Back

Why I’m done with Debussy

November 25, 2016 by norman lebrecht

68 comments.


In the new issue of Standpoint magazine, I examine the reasons for my Debussy aversion – and my concern that we are about to be flooded with his music over the next two years.

Sample:

Invitations have begun to land for the centenary year and my wastebin is bulging. Wild fauns will not drag me to Garsington Opera’s new Pelléas production in June, nor to the Vienna State Opera’s revival that same month. If I take the sea air at Eastbourne, I shall give a wide berth to the Grand Hotel, where Debussy wrote most of La Mer. On the Bois du Boulogne, his final home, I shall pay no respects.

My dislike of Debussy — more pronounced than of any other important composer — is as much analytical as it is aesthetic. His denial of meaning is the antithesis of Frankl’s search for meaning, a complacency so far removed from my view of the world that I can do nothing but acknowledge it and move on. Pure music, which begins with Debussy, infects the modernist mainstream to the point where it becomes impermissible to express any message in music. You had only to hear Boulez denounce Shostakovich as “reactionary” to understand how effectively Debussy sanitised music of the possibility of meaning.

Read the full essay here.

Debussy Picnic


Comments (68)

  1. Julian Rowlands says:

    I find this article to be devoid of meaning as there is no definition of meaning in music, and no analysis of Debussy’s music to demonstrate how a music without meaning differs, in musical terms, from music that contains meaning.

  2. Eric says:

    Meaning or no meaning – it’s entirely subjective. Composers try to take audiences in a certain direction or journey with their music, but it often doesn’t work out that way. If people do ascribe meaning to music, then it is often for all sorts of reasons that are completely out of control of the composer.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      I don’t think so. The appreciation of music is not merely a matter of taste and projection of meaning, if this were so, then then entire repertoire on which the central performance culture rests, would merely be the result of very many people sharing the same taste and the same meaningful projections, which is just not credible. There is also something like reality and truth involved, there are many objective qualities of music which is erperienced as ‘good’, marvellous’ etc. One of the tasks of musicology is to explain the workings of such music on the literal level, which can explain a lot, be it not everything.

  3. Grigory Smirnov says:

    Debussy never denied meaning. What he really denied was the lable “impressionist” because it is misleading and doesn’t help to fully understand his artistic method. He devoloped his language under the close influence of symbolist poets, and therefore his music must be symbolic by nature. That’s why he would give program titles to many of his works, which would help him to deliver the meaning more precisely. For instance, Kandinsky in his book “Concerning Spiritual in Art” gives a better clue on how to approach Debussy.

    1. Steven Holloway says:

      A valuable comment, Grigory. Re the ‘impressionist’ label, still pinned on Debussy long after it should have been clear to anyone supposedly versed in music that it is inappropriate, he wrote to his publisher, “What I am trying to do is something ‘different’ — an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism”. Your point about his ties to the symbolist poets is crucial in understanding this. Apart from his impressionist howler, I’m not sure what NL means by “pure music”, but must assume he refers to what is actually known as Absolute Music. The idea of Debussy as the originator of such music is bizarre — has NL discovered a ‘programme’ in Bach’s partitas and sonatas for solo violin? La Mer is far less ‘absolute’ (or pure, to use NL’s term) than a vast amount of music from circa two centuries earlier. Julian Rowland’s comment is true indeed — you can’t just throw terms around to disparage a composer without defining such terms.

      1. Grigory Smirnov says:

        I agree, Steven.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      “That’s why he would give program titles to many of his works, which would help him to deliver the meaning more precisely.”

      But often (in the Preludes) he put them at the bottom of the piece, not at the head. The meaning is not in the musical ‘description’ of the ‘subject’, but in the purely musical result, which was filtered through the composer’s understanding. It is a transformation without the subjective comment from the ‘self’ of the composer. If you don’t know the ’cause’ of ‘Feux d’Artifice’, nothing musical is lost, and if you don’t know the title of ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune’, you do not enjoy the piece less.

      1. Mikey says:

        Only the piano preludes have the title after the work.
        Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun has its title on the front page.

