This is a paper i've written which examines the symbols of the natural and imaginary manifestations that inhabit the music of Claude Debussy
, with a study into how these are communally linked together. Our discussion is founded upon a notion outlined by the Frenchman on the subject of his aesthetic explorations that interlace a parade of art movements: Impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau in the revolutionary artistic culture of Fin-de-siècle Paris, which all had a profound influence on his life and work. Enjoy...
This subject is central to the music of Claude Debussy and his deeply preoccupied devotion to nature which has had a significant influence on his music and on music worldwide. The phrase that serves as the title of this essay was first penned by the composer accounting on Pelléas et Mélisande
to an interviewer after its premiere of 1902. Implied to deprecate the classical forms that mainly characterized Beethoven, and some areas of Impressionism and Romanticism, it was applied to the composer’s aesthetic philosophy in music, describing how his freedom in art is represented by capturing nature in an illusive and symbolist perspective:
Earlier experiments in the realm of pure music led me to detest classical development, whose beauty resides solely in technique, which can only interest those academics amongst us. I wanted music to have a freedom that she perhaps has more than any other art, as it is not restricted to as more or less exact reproduction of nature, but instead deals with the mysterious correspondences between Nature and the Imagination. (Debussy, CD Booklet to Pelléas et Mélisande, Naïve, p26.)
The essence of this passage is what characterises the music of Debussy; its suggestion of hidden energy, and the power of this suggestion has a mysterious and magical force. His disapproval of conformity pointed towards an idealised ‘free music’ (Potter, 2003, p.137) which drew a “mysterious” parallel with the freedom of nature, based on an imaginative transformation of nature. This transformation is Debussy’s attempt in translating the landscapes, the clouds, the sea and the wind into a musical language, or ‘free music’, using his own imagination. So what is mysterious about these two correspondences? Debussy once said that ‘Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are a part of Infinity. It is allied to the movement of the waters, to the play of curves described by the changing breezes. Nothing is more musical than a sunset! For anyone who can be moved by what they see can learn the greatest lessons in development here. That is to say, they can read them in Nature’s book - a book not well enough known among musicians, who tend to read nothing but their own books about what the Masters have said, respectfully stirring the dust on their works’ (Romesburg, 2002, p.240). Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir
, which has nothing to do with our visual imagination or our olfactory sense, fills us with a profound feeling of oneness with Nature, creating in us a kaleidoscope of images, sensations and qualities. It evokes a dream-like quality, as does Jardins sous la pluie
, through its deep and powerful vibrations of sound. Clearly it was not a question of direct imitation, as conceptualised by the Impressionists, but of a sentimental transformation of what is “invisible” in Nature. Later in this paper, we will show how one experiences the mysterious correspondences between Nature and the Imagination, and how Debussy found a balance between thought and existence, reason and nature.
First we must begin with the study of Achille-Claude’s background. The following constitutes the first link in a chain of events which were to have a profound effect upon the imagination of Claude Debussy, enriching his inner life, influencing his intellectual development and determining his attitude towards the world. Debussy was born near Paris, where his parents kept a china shop. His father also worked in several other jobs, while his mother managed to provide a very happy childhood for her son. Madame Maut de Fleurville was his first piano teacher, who had been a student of Chopin with exceptional tutoring gifts. She was the first to become aware of his remarkable musical talent, and in October 1872, Debussy successfully passed the entrance examination to the Paris Conservatoire, a school obsessed by the spirit of academicism. His piano lessons were given in his apartment where Madame de Fleurville was living with the Verlaines. However, Arthur Rimbaud’s frequent visits from 1872 had led to dramatic scenes which ended in the separation of the ill-assorted couple. Achille-Claude had no doubt often met these scenes of drama with innocence, and he may well have been the unwilling witness of some unpleasant incidents. The fact is that, ever since his childhood, he had confronted the world of experience, and this would not be the last time.
