We should celebrate Debussy by assessing his real legacy

Head and shoulder portrait of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Photograph by Nadar, 1908.
Photograph: Nadar/ Bettmann/CORBIS

In this anniversary year, forget the concept of Debussy the musical impressionist. I want to celebrate Debussy the sonic explorer.

Anniversaries. God love ’em. Yes, classical music’s institutions are far too in thrall with them for their programming ideas, and yes, it would be much more interesting if we celebrated the 185th year since Beethoven’s death, 327 years since Bach’s birth, and 106 years since Shostakovich’s birth. But when it’s an anniversary year and you don’t celebrate it, well, that’s not great either. Maybe it’s the Olympics, maybe it’s the spirit of universal brotherhood that unites sport and the arts, or maybe it’s the mass sameness that is television’s current obsession with variously identikit musical talent shows, but my question is: what happened to Debussy? There’s a clanging great anniversaire that classical music has so far neglected this year, since it’s the sesquicentenary of his birth in 1862. So where, oh where, is Claude-Achille, that father of musical modernism, ever since that languorous flute solo was first heard to create the reverie of a priapic deer in his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1894; the composer without whose investigations of texture, colour, form, and feeling, the vast majority of 20th century music could not have been written?

Let’s start to redress the balance – and this one will run and run throughout the year – and reconsider Debussy’s reputation. Maybe the most important critical canard to start plucking, disembowelling and roasting is the whole Debussy-as-atmospheric-impressionist idée fixe. That comes from bad musicology, bad thinking, and bad performances. If Debussy were really about creating musical impressions or atmospherics, he would have written a music hobbled by its inbetween-ness, pieces that would be half-baked descriptions of natural phenomena on one hand, and ineffectual musical structures on the other. And that’s not what he did. The basic point is that Debussy uses music as thing-in-itself. It’s not a metaphor for something else, but an experience in its own right. And with Debussy, those are experiences that music hadn’t created before, and are, therefore, experiences that the human imagination hadn’t had before.

Take one example, an absolute favourite of mine: the second movement of La Mer – Jeux de vagues, “Play of the Waves”, in this performance, Claudio Abbado’s with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (the only one I’ve heard that comes close is Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony) Taking Debussy at face value here doesn’t help much – are we supposed to be imaging white horses in the wind as we’re listening to this piece? (Even La Mer’s subtitle, “Three Symphonic Sketches”, suggests that’s what we should be doing (but, er, we shouldn’t!) Of course, you’re free to imagine what you like as this movement builds its ineluctable, joyous momentum in Abbado’s performance, but if you do, you’ll be inspired not by mere titles, but by the flow of Debussy’s music. In other words, it’s not the sea, the water, or the waves, that’s the real element of this piece, but what the piece does with different kinds of musical motion. The final climax, the accelerando that Abbado’s musicians create so magnificently, isn’t “about” tides or breakers or surfers; instead, it creates an energy that you can’t help but be swept away by. That’s the real connection between La Mer and the sea: the music traps you in its own undertow of sheer sonic power.

It’s the same with Debussy’s piano music. Pieces called The Sunken Cathedral or Fireworks aren’t “like” their apparent real-world referents, but they are their own visions of new kinds of musical time, harmony, and experience. So intense and shimmeringly precise are the musical images Debussy creates, it’s the rest of the world that seems like an impression of music, rather than the other way round. So let’s start to celebrate Debussy the visionary, the sonic explorer, the creator of new worlds of feeling, rather than the wishy-washy watercolourist. And c’mon, classical music, get behind the year’s best excuse for a sesquicentennial celebration!

Tom Service ( / March 29, 2012

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