Pondering Debussy’s neglect at 150

Posted on: August 21, 2012

“Classical music institutions are usually quick to seize on major anniversaries of a composer’s birth or death as a convenient programming hook,” writes Anthony Tommasini in Sunday’s (8/19) New York Times. “But what happened to Debussy, born 150 years ago on Wednesday in St.-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris? His anniversary has drawn surprisingly little notice…. I think we take Debussy for granted, and this may explain the lack of celebration this year. But by any measure, Debussy was one of the most radical composers in music history…. His radicalism has many aspects, beginning with his pathbreaking harmonic language. Debussy loved chords with unresolved dissonances, which sound jazzy to us today, like those used by Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. But there are also echoes of the Renaissance in Debussy’s harmonic language, as well as the East Asian pentatonic scales that Debussy embraced after his epiphany at an international exposition in Paris in 1889…. The most radical element of Debussy’s artistry involved his approach to time. After hundreds of years of pulsating rhythm, Debussy dared to write whole stretches of almost static music…. Was Debussy an Impressionist? In his authoritative entry on Debussy for the 2001 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the French musicologist François Lesure strongly argues no. He places Debussy in the Symbolist movement in French literature and arts, which thrived for about a dozen years starting in 1885.”

Posted August 21, 2012