        Any piece of music loses nothing without a title, and can be enjoyed as much without it. This isn’t unique to Debussy. Some titles add layers of colour to one’s listening of the music.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          True, and well said.

      2. Monsieur Croche says:

        The piano Préludes could indeed make the best case in point regarding Debussy’s unique genius. Take for example «Des pas sur la neige»… Debussy reached there what decades of phenomenology barely hinted at AFTER him…

      3. Grigory Smirnov says:

        I think the meaningfulness of Debussy’s music was, in fact, the reason why the composer decided to put the titles at the end of each Prelude, which took place closer to the end of his career. Debussy’s music speaks for itself using subtle gestures, while the label “impressionism” was leading listeners in a wrong direction. Debussy didn’t want his listeners to think of these pieces as simple “images”; he wanted listeners to engage with the music more directly, to listen actively, and thought that holding on the verbal references until the end of the piece would help a listener to focus on the music itself, rather than to “meditate” on the title with the music as a background. In his last works (Etudes, Sonatas) he abandoned the program titles at all. Maybe that was somehow a result of disappointment by the misunderstanding from his audience…

  4. Pianofortissimo says:

    The Debussy recital started well with some preludes, but as the pianist was drinking all the time at the end of the first part the music was sounding like Schoenberg. He pianist, very neurvous, went on drinking in the pause, and when the recital resumed Clair de lune sounded as a Stockhausen Klavierstück, after which the pianist was in a coma and, fallen on the piano strings, snored and breathed heavily and it sounded like John Cage. He then waked up, had a terrible headache, and concluded the recital with L’Isle joyeuse. It sounded like Boulez. Here we see how Debussy was the main inspiration of the avant-garde.

    1. Mikey says:

      Brilliant, thank-you!
      🙂

      I’ve performed the entirety of Debussy’s piano œuvre, and find NL’s declaration to be one of the most offensive and uneducated things I’ve ever read on music. It puts NL’s credentials into question.

      Norman, you don’t like Debussy? Fine, say so. It doesn’t speak to you.
      I don’t care for Mahler, it doesn’t speak to me. I still think he’s one of the greatest composers to have lived, I just don’t care for what he wrote.

      There’s absolutely no reason to disparage a composer simply because you either do not understand his music, of it simply does not speak to you.

      I’ve seen Slippedisc deteriorate over the last 2 years, from a blog with some interesting articles about music, links to interesting things, and some concert news, to a click-bait gossip rag that uses flame-bait headlines, and misstates and misquotes from articles it presents.

      The funny thing is many musicologist friends of mine comment on this very lack of credibility when referring to NL.

      1. Pianofortissimo says:

        Debussy’s piano music is wonderful, he represents the ultimate French style in the manner Francois Couperin did in his time (that most of the French music preceding and following Couperin and Debussy is as interesting as a piece of furniture can be in musical terms is another story). My point is that his influence as Composer on historically relevant composers of the next generations was only superficial, that some of Schoenberg’s music sound like Debussy’s with wrong notes, that Boulez’s musical fireworks would have been very different without Debussy, that his apparent formlessness inspired anarchy (even if John Cage rather refers to Debussy’s friend Satie as the solution to the Beethoven problem) etc.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          D’s mastery and inventiveness in form is obvious in anything he wrote. Only, the form is behind the surface, as in Monet’s paintings which are carefully organised but very inconspicuously so. In spite of D’s protestations to music which clearly shows its construction (‘That is architecture, not music’), his own music is also architectural, but hidden: there is a carefully calculated narrative with precisely placed climaxes, articulation points and spatial balances. Only, they are often very ambiguous, or open to more than one functional explanation. It is music like a beautiful woman who wants to be mysterious and elusive, but takes much precise care of her make-up and ward robe.

          D’s influence on lesser talents was disastrous because they aped his surface and sank into easy play with effects. But on the great talents his influence was very strong and profound: Stravinsky (he said he could ony write Petrushka after having heard and studied Iberia), Bartok, Ravel (who combined Debussian sensitivity and harmony with more openly classical in form, to D’s irritation), Szymanowski, Berg, Messiaen.