The years following 1880 would see his first signs of a prolific future in composition when he attended the composition class of Ernest Guiraud, whose guidance led Debussy to win the second Prix de Rome in 1883 and the first Prix de Rome the following year with L'enfant prodigue, which preceded his jaunt to Rome for three years. However, according to his friend, Georges Jean-Aubry, it does not seem that Debussy preserved any special recollection for his stay there, in his penchant towards the natural surroundings: ‘His preferences, I believe, were all for a sky less blue, for landscapes suffused with greater atmospheric clarity, and I think France was much in his thoughts while he lived in Rome’ (Jean-Aubry, 1918, p.546). In addition to this, in a letter to Eugene Vasnier, Debussy wrote: ‘You may say I’ve no right to be bored, surrounded as I am by all that’s beautiful and designed to stimulate the imagination… but one can’t change one’s nature’ (Lesure/Nichols, 1987). It is obvious here how the weather would always have an effect on his moods and assessments of situations.
The academics at the Prix de Rome may well have taken pleasure in his compositions and techniques, but Debussy struggled with Conservatoire authority. His desires and aspirations to redefine the nature of French music were held back by the rules of the academy. However, the time would come when he would no longer hide from his companions his spirit of independence and scorn for traditional rules, although he concealed these views from his teachers for fear of losing their support. Debussy furthered his studies in Rome until 1887 but would often feel depressed and unable to compose.
One of the most fundamental correlations to the mysteries and principles of Nature and the Imagination is occupied within Claude Debussy’s intrinsic love of liberty and freedom. It is fascinating that during a tour in Hungary, Debussy was captivated by the musicality of a gypsy musician. He writes passionately of this in a letter: ‘When you listen to Radics you loose awareness of your surroundings…you breathe the forest air and hear the sound of streams; and it’s a melancholy, confidential message from a heart that suffers and laughs almost at the same moment…The gypsies’ freedom, their gifts of evocation, of colour and rhythm’ (Lesure/Nichols, 1987, p.232). This enthusiasm is what Debussy saw in musical sources outside French music. But the description also shows that he was aware of the important role of the musician in performing the music live. The phrase ‘loose awareness of your surroundings’ could imply his ideal of music performance, which he would later dwell on: ‘[Music] is a free art, a spontaneous, open-air art, an art commensurate with the elements – the wind, sky and sea. It is a mistake to turn it into a closed, scholastic art. We make of it a speculative song. I prefer a few notes from an Egyptian shepherd’s pipe; he is part of the landscape and hears the harmonies not mentioned in your treatises’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.96). This idea of imagination as a principle of freedom in music is an indication of his originality and innovation.
Anything that was unconventional, or overthrew established conventions, or anything that appeared as a violation of rules that governed life or the arts, attracted Debussy. Despite this, he never allowed himself to be caught up in or drawn to matters, and remained an outcast to public life, indulging his imagination and allowing these experiences to inspire his musical impetus. Disliking publicity, he preferred a withdrawn manner of life and away from the action, but remained extremely attentive to all that was going on around him. He carefully chose friendships, and sought freedom of expression in his life and his art. ‘We must not listen to the advice of anyone, except of the fleeting wind which tells us the history of the world’ (Cox, 1974, p.5). He wanted to express only what he felt, cultivating the passing moment: music as immediate reality, and not the administrator of systems and rules. Away from the Paris Conservatoire, he no longer felt inclined to please authorities and strove to develop his musical stimulus, regardless of his deficiency in output.
Despite his unhappiness, Debussy’s time in Rome released a new freedom for the Frenchman which came through a world of poetry and visual arts, with which he was intimately associated. This would be an ‘opportunity to reflect on and test his ideas…musical ideas that were to make him distinctive and original’ (Kelly, 2003, p.29). He composed four pieces and sent these to the French Academy, which were criticized as being too experimental in nature. Some of the stylistic features of Debussy's later style emerged for the first time in these pieces. Art in this time was pervaded by the ideas of the Impressionists and the Symbolists, in literature, music, philosophy and painting. Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Degas were the undisputed masters of Impressionism, although it was the mysterious atmospheres of Turner and effects of light of Monet that kindled his interest. Akin to Le vent dans la plaine
, Impressionism is ‘a momentary impression, the reconstitution of a phase in an ever-changing reality’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.5). This comparison with Debussy to Impressionism in painting is straightforward, given that this relationship is prevalently tied in the public mind, but like many of the painters, he disliked the term and would be more accurately described as a Symbolist. Nevertheless, Debussy would always be linked to the Impressionists one way or another; such as with their interests in Japanese paintings.
