In his interview for the Invisible Jukebox feature in Wire magazine, Steve Reich casually and knowingly dropped the notion that the history of music in the 20th century was an argument between Schoenberg and Debussy, and Debussy won. The results may seem obvious in the growing (and now dominant) prevalence of tonality in new composed music over the last fifty years or so, but the underlying meaning is important. And if the two names strike you as representing opposite ends of an aesthetic continuum, one seeking, like a Republican running for President, to turn back the clock to a reactionary condition veiled in the language of progress, and the other, almost dilettantish, following an intuitive and seemingly sybaritic path, producing truly new concepts that still strike many as as representing a decadent stew of absinthe and syphilis, then you will recognize that victory meant the championing of creative possibilities far more fruitful, and requiring far more discipline and rigor, than the systematization of everything.
Atonal music is like every other endeavor, it can be done well or badly. And, done well, it is as beautiful and expressive as any other. It’s possible to acquire a taste for the style as a whole — a motivated and attentive ear can learn to hear a lot very quickly — but it’s not a compliment to qualify a piece of music or a style by saying that it can be appreciated once one gains a certain amount of knowledge. Great music works on many levels, and the primary one is that it sounds great, it’s immediately and powerfully appealing and attractive, and the underlying intellectual and emotional content keeps you coming back for more. There’s a reason why La Mer is so common on orchestral programs: it sounds brilliant.
It also is brilliant. Beneath the gorgeous sound, the colors, the luscious phrasing, the pictorial and expressive luster, the piece is put together in a manner that is both rigorous — we know this by how gripping it is to hear — and so new that there was no model for it at the time, and scarcely any since. Read this blog, and any other serious and learned writer on music history and composition, and you’ll frequently be reading about architectural ideas, about how composer’s build structures that hold together their sections of ideas, the framework of their harmonies and rhythms, that provide a place in time for melodies and their variations and restatements. Debussy was a master architect, but one working with schema unlike any that had come before. Where Schoenberg devised his twelve-tone system to fight a rearguard action against Modernism and preserve the structural integrity of the ideas of his beloved Brahms, Debussy, as part of a generation that sought to free itself from the influence of German music in general and Wagner in particular, followed what boiled down to writing what he wished, creating and working with his materials in a way that followed the needs of his mind and heart, and applying the craft and hard work to find the form that fit each and every piece. His form followed its function.
A rough but useful way to hear this is to listen to the first movement of something by Haydn (symphony, string quartet, piano sonata). Count the bars, and you’ll hear how the structure fits into a regular pattern, e.g. an eight bar statement, often repeated, then eight bars of a counter phrase in another key, another eight bars of a variation on that counter phrase, then a return to the original statement, again often repeated. From there, Haydn will vary his structure, but it will still be built out of regular units, two-by-fours of musical information out of which he builds larger scale pieces. Fundamentally, what makes him great is how he defined symphonic and string quartet structures for the future (they are still with us) and created a formula while still constantly making it sound new and refreshing. Mozart also builds structures that are easy to hear, as does Beethoven, although his particular genius was to reduce his units down to very small and simple forms and build and even greater and more powerful set of structures from them.
Now listen to Debussy. What do you hear?
There is the pictorial color, of course, for which he’s famous and from which came the label of “Impressionist” for himself and Ravel, though Debussy loathed that term. Aesthetically, this is not out of line with the tone poem tradition of Romantic music which begins with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and extends through Berlioz, Liszt and a great deal of Mahler (Mahler is, literally, more of an Impressionist than Debussy). But in terms of the Haydn what you hear is an indescribable sense of form. The piece has a powerful structure, it’s what keeps it moving forward and, despite the repetitive phrases and colors, makes it fascinating to follow. But that structure cannot be described in terms of bar length and sections of keys, the means by which, looking backwards, it’s been possible to analyze music from the Baroque. With Debussy, musicology had to create a whole new concept of study, the idea of pitch sets. His music is clearly tonal, and it can be described as being organized around groups of related pitches, where a stretch of music will emphasize one set, another stretch will emphasize another. Other than that, the forms are unique to each work, especially the great ballet Jeux which has no form, other than its own, which it seems to make up as it goes along.
And that’s how Debussy won the argument, and what makes him one of most important composers, along with one of the greatest in terms of sheer pleasure, in the Western classical tradition. He won by creating a path for music to both remain tonal and to be fully organized while breaking free of forms and structures that, while always useful, where no longer necessary. Unlike Schoenberg, he made the future possible. He made Steve Reich possible (music organized organically to a point where the composer found an end) and even Boulez who removed himself from his own Schoenberg-ian trap of total organization into a style more tonal, more free and fully organized.
2012 is the sesquicentennial of his birth (the centennial of his death is in 2018) and so what better time for boxed sets? A happy result of his popularity is that there have been many great recordings of his work, and the competition is between collections from Sony and Deutsche Grammophon (the former consolidating the RCA catalogue, the latter those from Decca and Phillips). Both these sets are excellent and mostly comprehensive, yet there are differences. Each has all the orchestral works, the piano music and chamber music, as well as the opera Pelléas et Melisande. Where they differ is in the vocal music and some extras. Sony’s The Claude Debussy Collection includes the early “Premier Trio en sol majeur,” not in DG’s The Debussy Edition, while on DG you get more songs, including Trois poèmes de Stéohane Mallarmé, Trois Mélodies de Verlaine and Prose lyriques. That’s the equivalent of about two CDs, on with Sony that is filled out with a disc of “Encores” and one of music transcribed for the harp. These may seem less than essential, and in fact a lot of this music is the kind of thing you might hear on one of those awful, Top-40 ‘relaxing’ classical radio stations. But these selections are also supremely beautiful, involving rather than soporific, and James Galway’s arrangements of “Clair de lune” and others are skillful and sincere.
Boulez the conductor is one of the Debussy’s premiere interpreters, so you get him on both, his early New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra of Nocturnes, Printemps, Jeux, Images and Deux Danses and Pelléas on Sony, his later recordings of the major orchestral works with Cleveland in the DG box. Sony fills the rest out with Charles Munch’s classic La Mer and Prélude à l’apréd-midi d’un faune (they could have also gone for MTT’s recordings, which are arguably the best), and DG gives you Claudio Abbado’s Pelléas with Maria Ewing, which is an excellent recording. Call it a draw, they say complementary and valuable things about the composer. I personally prefer the piano works on the DG set, which has the all-time all-stars Mitsuko Uchida, Zoltán Kocsis, Krystian Zimmerman and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, but Sony has most of Paul Crossley’s terrific recordings, seasoned with Robert Casadesus and others. In the land of milk and honey, you would buy both of these, but if you would like one great Debussy collection, the choice boils down to how hard-core you feel about him: for simple listening pleasure, it’s Sony, for knowing the man intimately, it’s DG.
It’s a little surprising that there is no competition here from EMI, who also have a great back list of this music. Instead, they are remastering and reissuing famous recordings, including Walter Gieseking’s collection of the piano music, the single best of it’s kind, and three CDs of piano music from the important French pianist Samson Francois. The label also has a valuable box of Debussy and Ravel orchestral music under Simon Rattle, the most important historical recording of Pelléas and the mesmerizing, powerful CD of Debussy and Ravel under Carlo Maria Giulini. Taken all together, this is a wonderful recorded legacy, and any and all of these CDs would give you great joy and satisfaction.