      2. Sue says:

        Absolutely agree, particularly about Mahler.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      The mind which notated ‘La Mer’ was the most clearheaded ever. D could stubbornly puzzle about a couple of bars for weeks before he could find the right very small detail. It may all sound as an improvisation, but has been put together with the utmost care and precision. The ‘meaning of the music’ may be vague and indirect and ambiguous, but the music itself is extremely clear and well-structured. Debussy only drank his whiskey at the end of the day…. and never during composing.

      1. Pianofortissimo says:

        I did not write that the Composer was under the influence, but that people that he inspired probably were. Debussy’s music sounds best when played with pedantic precision. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was the perfect ‘Debussyist.’

  5. Will Duffay says:

    That’s all as may be, and I’ll let others argue the philosophy, but by god it sounds gorgeous.

  6. John Borstlap says:

    Excellent article and putting on the table what ‘meaning in music’ actually might be. Is musical meaning located in the work itself, or does it consist of references towards the world outside the work? My understanding of the article is, that it says that music which has no bearing on the human condition, is mere ornament, more or less chique entertainment, nice after a heavy meal but unconnected to the real business of human existence and hence, easily developed into sonic art which ‘means’ only itself. But I think it is clear that Debussy never intended to avoid meaning in his music, but located it away from the egocentric ‘I’ which was cultivated by the romantics. The comparison with Mahler makes all this clear: for Mahler, the emotional experience of the Self was central to his work, while for Debussy, it was the experience of the world that he wanted to render, without the ‘I’ coming in-between with its emotional outbursts. That is why we have ‘Nuages’ not as the Self reflecting upon itself during a summer night sky, but as the Self loosing itself in its observation of the sky where clouds calmly sail ahead. So, Debussy’s art is, in fact, very modest, forgetting the Self and being absorbed into the world, and expressing the process very eloquently.

    This means that this music is very subtle, in psychological terms. In Pelléas, it is not the ‘thrills’ of nice sounds that form its meaning, but the revelation that the lovers occupy a wave length inaccessible to Golaud, who gets insane with jealousy because on that ethereal level, his wife commits adultery but not in ‘real’ terms, so she is ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ at the same time. To be able to express such subtleties, a music is needed that is capable of expressing meaning with equally subtle means, and thus: meaning that directly relates to the human condition.

    With Mahler, meaning is trumpeted fortissimo at every bar, so much so that the listener forgets and excuses his vulgarities, clumsiness and lack of stylistic consistency. It is, anyway, very true and meaningful music. Debussy however, opens a door to much more subtle worlds of meaning, through which we can only enter if we accept that there are more ways in which we can experience meaning in music.

    The obvious sensual beauty of Debussy’s music does not show that it must therefore be ‘meaningless’, but in contrary underlines the beauty which is embedded in the natural world, and thus in the human psyche which has developed together with the world in millions of years of evolution. With an amplifying glass, Debussy picks-out the beauty of the world and relates it to our capacity to perceive it, thereby confirming that we are part of the world. If THAT is not meaning, within and outside music, I don t know what it otherwise could be.

    Debussy was, of course, misunderstood by modernists, who lacked the subtlety to hear where this music is ‘about’, and only perceived the sonic surface of the music. They also misunderstood Webern, who was a passionate and very frustrated romantic, and tried to concentrate the last drops of existential meaning in cristalline constructions, where they easily evaporated under the gaze of quasi-scientific postwar modernism.

    1. Marc-Antoine Hamet says:

      Very interesting and comparison between Debussy and Mahler.
      Thank you John!

      If I were to paraphrase Mr.Lebrecht, I think you have nailed why I’m done with Mahler.

      Mr.Lebrecht is wrong in his article about Debussy’s last home.
      It is not the Bois de Boulogne, but the Passy Cemetery, which is in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
      I happen to live not far, and he is my “dear neighbor in the Passy Cemetery”!
      🙂

      1. David Osborne says:

        But all this is said of Mahler because we focus on his planned, programmatic, ‘meaningful’ music and that to me is always his worst. Mahler is patchy, but he is at his genius best when he let’s his inner child run around unencumbered by deeper meaning. Best example? There are many, but try the ‘Tempo di Menuetto’ of the 3rd.