Both the Impressionists and Symbolists were trying to ‘aim at suggestion rather than description, just as music does’ (Jarocinski, 1976, pp. 66-67). Whereas, with the Impressionist painters’ conception of representing exactly what the eye sees, the principles of the latter, established by Mallarmé in 1886, were hidden in deeper meaning and were among many that chimed in harmoniously with what we know of Debussy’s aesthetics: ‘Things exist, we do not have to create them; we have only to grasp their relationships; and it is the threads of these relationships that make up poems and orchestras…Everything sacred which wishes to remain sacred shrouds itself in mystery’ (Nichols, 1998, pp. 62-63). The Symbolists used symbols and suggestion to represent ideas and emotions. Particular attention was paid to the fin de siècle literary influences – Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Maeterlinck – who played an important part in the youthful Debussy’s cultural circle through to his zenith years. He developed his Symbolist learnings more expressively and successfully in his songs of Baudelaire and Verlaine, and in his set of four Proses Lyriques for which he wrote the poems himself. Although Mallarmé saw poetry as the closest thing to music, Debussy saw still music as the superior form of art (link back to initial quote).
Despite his notions of French musical purity, Debussy set out on gaining knowledge and understanding in foreign musical sources. His early letters reveal that he was involved in ‘redefining the nature of French music’ (Kelly, 2003, p.26), in which Paris was the foundation for his motivation to innovate French music. However, in gaining awareness of exotic cultures such as Spanish music and most importantly Eastern music, Debussy could follow his interests where the affiliations with nature were much more mysterious and deep-rooted beyond his closer habitats. Anything which savoured in exoticism; veiled with mystery and obscurity, or which seemed out of the ordinary, fascinated the Frenchman: people who were outside his own environment, arts which were different from his own, and cultures which were exotic to Western practices. In Paris, The World Exhibition of 1889 served as the impulse for Claude Debussy to develop his own style. In the music of Javanese gamelan which he heard for the first time, Debussy suddenly found academic forms and German linear thinking meaningless to him; there was less interest in conformity, and more concern with freedom and innovation. It is possible that most of the procedures which Debussy employed as his own ‘innovations’ were derived from the exotic sources of Eastern music, which shows how much of an influence it was on him. Caroline Potter views this rejection of Classicism and Romanticism as a ‘rejection of formalism’ (Potter, 2003, p.138), with this rejection representing a much closer affinity to nature. Jann Pasler further highlights that Debussy’s interest in Javanese gamelan lies in ‘its roots to nature and the importance it ascribed to musical line’ (Potter, 2003, p.144). Debussy
also collected Japanese paintings which had a big influence on Impressionist painters, specifically in their flat colour fields and abrupt angles and croppings. The non-compliance to traditional perspective of these paintings may be associated with Debussy’s move towards atonality and his employment of new musical vocabulary including whole tone, modal, and pentatonic scales. Just as painters were seeking to render the phenomenon of the decomposition and fusion of colours that had previously not been mixed on their palettes before, Debussy was experimenting with new harmonies and chord progressions. T. E. Clark comes to the conclusion with this observation: ‘Debussy’s strange harmonies…are the departure of the composer’s intentions; they are the loom upon which the imagination must weave its own fantasies’ (Jarocinski, 1976, pp. 58-59).
