Review: Debussy 100
The present year, 2018, is being observed as the centenary of Debussy’s death right across the musical world. Why the fuss about Debussy?
Debussy’s music is unlike that of any previous composer. Indeed, the music critic Paul Griffiths has written that ‘if modern music may be said to have had a definite beginning, then it started with the flute melody, the opening of the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy.’ This opening phrase, whilst not atonal, is not in any key; furthermore, the rhythm is not in any obvious metre, and the whole feeling is of improvisation and of freedom from the constraints of key and rhythm.
In the Prélude, Debussy conjures up very effectively not just the sultry afternoon heat in a wood, but also the thoughts of the faun in Mallarmé’s poem on which the music is based. He went further than any composer before him, and probably more successfully than later composers, in revealing in music the workings of the subconscious mind.
In the concert in the Great Hall on 22 March, students from the Royal Northern College of Music celebrated the life of Debussy by performing a varied programme of some of his lesser-known works. The concert opened with Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane, written for harp and strings – which was excellently played, particularly by the solo harp. This was followed by the Rhapsodie for alto saxophone, arranged for saxophone and ensemble.
Between these works, a chamber ensemble performed Erik Satie’s Sports et Divertissements, arranged by the composer Dominic Muldowney. This is a set of pieces written to accompany an album of drawings by the illustrator Charles Martin; each of the pieces has a corresponding short poem. At the side of the stage sat a narrator, a Rees-Mogg lookalike in a Norfolk jacket and cap, smoking a pipe. The whole thing was very droll.
The concert closed with arrangements for orchestra of four of Debussy’s Préludes, originally written for solo piano. Some of this was serious stuff – but some was surprisingly funny.
Reverting to L’après-midi d’un faune: there was something of a scandal in 1914 when Nijinsky danced to this music, because his dancing exposed the erotic undercurrent in the piece. Since then, many dancers, most notably Rudolf Nureyev, have done the same. Both before and since, other composers, notably Richard Wagner in his opera Tristan and Isolde, have attempted to portray in music sexual desire and even orgasm, but none of these attempts reaches into the subconscious as Debussy did. His music is unique. If anyone reading this is around in 2062, perhaps they could promote a celebration of the bicentenary of Debussy’s birth.
Contributed by Martin Widden