        1. David Osborne says:

          Oh and Norman, you’ve posted some great reviews and articles here, so for what it’s worth- In my opinion this one is not your finest moment.

  7. debussyste says:

    Poor little Mr Lebrecht ! You need the good german Herr Professor to teach you the “meaning” of music, I see … Those who love Debussy, love the freedom of the mind and imagination.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      ‘Happy is he who reaps his neighbour’s fruits’ (To-Fu, Chinese philosopher from the late Ping period, 13th century.)

  8. Gerard says:

    Do we really have to know why someone does or doesn’t like some kind of music? Explaining it will not help making thing clearer. Quite some narrowmindness going on here, just enjoy the magical soundworld of Debussy! If it’s not your cup of tea just don’t listen and put something else on.

  9. Simon Evnine says:

    There’s no accounting for tastes and this strange topic, despite a great fulsome reply by Mr Bortslap, is going to go nowhere.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      There is something like the ‘holistic nature of human perception’ (Steven Semes) and that is more or less the same with everybody. Only, our perception is coloured by background, culture, experience, personal preferences, and whether we are a music journalist. But music reflects something of the human mind and perceptive framework, and the workings of the brain, and for that reason how people perceive music and differ in their perception, tells us something about the human condition.

      If you get into Debussy’s work over a longer time, you begin to realize this mind was one of the greatest geniusses who ever lived, actually something ‘impossible’ emerged there in the boiling pot that was fin-de-siècle Paris. He was not quite of this world, hence his continuous problems with it. He lived quite outside it.

      1. NYMike says:

        “If you get into Debussy’s work over a longer time, you begin to realize this mind was one of the greatest geniusses who ever lived, actually something ‘impossible’ emerged there in the boiling pot that was fin-de-siècle Paris.”

        Agreed!

  10. Gustav says:

    Mahler loved Debussy’s music and conducted it.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Yes, and there is quite some influence of D in ‘Das Lied’.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        PS: … and when Mahler performed his 2nd symphony in Paris in 1910, Debussy attended the concert (like any VIP of Parision music life), and walked out in the middle of the symphony – he could not bear it any longer. Of course, to such a refined taste, Mahler’s gigantically blown-up Mendelssohn idiom must have been musically, spiritually and physically unbearable. But I think he would have liked ‘Das Lied’ quite much.

        1. Sue says:

          “gigantically blown up”. Yes, precisely. Less is definitely more.

  11. jean-christophe says:

    “Invitations have begun to land for the centenary year and my wastebin is bulging.”
    please send them to me : I am a big fan of debussy and pelleas is in my top 3 !

  12. Max Grimm says:

    “My dislike of Debussy — more pronounced than of any other important composer — is as much analytical as it is aesthetic.”

    You’re honestly claiming that your dislike of Debussy is more pronounced than your dislike of Richard Wagner?????

    1. Mikey says:

      He’s honestly proclaiming that he has some “analytical” reason (ie: factual, provable, scientific… ie: nothing to do with personal taste, personal preference, or opinion) for disliking Debussy. THAT is even more farcical.

      1. Max Grimm says:

        Well, if his article has the same effect on people that his speech on ‘Intelligence² Debate Verdi vs Wagner’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16noW1H0yq8) had, Norman may actually drive crowds to like Debussy even more.