SOUNDS OF REVOLUTION
By no means did Debussy conform to the description and transcription of the sounds in Nature, nor to the musical clichés that are immediately understood by the audience, for example, as waves, wind or rain. One of his chief means of exploration to arouse his sensibility and communicate his experience with nature without resorting to clichés was in the use of symbols. Mallarmé’s aesthetic belief in Symbolism sprang from his faith in reason and absolute knowledge, in which he asked himself: ‘How can a poet understand the meaning of the world and penetrate to the heart of phenomena, if the language he employs remains attached to tradition and conventions? If he is unable to create his own language, he must at least rid words of the dust with which they have been smothered, and correct the deformations which language has forced them to undergo’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.32).
Stefan Jarocinski makes it clear that ‘Debussy’s music is marked by a harmonic sensuality, and above all, a craving for new sonorities which make it impossible to attribute to him any kind of inner unhappiness or introvert subjectivity’ (Jarocinski, 1976). Debussy’s sensitivity with regard to musical formulae was logical in that previous composers have tried and tested all the possible results that were necessary to represent nature in music, and thus Debussy found a necessity to communicate the phenomena of Nature in as ambiguous a manner as possible. It all came down to a matter of originality and suggestion on his part. His idea of ‘pure sound’ was that of French music, in respect of Lully, Couperin and Rameau. He had a great influence on French music, just as French music had a great influence on him: ‘French music desires, above all, to give pleasure. Music must humbly seek to give pleasure’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.48). And: ‘We must admit that nothing was more melancholy than that neo-Wagnerian school in which the French genius was swamped by the forgeries of a “Wotan” in jack-boots and a “Tristan” in a velvet jacket’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.100).
On a trip to Bayreuth in 1888, Debussy heard Richard Wagner’s operas for the first time. This was to have a long-lasting impact on his later work. Wagner's influence is evident in the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1889) and most widely claimed in the opera, Pelléas et Melisande. Debussy’s affinity to French music drew a principled rejection of Wagner. He once called him ‘ce vieil empoisonneur’ (‘that old poisoner’). What he particularly disliked about the German composer was the transparency of his symbolism, but as Barbara Kelly establishes, ‘It was a rejection his literary Symbolist friends found hard to understand’ (Kelly, 2003, p.32), given that the musical life of Paris was dominated by the German composer's works and admirers. Nevertheless, when one listens to Debussy’s music, especially in his orchestral pieces, one can hear Wagner’s authoritative voice. The symbolist piece, Pelléas et Mélisande, based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, was Debussy’s first opera, which was to be condemned by critics in its premiere in 1902 for its formlessness and silences. But with silence, it was this device in Pelléas that played a predominant part in the subconsciousness of the characters. Used as an expressive element, Debussy stated it was ‘perhaps the only way in which the emotion of a phrase can be conveyed’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.152).
Silence does not only feature in Pelléas, but also in most other works by the composer. His music seems scarcely audible, and so softly does it fall upon our ears, such as Nuages, which finishes on a barely audible PPPP on the strings, or the soft and bare-textured beginning of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune with the solo flute, which, controversially, also has bar of silence at bar 6. The Egyptian shepherd springs to mind, not only because of the arabesque shape of the line, but because the composer seems to be listening to the mysteries of life, or watching the final disappearance of the sun. Two years after finishing Pelléas, he wrote to Pierre Louÿs: ‘Silence is a fine thing and God knows that the empty bars in Pelléas are evidence of my love for that kind of emotion’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.152).
But it is with symbols that Debussy applies an organic beauty to embody both of the contrasting forces that determine the form of Pelléas et Mélisande: the dreamlike atmosphere in the imaginary kingdom of Allemonde set in the Middle-Ages, and the modernism of musical technique founded on Wagnerian formulae. In relation to the narrative, the beauty of the music is immediate and natural, as Debussy wrote: ‘The drama of Pelléas et Mélisande, which, despite its dreamlike atmosphere, contains much more humanity than so-called “true-life stories”, seemed to suit my purpose admirably. It speaks an evocative language, the sensitivity of which could find its extension in music and in the orchestral décor. I tried also to obey a law of beauty which seemed to be singularly forgotten where dramatic music is concerned; the characters in this opera try to sing like natural persons and not in an arbitrary language based on antiquated traditions’.
