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Happy Birthday, Claude

Claude Debussy is, on this his birthday today in 2019, the last essential composer. Different than great (a subjective judgement) or important (which can be quantified to some extent), essential means that music is unimaginable without him—the current state of music and its history over the previous 130 years would not exist.

The clichéd story of modern music has long placed Stravinsky and Schoenberg as opposed pathways; toward tonality or atonality. The historical context is that music in the late 19th century became increasingly unstable, no longer resolving harmonically or formally. Schoenberg’s view of the future was to surrender to the inevitable and haul his beloved Brahms along with him, while Stravinsky refreshed the models of the past with new language, true modernism.

Debussy (born in 1862, twelve years before Schoenberg and twenty before Stravinsky) bypassed this false dichotomy by following his taste and values. Blessed with astonishing talent, he made music modern in an organic, non-theoretical and un-ideological way. His path was influenced by non-Western music, and with that and his ear, he created forms in which the tools of tonality found new purpose and utility.

The result is music that is enduringly popular with the general public because it is so beautiful. The sheer pleasure Debussy produces masks how revolutionary he was—we have been conditioned to expect the avant-garde to be ugly and difficult, forgetting that Kandinsky was avant-garde, as was Rothko. But so much of the piano music, the ballet Jeaux, andPelléas et Mélisande is avant-garde, especially the latter, which is still so revolutionary as an opera that it has yet to be honored with a satisfactory response.

The legacy of tonality in the 20th and 21st centuries is entirely indebted to Debussy. Stravinsky led the way out of the dead end of serial atonality, but he went through the gate Debussy had built.

The catalogue is overflowing with excellent recordings, and 2018, the centennial of his death, brought many worthwhile additions, the best of which are a series of albums put out by Harmonia Mundi and selected piano music played by Stephen Hough.

Debussy was also making music at the dawn of recording technology, and there are wonderful examples of his music played by musicians who were contemporaries and colleagues, including the finest—and most French—recording of Pelléas, fantastic recordings of the orchestral music, and some of his own playing.

Selected recommendations:

For ending, David Cole’s book in the Critical Lives series is the ideal first read, and Stephen Walsh’s recent bio is the best single-volume in-depth take.


Categories: Music


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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