      2. Steven Holloway says:

        I simply passed over his absurd claim that his argument was based on analysis. It reads like a mighty poor attempt to claim spurious authority for his views. All it did was highlight his ignorance of what musicians mean by analysis. Anyone who has read his book on Mahler would already know of his ignorance of analysis in its strict, musical sense.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      But Norman’s article clearly shows that he hears the same things that someone who loves Debussy, also hears. Call it an ‘acquired distaste’. The rejection is not based upon not understanding the musical language, and that makes the article interesting. It is not what Debussy DOES with the language which he dislikes, but what Debussy INTENDS with the musical language, which for N goes against the very reason why music is here at all. If there is a barrier, it is not in the music, and not in the perception, but in the intention of the composer and that goes much deeper than taste. This also shows that music has objective qualities, which relates it to ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. If it were true that Debussy rejects meaning in music, then it would also be thinkable that morality, justice, love, or even reality itself may be meaningless, and that is why we instinctively protest against something that seems to delete meaning from the world. It is no coincidence that much of the critique Debussy’s music received at the time, was strongly morally coloured: immoral, decadent, feeble, etc.

      1. Julian Rowlands says:

        So are you saying that Debussy intends something which is then conveyed in the music? If so, give one example. If not, the discussion is pointless. Mozart said more about his own fundament than about meaning in music. It has no relevance to his mastery of the sublime.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          That is what I tried to explain at 12:04 above.

          D’s music is over-full with meaning. I would not know where to begin if examples were needed.

          One quite powerful example may help: the 3rd mvt of ‘La Mer’, which is supposed to depict a stormy episode.The mvt consists of 2 halves, the first builds-up to a climax, in the best symphonic tradition, then follows a very calm & luminous episode with a very expressive theme that shines as a light through an opening of clouds which have parted to let it through, as may happen in a sea scape; then the music builds-up again but in a joyous mood, as if released from the darkness of the beginning, and culminates in an impressive climax in D flat major, the same key as the ‘light’ episode. The way this narrative is worked-out, is very linear, from A to B to C, and different from the 1st mvt where things ‘happen’ spontaneously like in nature, or the 2nd mvt which is a glittering scherzo. If D wanted to simply depict ‘the patterns of all the visuals the sea offers’, it would not have the emotional effect listeners experience; the linear narrative makes a connection with our personal experience of life possible, where things can get dark, and where light peers through an unexpected opening in the darkness, leading to an emotional liberation. These are both qualities inherent in natural things, like a ‘stormy wind’ or a ‘sombre pool’, and in purely human experiences. Hence poetry, where comparisons between nature and the inner emotional realm are often made. With ‘La Mer’ Debussy says: what happens in nature is the same kind of processes that happen in our emotional intimate world, they resonate, and that is the secret of the attraction of D”s music. I think that is quite meaningful, and may restore the connection with nature where modern life is cut-off from it.

          1. Julian Rowlands says:

            So Debussy intended the music to MEAN those things and they MEAN that to any listener regardless of whether they know the title of the piece and the programme? This is as valid as your statement that there are fugues by Bach which express irritation or anger – it is a subjective response by yourself, in the Debussy case suggested by extra-musical elements (title/programme). Nothing more.

      2. Max Grimm says:

        Norman is free to like or dislike any composer. His reasons for liking or disliking them are neither required, nor solicited, as one needn’t justify ones personal like/dislike regarding something utterly subjective.
        Considering some of the things Norman has said and written (ad infinitum) regarding another composer or two, I merely find it surprising that his dislike of Debussy is apparently now “more pronounced than [that] of any other important composer“.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          That is because he apparently believes, and rightly so, that there is something objective in D’s music, and he rejects it. I think the article is, within the context of a small space, subjective but reasoned. One can say something objective from a subjective point of view. Since D’s music has entered the repertoire and over time has acquired the halo of the music of an established master, be it quite exotic and unusual, it is normal to feel the need to reason one’s instinctive yuk-feeling to something that is also very beautiful and well-crafted. One’s reactions to music are not always and necessarily ‘entirely subjective’.

  13. Julian Rowlands says:

    For those of us who have spent any time studying the subject, the word “analytical” in the context of music writes a cheque that this article fails to even attempt to honour.

    I found myself speculating. Perhaps Mr Lebrecht feels that music lacks meaning if it arpeggiates the subdominant triad in its large-scale tonal structure, for instance?

    Sadly nothing reassembling musical analysis was argued. Perhaps this is a taster for a more lengthy monograph in which Mr Lebrecht will apply intellectual rigour to the notes that Debussy wrote, rather than some things that he supposedly said.