In relation to the these ‘antiquated traditions’, Debussy attested to his anti-Wagnerian temperament in Pelléas et Mélisande in which the Wagnerian symbols (Leitmotifs) were for him merely cheap intellectual distractions for a listener easy to please, and Romain Rolland highlights this abstinence of the Leitmotif: ‘In Pelléas et Mélisande one finds no persistent Leitmotif running through the work, or themes which pretend to translate into the music the life of character and types; but, instead, we have phrases that express changed feelings – that changed with the feelings’. Despite Debussy’s obstinate insistence that Pelléas et Mélisande contained no Leitmotif, critics have claimed how dependent Debussy was on Leitmotifs, and how they supply the distortion of his musical texture.
This brings us to a point that Caroline Potter introduces in her article ‘Debussy and nature’ in that Debussy wanted to portray musically a ‘correspondence between Nature and the Imagination rather than use nature as a tool for the expression of human emotion’ (Potter, 2003, p.149). Since the Wagnerian formula of Leitmotif is associated with expressing human emotions, perhaps we might find a link in the music of Debussy that contradicts this statement. Baring in mind the motifs in Pelléas only appear once for each character, one of the variants of Golaud’s motif is the same as that which accompanies the ring that Mélisande lets fall into the water. When the ring falls into the water, with the glissando accompanying its fall, the music also fades away into silence. Through this descent into the water and into an exceptionally thin orchestral texture is Debussy’s musical interpretation of their despair of losing the ring, as she utters to Pelléas: ‘It has dropped in the well!’
Also, Debussy does not rule out illustration. Similar to the musical architecture in Pagodes
and La cathédrale engloutie
, he suggest aspects of nature in the musical notation and timbre where the lower registers of the orchestra conveys the gloomy atmosphere of the castle's vaults. There are several occurrences like these in Pelléas where possible affiliations between the characters and nature are portrayed musically by Debussy. Elsewhere, another example could be in that of Nuages
, from the orchestral Nocturnes, which was dedicated to his wife Rosalie (Lily) Texier, whom he married in 1899 (Kennedy/Bourne, 1996). Here, Debussy may be expressing his love for her through the movement of the clouds. Also, in Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune
, we can also identify suggestions made by the trees in the woods that reflect the faun’s passion for the nymphs. Obvious to note, is that Debussy’s Leitmotifs are much more fragmentary, and mysteriously concealed, while compared to those of Wagner, which appear more dynamic and continuous. As regards to Debussy’s anti-Wagnerian stance, it should not be seen that Pelléas et Mélisande was an answer to Tristan and Isolde, but as a culmination of what Wagner was aiming for.
As to this music which takes us to beyond what exists, I see no reason why we should not compare it in this respect with the Beauty and Utopia of Maurice Ravel
: did not Ravel himself speak of a desire for non-existent things? In the Wagnerian/Academia-consumed life that encircled Parisian arts, it was easy to see where Debussy, Ravel and Fauré discovered their own language. One of Debussy’s pronouncements that can be linked with Ravel’s aesthetic is: ‘Beauty must be experienced directly by the senses so that it can procure for us immediate pleasure, and either impose or insinuate itself in us without our having to make any effort to understand it…Music becomes “difficult” whenever it does not exist – the word difficult being here only a word-screen to conceal its poverty’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.97). Daphnis et Chloe
could be unmistakably associated to Pelléas et Mélisande in that both stories establish imaginary settings. Focusing on Ravel’s expressive intentions, Roland-Manuel identifies in Ravel’s opera ‘a secret power which gives the calculated graces of [Ravel’s] art an angelic charm which is at its freest in the world of the supernatural…and at the very limit of effort and calculation; [Ravel] attains…that pure beauty which is at one with the apparent simplicity of nature’ (Kramer, 1996, p.201). Both Debussy and Ravel have similar aesthetic rationales when it comes to writing music; one is beauty in nature, the other beauty in art, but both are the synthesis of their musical imaginations, in respect to Debussy’s magical fantasy and Ravel’s Arcadian paradise.
