparently nebulous music is written with astounding precision and a wholly concealed but iron substructure of form; and secondly, a work of great genius, whatever its school or period, lives. This languorous score, with its indolent flute, its shimmering horns and harp, its nostalgia for a beauty that cannot exist in the world of living, will remain with us, and place us ever the more in debt and homage to that honored master who, for us, transfixed the dream and preserved it forever in little black notes on music paper.

Three Nocturnes for Orchestra

I. "Nuages" ("Clouds")

II. "Fetes" ("Festivals")

111. "Sirenes" ("Sirens")

Debussy was supremely the artist capable of selecting the instant of pure beauty and transfixing it on his tonal canvas for eternity. The "Nocturnes" for orchestra, of which the first two are most frequently played, are impressions, almost painter's impressions, of nature. In the first Debussy seeks, in his own words, to contemplate "the unchanging aspect of the sky, with the slow and solemn passage of the clouds dissolving in a gray vagueness tinged with white." The harmonic and orchestral method is close to that of the painters who so daringly, for their period, mixed conflicting colors and secured marvelous vibrations of light. Even so does Debussy employ discords which, melting the one into the other, give us the impression of lucent sonorities. Watch for two of his most beautiful tints at the beginning of "Nuages," when. the higher wind instruments of the orchestra begin a weaving figure and against them is heard the rich, reedy, languorous tone of the English horn, set like a gorgeous ribbon of color against the undulating,background of the other instruments. Gradually, after one vista and another, the vision recedes, and the tone fades almost imperceptibly into silence. Incidentally, the woodwind figure from which "Nuages" is constructed is note for note the same as an accompaniment figure in one of the late songs (the third song of the cycle "Without Sunlight") of Mussorgsky, a composer whom Debussy admired and carefully studied, and to whom he owed much.

I have remarked upon Debussy's impressionism and its analogy to the methods of painters of his earlier years. But he never abandons creative logic. And so, in the second piece, "Fetes," passages which have apparently no relation to anything heard before are actually very original and imaginative transformations of themes already heard in "Nuages." It is also true of Debussy that his orchestration is as distinctive and varied as his methods are economical. The scoring of "Nuages" is in complete contrast to that of "Fetes." The second Nocturne evokes "the restless, dancing rhythms of the atmosphere, interspersed with abrupt scintillations. There is also an incidental procession—a wholly visionary pageant—passing through and blended with the argent revelry; but the background of uninterrupted festival persists—luminous dust participating in universal rhythm." Mr. Havelock Ellis might have called this piece "The Dance of Life." We distinguish, first, a dazzling play of rhythm, and occasional scraps of the freest and happiest melody in the world floating through it. At a certain point, after a pause, a march-like accompaniment begins on the harp. Over this sound faint fanfares, which come nearer, mount to a refracting climax and pass by, after which the dance of the particles of light is resumed, with the little fragments of wanton song. Goethe speaks, in the prologue to "Faust," of the "thunder-march" of the sun through the skies. So this march of the sun-god thunders through Debussy's orchestra and passes on its way.


"'Sirens': the sea and its innumerable rhythm; then amid the billows silvered by the moon the raysterious song of the Sirens is heard; it laughs and passes."

Debussy asks a chorus of eight female voices, which sing, without words, an undulant me:.ody derived from the theme of the first Nocturne, "Clouds." One of the secrets of the music is the extreme simplicity of its basic material. Two notes that rise or fall a tone are the elements from which Debussy derives his tonal structure. This idea, which would threaten monotony, is unfolded in terms of inexhaustible beauty. There was probably an analogy in Debussy's mind—in this sameness, almost monotony of subject matter, and its infinite variety of presentation, with the recurrences and ever-fresh miracles of nature herself. Different harmonies give various tonal back-grounds to the motive, which is the last word in simplicity. This motive is also varied rhythmically; various rhythms which it has generated are combined and contrasted. Someone said of Debussy that he was not only.a composer but a de-composer. He meant the composer's tendency to boil down an idea to its fewest notes, to reduce a chord to its merest essentials, and to centralize his development about this essential simplicity. Other composers piled up themes and motives. Debussy sets musical particles free; he often seems to stand aside and regard with affection and worship their apparently careless play, and joyous obedience to basic laws. Apparent inconsequence of movement is a fascinating characteristic of his music. And so with this score. The listener is not aware of craft, and he is not surprised when the voices of the f sirens fall upon his ear. This music is the fresh inspiration of a young poet. In a later perspective of Debussy's art it is seen to be the genesis of certain fundamental ideas, particularly that of the two-tone figure that he later expanded with such astonishing mastery in the pages of the score of La Mer."



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