The Romantic Era in France, part 2

Continuing on our journey from last week, we’ll spend our entry discussing two of France’s most significant contributors to music: Debussy and Ravel. They tend to be lumped together, as I mentioned last week, as “Impressionist” composers despite both of them rejecting the label. They are often mentioned in the same sentence, but they have very different sounds. I hope today’s entry encourages you to see these two great composers in very different light than one another, and as more than just the musical equivalent of the impressionist painters. In their own ways, both Debussy and Ravel were true innovators and much more than a continuation of the French musical style. Borrowing from nonwestern music and jazz, featuring the colors of overlooked instruments, let’s see how each of these unique composers built an evocative artistic language of their own.

Claude Debussy

A musical maverick, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of those personalities that forged a new and different path with courage and an unstoppable confidence. Despite his modest upbringing by a non-musical family, Debussy showed enough musical talent to be accepted to Paris Conservatoire as a pianist. He then changed his principal area of study to composition, much to the chagrin of the composition professors at the Conservatoire. The famous German composers of the day, especially Wagner, were influencing all of Europe with densely textured, serious, epic-scale and multi-medium compositions. Debussy considered this grandeur overblown. He didn’t think much better about the more absolute German music, such as Brahms’ and Schumanns’ symphonies, calling them archaic and irrelevant.

So, Debussy created his own sound, from the foundational harmonic structure upward. His composition teachers critiqued it harshly. Even fellow French composers called it scandalous, loose and intensely frivolous, without any base in harmony that they understood. Debussy fostered this style for years before it gained him fame; he was 40 before any of his work was premiered on a paying stage.

This sound was based on early influence of nonwestern music, Russian folk music, pentatonic scales, imitating natural phenomena, and rejecting conventional formatting traditions. And despite the opposition from nearly everyone around him, Debussy was confident that he had it right. Incredibly, the tides turned to him and he almost singlehandedly turned the French musical aesthetic away from the influence of Wagner and on its own path for the future. Debussy would be the chief influence for many equally great composers to come after him all over the world, such as Bartok, Stravinsky and Copland.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (L.86)

This early work is from Debussy’s most youthfully defiant days, when he was most convinced to go against the melodrama of Wagner and the musical archaic-ness of the symphony. This short, 10-minute prelude takes an “epic” scene, a greek mythological character that a Wagnarian opera might have been written about, and turns the story on its head. Instead of the faun being involved in an epic, heart-wrenching and 3-hour-long adventure, he simply enjoys a lazy afternoon with his faun friends. That’s it. They relax, enjoy the euphoria of having nothing to do on a beautiful day in their mythical faun forest, and perhaps have a romantic encounter just because they can.

The prelude begins with a flute solo that that isn’t in any particular key. This was wildly scandalous in the late 19th century, when harmony had rules and ways listeners expected melodies to behave. Great composers might have played with expectations with harmonies resolving elsewhere, but few composers had experimented with harmonies that had no resolution at all. That is in character with the lazy lounging that this little piece depicts; the protagonist has nowhere to be and appreciates it.

The harmonies after this opening continue to reflect this lack of resolution. The listener has a sense of a question mark, rather than any full stop or punctuation, after nearly every phrase in this prelude. The height of the prelude is only recognizable as the high point die to the texture of the orchestra, more in unison than before, the louder dynamics and the number of instruments playing in unison. Still, it doesn’t lend itself to any particular key, and it’s incredibly impressive that Debussy manages to make this sound as emotionally powerful as it does without the harmony ever actually resolving.

Estampes (L.100)

These three movements for solo piano highlight not only Debussy’s personal harmonic language and sense of color, but they also explore nonwestern sound. As we mentioned last week, there was a great interest in nonwestern culture, art and music in late 19th-century France. Paris was the host to an annual convention to which art pieces, cultural artifacts and other items from cultures around the world would be displayed. Debussy attended these conventions and was undoubtedly inspired by what he saw.

The first movement, Pagodes, is meant to depict a Japanese garden. Debussy makes liberal use of the pentatonic scale, long-associated with East Asian music, as well as repeated cycles of arpeggiated pitches to lend color instead of melodic or harmonic value. There is barely a melody independent of the pentatonic scale itself, but this adds to the atmospheric beauty of this movement.

The second movement, Soirée dans Grenade, depicts an small evening gathering in Grenada, an ancient city in Spain. It is overall a calm, stately movement, with short episodes of activity that might depict a character attending the party, a drink spilling, a quick gesture, or otherwise.