With beauty, we can link Debussy’s interest in musical arabesques. His love of ‘the divine arabesque’ would be in its lack of definite symbolic values, in that it suggested a pureness that was free from harmonic rules. Its free interplay of sounds and evolving melodic lines, in which the decorative associations complied perfectly his technique of improvisational melodies and qualities of grace and charm that lie in its natural roots, fascinated Debussy. It also disregarded any notions of Leitmotif, and appears several times in Pelléas et Mélisande. Arabesque lines can be heard all through his music, from works as the Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune with the solo flute, to Syrinx
and the descending motif in The snow is dancing
, which all have affinities with nature. In their simplicity, they can be connected once again with the Egyptian shepherd playing his flute.
BETWIXT AND BETWEEN
The works of Claude Debussy provide imaginary time travel to the worlds of Hokusai paintings in La Mer and to an imaginary ancient Greece in the Chansons de Bilitis
. He explores an immense range of dynamics, textures, moods and geographies. Debussy did not travel a great deal, but it was possible that his raison d'être behind this immobility was to evoke his imagination of these places he dreamt of, as he proclaims under the guise of Monsieur Croche: ‘When one does not have the means to travel, one must make up for it in one's imagination’ (Lesure, 1977). Despite this, there are allusions that his music may lack a certain cultural authenticity, thus producing a formulaic outlook on a world that is unfamiliar to him. I recall a quote by journalist and poet, Heinrich Heine, which can be applied to any location: ‘How will you talk about Spain once you have been there?’ (Watkins, 1994, p.13)
Nevertheless, there isn’t another collection of works that conjures as much imagination and artistic vision as Debussy’s Preludes. The two books, published late in Debussy’s life in 1910 and 1913 respectively, bring together a remarkable array of sources, reflecting the richness of the artistic world surrounding Debussy. Most important to his Preludes are the themes of Nature and the Imagination which emerge most noticeably in the titles. Quite surprisingly, these titles are not placed at the beginning of these little masterpieces, but at the end. They are generally speaking more poetical than picturesque and were perhaps conceived to conceal rather than express the real intentions of the composer. Additionally, what images could suggest music decorated with titles such as: Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq.
; La cathédrale engloutie; Brouillards
; Des Pas Sure La Neige
? These titles indicate the sources of inspiration; a character in literature, an ancient legend, and two distinct representations of Nature. To Debussy, it could be suggested that he didn’t want the titles to mislead the listener; thereby, they would be using their own imagination so that they are free to place their own interpretation on the hidden meanings of the work. Furthermore, perhaps it was implied to show how Nature plays only a secondary role in his music, in that it acts as a pretext, or a canvas on which the artist paints his fantasy.
Debussy’s concern with colour and suggestion has its allusions to the French art movements, where the images and sensory associations allow the listener or performer to discover impressions for his or herself, without being guided by Debussy's own thoughts. The illusion of ‘instantaneousness’ that are representative in the titles are comparable to what Claude Monet sought to achieve. The fundamental difference being that the titles capture the event of the natural phenomena happening at a particular instant, whereas the music captures more. In his intentions for the 1887 piece Printemps, which we can relate to the compositional strategy of his Preludes, Debussy states: ‘I have decided to create a work in a very special colour which will give rise to as many sensations as possible. It is entitled Printemps – not Spring in its descriptive sense, but seen from a human angle. I would like to express the slow and painful genesis of objects and living creatures in nature, followed by an upsurge of expansion and development culminating, as it were, in the overwhelming joy of being born again to a new life. All this, of course, has no “programme”, as I have a profound contempt for music which has to follow some silly little story, a copy of which is handed to you as you enter the concert hall. So you see how powerfully the music will have to evoke what I have in mind – and I don’t know whether I shall be able to carry out my project to perfection’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.12). Where he states that there is no “programme”, this could easily be juxtaposed with the title-less Preludes (although strictly speaking, we eventually discover the names at the end of the pieces).