    Or perhaps in the post-factual age in which expertise is rejected, this is all we get and to ask for more would be elitism.

  14. Db says:

    This is the greatest rubbish I have ever read.

  15. Brian B says:

    What does a Bach fugue “mean?” If his b minor mass “means” the text of the liturgy why even bother to set it to music? What’s a Haydn symphony mean? Even a successful piece of “program music” must have its own internal musical logic that can be listened to without regard to it program. La Mer itself is one of the most rigorously organized and musically logical pieces ever written, a three movement symphony. Music means what music is and needs no other justification.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      It’s the Wagner/Hanslick controversy again: programme music against absolute music. But can’t it be both? I.e., both an abstract (i.e. non-conceptual) work and in the same time, expressing things of the human self (sharing it through the music) or things of the world filtered through the musical imagination of the composer? There are fugues by Bach which express irritation or anger, others which express serenity, others again which are depressed, or joyful, etc. Beethoven’s fugues are even more expressive where the intensity almost bursts out of the structure. And there are many passages in Wagner which are both entirely convincing as operatic expression of words and situation, and in purely musical terms.

  16. JanHus says:

    so a “music critic” so discredited still gets performance invitations?

    1. Steven Holloway says:

      We all get press releases re concerts that are written in the form of ‘invitations’. I have long suspected that NL numbers those among the personal invitations he may receive, i.e., the ones that threaten to cancel the concert if he doesn’t say he’s coming.

  17. Miles Golding says:

    Norman, what were you on when you wrote that article? I just need to know so that I never make the mistake of trying it.

  18. Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Dear Norman, please allow me to say, borrowing from, and slightly amending, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Von wem man nichts hoeren will, soll man schweigen.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      That’s ridiculous…. Since there is quite much music around in the central performance culture that arguably does not deserve to be there, and since programming classical music is based upon the assumption that mainly the worthwhile should be presented – given the efforts and expenses involved – there is an ongoing discussion everywhere as to what is worthwhile and why, and why we disagree so often. Wittgenstein was a philosopher of logic, so his exercises had to be restricted to language and the limits of logical precision in terms of expression. But language can do much more, hence literature and poetry, and philosophy that is concerned with a wider context. W said of Brahms: ‘He knew so much more than we can know’, or something of the kind, meaning that music can say much more than language.

      1. William Safford says:

        Do we have any record of discussions about music between Ludwig and Paul Wittgenstein?

        1. Clarrieu says:

          Yes, in Paul’s autobiography “The day my right hand left”. Sorry, just trying to make this topic funny.

  19. fuereineliebe says:

    Debussy’s music is like French the language, the meaning is nuanced, softened, even though he might has a lot to say, he says it in a very personal way, and relies more on our emotional sentience to ‘feel’ it than to analyze it. and on the contrary, if NL could say that about Debussy, for me, the same, or the contrary might be said of Mahler. Mahler, to me, is trivial things and feelings blown out of proportion. Just as LvB has shown us, what makes great sonata form is short motives instead of long songful melodies, which have again and again been proved in Brahms’ works, Mahler failed again and again with his Wunderhorn lieder in his symphonies, that is, for me, meaningless music in the best sense, IMHO, in spite of his popularity nowadays, which, to me is also undue.

  20. Stephen says:

    As soon as I hear a few bars of “Pelléas” I feel a damp, cold, depressing feeling throughout my body – the contrary of what I feel when listening to Wagner. I can’t explain it but I’ve never been able to sit through the whole work. Something similar occurs if I listen to a few of Racine’s alexandrines.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Pelléas is about a mental, emotional and real climate of dreariness, but within this grey misery, things flower unexpectedly in great beauty. The atmospheric and psychological mastery with which such things are expressed, are unique in the opera repertoire, especially where rather negative situations and experiences are rendered with great musical beauty (as in contrast with Wozzeck where such things are presented in frontal bleakness and rawness). Many scenes are not miserable at all, like the scene at the well, or the love scene. This life experience of drifting in a grey world is a very common one, especially in our modern times, but the suggestion in Pelléas that there is quite another level of experience if the mists are dissolved in delicate tenderness and acute awareness, holds a meaningful ‘message’. Alas, the lovers in this opera succumb to the drastic reality that surrounds them. Maeterlinck could have written a different ending, but I don’t know whether the whole work would have the same tragic effect. On the stage, death is mostly preferred to make the strongest impact.