Grenada is also associated with the North African (called Moorish) settlers that lived there for many generations and had a string influence on architecture, art and culture there. Alhambra Palace, a Unesco world heritage site built by Moorish settlers, is located there. Although the Spanish element to this movement is blatant and multi-faceted (the repeated rhythmic figure is just one example!), I feel that I can also hear this deliberate choice of Debussy’s to set his “soiree” in a Moorish city. Here’s one example. The melody presented at the beginning of the movement has little harmonic accompaniment. When it’s repeated at the end, it appears changed, with deeply rich harmonies underneath. These harmonies exemplify the harmonic minor scale, associated strongly with music of North Africa and the Middle East. There are many other examples, all very subtle. Can you hear any other colors in this movement that evoke more than just Spain?

The finale is called Jardins Sous la Pluie, or “gardens in the rain.” It is a molto perpetuo format, meaning the notes never stop, not even once, from beginning to end. Despite the constant notes, Debussy manages to get two distinct characters: first is the rain storm on the flowers, buffeting them chaotically around. Second is the calm between the rain and the sun coming out again, when the flowers look particularly beautiful with water on their leaves. First we hear the rain, which builds up and up into quite a serious storm. Then, the sun seems to come out and things calm down. There is a surprise return of the rain (as is usual) in the middle of this, and finally the sun comes out in earnest for a glorious finale.

More Debussy

Debussy rejected the idea of the Symphony as archaic, so he composed his symphonic works withe a more programmatic sense. La Mer is a great example of this; it is a multi-movement work for symphony orchestra but isn’t a “symphony” par say. These three movements depict the ocean in different senses. The first is a panoramic view of the ocean before dawn, with a beautiful sunrise at the end. The second movement is almost a scherzo, called “play of the waves,” and the third movement is called “dialogue of the wind and the sea.”

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a younger contemporary of Debussy, and his unique mind also came under much the same scrutiny as Debussy’s. Ravel attended the Paris Conservatory, just like Debussy did some years before, and entered the composition competition several times, losing every single time to lesser composers. Here is the work Ravel entered into the competition for the final year of his studies:

His String Quartet in F Major would become one of the absolute staples of the string quartet repertoire and an undisputed masterpiece. The bias of the professors judging, and probably the intimidation of such a gifted pupil out-composing them, caused Ravel’s composition to once again lose the competition, but enough third parties within the university recognized what was afoot and an enormous scandal ensued. After hearing rejection from his professors, Ravel showed the quartet to his mentor, Debussy. Debussy is said to have told Ravel, “do not change a single note of this quartet,” and believed in his talent.

Ravel was unique even from Debussy, taking idiosyncratic harmony a step further by introducing jazz into his collection of harmonies. You’ll hear jazz harmonies in the string quartet, and you will also have heard them in Ravel’s famous orchestration exercise, Bolero. Ravel never intended for Bolero to be published or even performed; he wrote it as a joke, testing how orchestral instruments sounded in various combinations.

Le Tombeau de Couperin

Ravel was indeed a great orchestrator. We’ve already seen his work with Pictures at an Exhibition, creating color with saxophone and other unorthodox choices for bringing each painting to life in orchestral sound. Here is another great example, a work originally for piano but later orchestrated. Le Tombeau de Couperin is inspired by a visit to the grave of the great French Renaissance composer, Couperin. Ravel uses Renaissance-inspired techniques such as old-style ornaments, simple harmonies and dance forms in these short, sparkling vignettes for piano (and later, orchestra). There is a slow minuet and a peasant dance to evoke older times, as well as more modern additions like a prelude, fugue and toccata (molto perpetuo).

The solo piano version. A very thought-provoking picture as well!

Here is the orchestrated version, which only has some of the movements. Ravel did not orchestrate the entire work.

More Ravel

Ravel is one of the few composers whose mastery of craft is equally evident in his entire collection of compositions. There is not a single “bad” piece in Ravel’s output, and I haven’t met a musician who wouldn’t agree with that. Listen to anything with Ravel’s name on it and you will be glad you did.

Ravel wrote an incredible Piano Concerto in G, which is an audience favorite and often performed. You should listen to due to its jazz-inspired harmonies, gorgeous middle movement and youthful energy. However, this Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is less well-known and deserves the same amount of fame. Ravel wrote this piano concerto for the left hand only, so that his friend and fellow pianist, whose right arm was compromised in WWI, could still perform. Ravel makes full use of the low instruments in the orchestra to reflect the lack of high-register piano, showcasing his orchestration talents once again. This is one of my favorite pieces of music, full stop. What Ravel could achieve musically with only half a pianist’s usual resources is better than what anyone else could do with all of them!

From this point forward, I’ll be posting listening club articles once per week instead of twice. Things are picking up again in the music industry and we’re very happy to start recording and playing together with our colleagues again, even in a socially distanced and safety-minded capacity. See you next week!

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