Subsequently, Debussy’s attitude follows that of an Impressionist, given that the listener is to trust the evidence of his or her senses. Yet, there is no indication by Debussy to describe what he sees in Des pas sur la neige, or, Le vent dans la plaine, but instead, as Stefan Jarocinski observes: ‘he attempts to convey, by purely musical means, the idea of the awakening to life, and the expansion of the somnolent forces of nature and of one of its creations - Man’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.13). Like Brouillards, his ideal is of music that appears from the mists.
Debussy’s predilection for intuition over logic and dreams over reality assumes the ideology of the Symbolists. Ten of the Preludes refer to a work of literature, one in particular, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, based on the poem, Harmonie du soir by Charles Baudelaire, evokes dream-like sensations which Debussy effectively incorporates with a distillation of mood that explores the fusion of the senses into one melodious expression. This alludes to the state of mind known as Synaesthesia. The Prelude’s opening idea, itself seeming to provide an inner rhyme with its rising fourth and sinking fifth, is an intoxicating melody drifting in and out of the senses like the rising and swirling perfumes of Nature. Its presence is subtle and its falling motion seems omnipresent. This is material brought round and round several times through rich and saturated harmonies, as do the following lines from the poem, ‘Each flower fades away like incense’, ‘A melancholy waltz, a soft and giddy mood’, and ‘The sky is sad and beautiful like some great resting-place’, like a plastic bag caught in a cycle of wind. As Jarocinski states, this evokes conditions of ‘immobility and stagnation’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.154), which has often been claimed a trait of the ‘Impressionistic’ Debussy. More important and mysterious than the translation of specific images is the ‘soft and giddy mood’, the music that ‘trembles’ and the elusive presence of the unseen ‘incense’. This is a poem which is deeply ambiguous, blurring descriptions between the senses and the gentle imagery of nature.
Debussy’s further Preludes follow suit with Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest
. The story behind this piece is from The Garden of Paradise, by Hans Christian Anderson; a fairytale of a prince who encounters the four winds of the world. He learns that the West Wind has come from the forest wilderness where humans are superfluous, and eventually is sentenced to be eternally assaulted by the sharp winds of the wilderness. Just as nature can be seen as a wild force of destruction, everything appears to be happening on a cosmic scale. Debussy captures the wild howls of the wind with the surging arpeggios that open the piece. The sinister noises and crashes of the winds in Le vent d'ouest seem to indicate death and destruction; this same impression is conveyed in the third movement of La Mer
. The chords, with their barren major seconds, are often accompanied simply by broken octaves, as if the raucous music had been reduced to its most elemental nature.
For a composer drawn to sounds that mostly tread pianissimo, this piece is a departure into more brutal possibilities of natural phenomenon. Had Debussy chosen to journey with the East rather than the West Wind, we may have seen a contrast of emotions. Is it possible that this conception was a symbol of his feelings towards Western culture; a characterisation of savagery, terror and suffering, and libertarian struggles, compared with Eastern culture; a Garden of Paradise? Many years into his prime, Debussy was to develop these ideas which had haunted his youth: ‘There have been, and they still exist, despite the disorders which civilisation brings in its train, charming little peoples who learned music as simply as one learns to breathe. Their Conservatoire is the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, the thousand little noises which they listen to carefully, without ever consulting arbitrary treatises. Their traditions only exist in very old songs and dances to which each one of them, through the centuries, brought his respectful contribution. Nevertheless, Javanese music is characterized by an art of counterpoint compared to which that of a Palestrina is mere child’s play. And if we listen, forgetting our Europeans prejudices, to the charm of their percussion we are forced to admit that ours sounds like the barbarous noise of a travelling circus. The Annamite theatre is a sort of lyric drama in embryo, showing Chinese influence and based on the tetralogical formula; the only difference is that there are more deities and less scenery…A temptuous little clarinet supplies the emotion; a tam-tam organises terror…and that is all. No special theatre, no hidden orchestra, nothing but an instinctive craving for art and ingenious methods of satisfying it – no traces of bad taste. Could it be that in civilised countries it is the professionals who ruin art?’ (Jarocinski, 1976, p.95)
Despite the variety, Debussy’s common attraction is of Eastern mysticism in these Preludes. Furthermore, this may be associated with his fascination with imaginary creatures and worlds, since these pieces are frequently occupied by fairies, emanating from the impulse to pretend and travel far away. For instance, Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses
is inspired by a caption to an illustration by Arthur Rackham from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The image to this Prelude is that of flight and fairies, two renowned products of the imagination. The music is full of trills and arpeggios, and in the opening passage the pianist’s hands seem to levitate, with the right hand poised over the black keys. The tonality is also strikingly unorthodox, with the piece beginning in D flat major, and the left hand outlining an A minor chord. Debussy conjures a world where his dreams become realities; a never-never land where his music has a ‘freedom’ from conformity and actuality; music which brings himself (and the listener) to that mysterious realm between Nature and the Imagination. Debussy is like Peter Pan in a sense that both possess an enchanting imagination, but were unanimously caught between fantasy and reality – Is it possible that Monsieur Croche is a personal tribute to the fictional character Le Capitaine Crochet (Captain Hook) in the celebrated novel by J. M. Barrie?
