“Sesquicentennial” –a word we don’t hear too often –means 150th anniversary.
On August 22nd 1862, Claude-Achille Debussy came into the world. In response I’m going to post a few times over the next week in my own personal sesquicentennial commemoration. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed. Today people are talking about Julia Child and Oscar Peterson, both of whom are exactly 100, and in the days to come there will be others such as Gene Kelly, who’ll have his centennial the day after Debussy turns 150.
There are many things one can say, but I believe I want to save something for the posts that are to come this week. Tonight? Simply a few of his greatest hits in recognition of the possibility that some people don’t know him as well as others.
So I shall offer a countdown of five Debussy tunes.
#5? why not begin with something that came up in a music textbook. Leonard Meyer wants to argue that Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” may be good but isn’t great like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Me? I am not so sure, although I find it irritating that I am asked to pick one, when clearly we have both (or should I say all five? The Beethoven is, after all, four movements).
Here it is in a piano version. Why piano? Debussy played it on the piano for his friends before it was premiered. Do you believe in ghosts? Player pianos perfectly mimic the movements of hands that long ago ceased to be alive. There may seem to be a ghost in the machine.
#4 Let’s listen to something more in keeping with the assumptions people have about Debussy. He’s often spoken of as an impressionist composer: even though it’s a misnomer. While Debussy famously disliked epithets, this one is especially wrong considering what impressionists were really all about. But nevermind. Here’s a piece that people think of as impressionist music, jeu de vagues from his orchestral suite “La Mer” (or The Sea), a colourful display if ever there was one.
#3: This tune always makes me smile, one that’s perhaps not as well-known as it should be. It’s called “En bateau” from his Petite Suite, originally for piano four hands, but just as lovely –and better known—in an orchestrated version. Purist that I am, I want to show it in its four hands version, because two at a piano resemble two people rowing a boat (one at each oar). It’s not killer difficult –and indeed Debussy rarely is—but my it’s an eloquent evocation of the sensations. Note, that’s not the same as impressionism is it..?
#2: This is another composition that I adore, the Prelude from the 1st book called “La Cathedrale Engloutie”. It’s a version unlike any I have ever heard, on a piano roll created by none other than the composer himself, and much subtler than any other interpretation I’ve encountered.
Finally #1? The tune Debussy is best known for is one of his simplest, namely “Clair de lune” from the Suite bergamasque. This simple composition is regularly transcribed to other instruments, ensembles, orchestra or even synthesizer. Here’s a version that is even simpler than the original, for guitar. And by the way, “simpler” doesn’t mean “easier”.
As you can probably tell, I like Debussy.