The Joy of Romantic Music IV: Claude Debussy

The big news this week is that Milo Yiannopoulos is now “Ex-Gay,” which I intended to write about today.  However, that topic is so huge—much like the personality of the formerly loafer-whitened gadfly—that it deserves a more thorough treatment than I’m capable of producing at present.  Suffice it to say that, based on reading hundreds of his Telegram posts and listening to Milo’s commentary and analysis for years, I think he’s sincerely turning his life over to God completely, and through Christ is cleansing himself of his homosexual proclivities.  It’s a bit of celebratory news akin to Roosh V’s dramatic conversion to Christianity two years ago.

So instead of covering a flamboyant man’s dedication to Christ and consecration to St. Joseph, I’m dedicating today’s post to the flamboyant music of a Frenchman:  Claude Debussy.

Actually, Debussy’s music isn’t terribly flamboyant, at least what I have heard.  If anything, it’s beautifully and tastefully understated.  Debussy was an Impressionist composer; that is, he wrote music that sounds the way an Impressionist painting looks:  dabs, blotches, and short strokes of color coming together to create a beautiful scene, but lacking sharp, defined lines, giving the impression of the moment.

I’m a sucker for nineteenth-century French composers.  Camille Saint-Saëns has long been one of my favorite composers, with his playful tone poems and programmatic pieces.  I was briefly obsessed with the music (and the life!) of Hector Berlioz, who boldly experimented with unusual timbral combinations rarely explored in the orchestra of the first half of the nineteenth century.

I can now add Debussy to that list.  Sure, I’d heard Debussy pieces before, but teaching this Pre-AP Music Appreciation course has truly opened my eyes to his work.  Debussy bridges the gap between the Romantic period, which stretched the limits of classical forms, and twentieth-century classical music, which lurched towards atonality and, at times, frank ugliness.

There is nothing ugly in Debussy (at least, not musically; personally, he was a wreck, constantly in debt and engaging in multiple and reckless affairs—much like Milo!).  Like the French Impressionists that inspired him, his music is beautiful, but freed from the rigidity of Germanic harmonic theory (theory that, nevertheless, I love dearly, as is evidenced in close harmonic analysis of some of my works).  Debussy and other French Impressionist composers took chords considered to be unstable—chords with seventh and ninth extensions, for example—and made them stable.

We’re all used to hearing seventh chords now, especially from jazz—they’re also frequently used at the end of pieces to give a certain jazzy flair—but to late nineteenth-century ears, they were less consonant than we consider them today.  Those extensions were supposed to go somewhere, not just sit still!  But Debussy managed to take those dissonances and morph them into beautiful tone colors.

The best and most famous example is, perhaps, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

The piece opens with a flute solo so soft (at least in this recording) that one can barely hear it.  It starts on C#, which is apparently a notoriously hollow note on the flute.  That gives the opening theme something of a haunting, magical, isolated feeling.  Debussy maintains that theme while shifting the key around it in intriguing ways, so that the C# sometimes functions as an extension—a seventh, a ninth, I think even an eleventh at one point.

Music theory aside, it’s just beautiful to hear.  Listeners might also enjoy the subtler, more minimalist compositions of Erik Satie; I particularly enjoy Gymnopedie No. 1, which sounds like it could be in Minecraft:

Again, these works are not harmonically remarkable to our ears today, but they were groundbreaking 120 years ago.  Of course, it’s a testament to their beauty and sweetness that they still sound so fresh and engaging to this day.

Happy Listening!

—TPP

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