In Debussy’s music, his instruments were not just playing the sounds but suggesting them too. Regardless of his musical intentions flourishing to the greatest extent with the orchestra, his piano could evoke a perfume, the white foam on the sea and the wind in the air. Everything became possible, and nothing was stated, but suggested and open to interpretation. Roy Howat describes how Debussy tried to convey the sounds of the gamelan using the techniques of the piano as a ‘carpet of sound’, by ‘forgetting the piano had hammers’ (Howat, 1994, p.57).
Somehow an instrument which is basically percussive can become an expressive and evocative medium. On the piano, every note of a piece of music can be played with a different feeling and a different intensity, with light and shade fully controlled. When there is extreme musical sensitivity and imagination (as with Debussy), there is not one other medium which is the extension of the musical personality that conveys human expression as openly as the piano, and when it comes to improvisation, this indeed, is a complete expression of emotion, and also a pure characterisation of one’s imagination. In La cathédrale engloutie, Debussy summons to the surface a cathedral submerged in the sea. The cathedral of the legendary island of Ys rose every so often, but when the sea would overflow, the island would be engulfed once again. Debussy conveys the drowned cathedral in fourths and fifths which open this Prelude. One hears in the music the cathedral bells swaying and tolling in bar 6, and the cathedral gradually emerging to become completely unearthed from the water at a fortissimo at bar 28, only to slowly decline again from view, disappearing into pianissimo. One can even see the architecture of the cathedral and the motion of its rising and descent in the score.
The title provokes mystery: ‘Nature and the Imagination’ could be written on Debussy’s gravestone; this phrase could sum up his life. His interest in nature lies predominantly with water and the forest. To Georges Hartmann in 1898, he writes: ‘What I need, I think, is lots of sea air and peace and quiet, and a respite from seeing the head of my concierge, that home-grown Medusa’ (Lesure/Nichols, 1987). Rebelling against constraints imposed on him, Debussy would plunge into secrecy and isolation. When describing his own music, Debussy was naturally reserved about mentioning his compositional strategies. More typically, he turned to his own philosophies, declaring, for instance, that ‘you learn more about orchestration by listening to the sound of leaves blown by the wind than you do by pouring over treatise’ (Lesure/Nichols, 1987). Despite efforts to penetrate the secret of Debussy’s approach to music and the sources of his inspiration, he remains a composer whose enormous importance in the evolution of twentieth-century music, of which he is now recognized to be a father-figure, has only recently been appreciated, with despite, from a strictly musical point of view, a lingering unsatisfactory explanation of what it is exactly that makes the Frenchman a great composer. He is essentially secreted within his affinities with nature; Debussy was at one with nature.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 robbed him of all interest in music, despite his struggles to produce works that would represent a ‘beauty which the enemy is attacking with such fury’ (Lesure/Nichols, 1987). So, for the last part of his life, it was a symbol of silence that would take Debussy away from this world, as if to be swept away and immersed in the ambience of nature, whilst his music continues to occupy a never-never land.