Last year I assembled a “tour” - a playlist and text accompaniment - of my favorite Debussy works. You can find the tour below. If you’re a fan, check it out. If you’re not a fan, you will be.
Debussy - Selected Works
"There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth — an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.” - Claude Debussy
August 22nd, 2012 was Debussy’s 150th birthday. If you’ve been paying attention, you know this is kind of a big deal to me. Yet, in my preoccupation with job interviews, socializing with the hoi oligoi, and general revelry, I did not memorialize the occasion.
Shame shame shame.
As an act of atonement towards my patron saint of music, I’ve decided to assemble a collection of my favorite Debussy compositions and share them with my tiny corner of the internet. In an attempt at restraint, I gave myself a meager allocation: 20 “tracks”. This paltry allocation was built out from a prior mix I had made for my (impossibly lovely) friend Sandra which emphasized slightly lesser known or under-appreciated works. This means that many of Debussy’s “greatest hits” are not listed here. This includes Clair de Lune, the two Arabesques, and the revolutionary Prelude. These are beautiful and immortal pieces but, frankly, I assume anyone’s whose ever watched a sappy romantic comedy is already familiar with them. Of course petty obscurantism was not my intention. Both Réverie and the Girl with Flaxen Hair make an appearance. Simply trying to avoid giving a tour of the obvious.
There’s no strict logic behind the ordering of the tracks but some thematic patterns can be noticed:
We begin, appropriately enough, with two Preludes. Both demonstrate Debussy’s revolutionary vision of harmonic architecture. Debussy’s powerful chord stacking evokes images of majestic Gothic towers and his cascading melodic phrases make for ornate decorations atop every parapet.
Then a bit of footwork. The Danses pair perfectly and the Waltz and Sarabande make fine partners in triple step. Little known fact: you CAN shake it to Debussy. Ah! And what’s a dance without community? Listening to La Plus Que Lente, one cannot help but imagine Debussy and Satie enjoying a drink together at a small cafe in Monmarte. The orchestration of the Sarabande also seems a perfect tribute to the complex, but undeniable, influence Debussy had on the younger Ravel.
Bodies of Water
Next, Debussy’s beloved sea. We go on a tour of all waters: First turbulent and treacherous; later buoyant and jocular. Debussy, I think unique among composers, appreciated the beauty of waves and winds. The flux and flow of water into and upon itself. Movement without destination.
"Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes."
No tour or exploration of Debussy’s genius would be complete with at least a nod towards his exploration of the space between the conscious and subconscious. He was a master of blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality; Debussy’s world seems so often dominated by what is felt rather than what known. Because so much of his music lives at the intersection of sensoral experience and cognition, it’s unsurprising he is often pigeon-holed as an dream-like “Impressionist” composer.
A quick travelogue through Debussy’s flirtacious orientalism follows. What I wouldn’t give to have been with him at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition. To witness a genius mind processing the quixotic quarter-tone of javanese gamelan music for the first time. His was a far sighted cross cultural brilliance. From a letter to a friend:
“Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades … which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts, for use by naughty little children?”
At last, we end with his beginning. To understand Debussy, you must appreciate his natural tendency towards rebellion. Debussy, like Napolean, was historical revolution made manifest in a man. To continue the historical analogies, I imagine Debussy at the Conservatoire de Paris in the same way I picture Luther at Catechism. Beau Soir is one of his first works, written as a young man of twenty or so, and, like the Prelude, is a poetic adaption based on lyrics from Paul Bourget. He has already mastered the language he would come to destroy. Even in this simple parlor song, you can hear the tired boundaries of the Western tradition start to ache and sway. We close with these words:
A plea to relish the charm of life
While there is youth and the evening is fair,
For we pass away, as the wave passes:
The wave to the sea, we to the grave.