Remembering Debussy (1862 – 1918): The Imaginary Getaway

What would music sound like today, if there was never a Clause Debussy – the first modernist composer that inspired Ravel, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Bartok, Glass and many other artists that marked the music of the 20th Century? They aren’t the only ones – if you are a jazz fan, you’ve probably stumbled across the name of this French bohemian somewhere while reading about Gershwin, Ellington, Mingus, Monk, Hancock or Evans. What exactly did Debussy do at the doorstep of the 20th Century that is significant for all of us? In a nutshell, he ended the relationship with the old romantic period when he was 32 and decisively walked towards the new century carrying with him the harmonies of the future era. Harmonies that would not be satisfying for the conservative taste.

Today, when music rarely shocks us and at best surprises us, it is hard to imagine the astonishment and disapproval of the audience of the late 19th Century when, like a sound from another world, the mysterious flute was heard for the first time. It was Prelude for the afternoon of a faun. Debussy had brought the mythical creature from Mallarme’s poem to life, not giving him an exactly defined shape, but making him very suggestive. The dreamy melodies started spilling under the sun rays of the harp, broken into the thick trees of the deepest parts of the forest where faun, fascinated with nymphs, wasted his time… An enchanting sight, but not on the 22nd of December in 1894 when Debussy’s music was criticized as too complicated to listen. Years later it would be pronounced as ‘’10 minutes of music that changed the history of music’’.

Debussy didn’t like the fact he was associated to the impressionists as the ideas of the symbolists were closer to him. He explained how the first ones were inspired by the light, while he was in search of shadows –  ‘’prince of the darkness’’ was his nickname while he stayed Rome. Comparisons with impressionists weren’t lacking, his compositions were described in exactly that way – formless and thus without future. However, the future is never under question for the ones ahead of their time, it smiles while reaching for them from the distance. What is uncertain is the present, as Debussy’s was to a large degree –  mostly without money, enriched by love affairs the entire Paris was talking about, but always unquestionable when it comes to high standards of the music he wants to create. Exactly how we imagine a life of an artist.

While impressionist painters tried to catch the moment and to transfer it to the canvas, Debussy painted the continuance of the natural phenomenon with his overflowing tonal colors. Using harmonies as metaphors he had created an ambient while placing the listeners in the most various landscape scenes – swinging in the boat, watching the sea, the clouds, the moonlight, the rain shower in the garden, sunk cathedral… He was inspired by the paintings of Whistler and Turner, but not only by high art – thanks to his vivid imagination the lavish Iberia was created just by watching a simple postcard from Spain. Distant music worlds also attracted him – he was the first composer of the Western music that, impressed by the sound of the gamelan orchestra from Java, composed an extraordinary piano piece (Pagodes) with the ringing echo of the gongs, bells and cymbals. The true modernist world music from the beginning of the 20th Century!

And what about jazz? Except for the famous Golliwog Cakewalk (the piece that probably went through the fingers of every jazz musician in the world) that he was inspired to write for his daughter Chouchou by rag, how can we recognize Debussy’s influence on jazz?

The definitive answer would be – in new rules of the game he set. Pentatonic, whole note scales, the devil’s interval (the notorious tritone) – everything that was forbidden in the music world until Debussy cut loose creating the flood of emotions which became unstoppable. This free musical language, spoken through Faun long time ago, continued to exist in the improvisations of jazz musicians as well, expanding its vocabulary day by day.

Debussy longed for his music to create dreams of an imaginary land, but he probably didn’t have the slightest idea that one day it will create a whole universe. We are lucky to have it and for being able to escape into it whenever we want.

Ivana Ljubinković

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