      The strangest and most remarkable quality of this opera is the absence of extravert pathos, where silence is as effective as 4 trombones. (When the lovers admit to their mutual feelings, the orchestra is suddenly silent, which is much more effective and ‘real’ than screaming the high C with a tutti underneath; the sensitive listener knows that such things are whispered in private.) Pathos is understated but not absent in Pelléas, and the few tuttis are very powerful because of being so rare. And so on…. there is much more than a dark, damp wood in the work.

    2. DB says:

      I had the exact same thing for a long time until I actually took the trouble to listen through the whole work. The fourth act is among the most beautiful and emotional music ever written and makes everything that came before it much more understandable. As with any musical work of art, don’t judge it until you have heard it entirely.

  21. Jonathan Dunsby says:

    ==As soon as I hear a few bars of “Pelléas” I feel a damp, cold, depressing feeling throughout my body

    Me too. It’s thin, lifeless stuff.

    1. Clarrieu says:

      So go back to your Elgar oratorios collection. You won’t suffer the same disadvantage.

  22. DUNCAN YOUNGERMAN says:

    Your article is as dogmatic as it is incoherent.
    1) If Debussy sought to abolish “meaning” in music, why did he, more than any other composer, give titles like ‘Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune’, ‘La Mer’, ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’, ‘Masques’ or ‘La Boite à joujoux’? No one I can think of brought music and poetry – ie. meaning – closer together than he did.
    2) When at the end of his life he tells the young Strawinsky he aims towards “pure music”, he was understandingly reacting to the now-tiresome clichéd 19th cent. romantic abuse of dramatic, litterary and philisophical associations with music, including his own. Like the new generation which he was remarkably open to, – Strawinsky, Bartok, Shoenberg and others -, he is rediscovering J.S. Bach and finding inspiration in the bare-bones timeless architectural qualities of his work. (Are you done with Bach as well? The composer of the Art of the Fugue should be your n°1 evildoer.)
    3) Whatever Debussy sought only applied to his own work. As you say, he was not a theoretician. So he is in no way responsable for Boulez or whatever ulterior musical tendency came to pass that you do not like.
    4) The selected aspects of his biography that you wish to bring to our attention are of stricty no relation to the quality of his music or lack thereof.

  23. M2N2K says:

    While we don’t have to have the same favorites, it is truly puzzling to me that an experienced classical music listener can be so unappreciative of Debussy’s greatness. It seems to me that the quality of a musical composition should never be measured by the quantity of easily discernible “meaning” in it (Exhibit A: Bach), but instead should be judged by the quality of the way the piece is expressing musically something that cannot be expressed in words.

  24. Saxon Broken says:

    I am glad Norman tried to explain why he doesn’t much like the music of Debussy (although recognizing he is an important composer). You may not agree with his tastes, or with his reasoning, but I don’t see how anyone can disagree with his claim.

    1. M2N2K says:

      There is a considerable difference between “not liking much” (which means liking moderately) and “disliking more than any other important composer” (which suggests that of those whose music he actively does not like he objects to Debussy’s most strongly). Besides, most commenters here disagreed with NL’s attempt to rationalize his dislike, not with the fact that it exists. For example, as several people showed above, his statement that “pure music begins with Debussy” cannot be supported by any reliable evidence and does not really justify anything.

  25. Barbarona says:

    What a disgusting statement to make. In my youth, Debussy was still little known (in the 1960s) and far from accepted. When the Philadelphia Orchestra with Ormandy released a two-lp set of his orchestral music, that was a huge leap (1975 or so). If we have reached a point of some kind of saturation, that is a great thing. He is one of the greatest of all composers. There has always been some macho prejudice against his sensitivity, and that’s what this smacks of.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.