Debussy by Design

Today is Debussy’s 150th birthday, the occasion for a recent series of posts about the seminal composer & writer:

I’m going to talk about another aspect of the composer that fascinates me, one that probably deserves greater attention considering that it’s rarely discussed on-air or in reviews.

Debussy is usually spoken of as an impressionist composer, an epithet that I’d consider mistaken for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, it can’t be used in the same way that it’s used for painters, who were working towards certain objectives.  While the epithet was not originally meant as a compliment — a criticism of paintings whose brush-strokes were visible, and whose vibrant colours and everyday subject-matter might be found jarring when compared to classical painting–one should be wary of using this for composers.  While there are analogous effects in Debussy, the same can be said for some of the compositions of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky or Richard Strauss, just to mention three late romantic composers who exploited vivid orchestral colours.

My main objection is that the visible brush-strokes and the appearance of spontaneity in such paintings is totally unlike what Debussy—one of the most deliberate composers of all—actually sought to create.  There is a certain irony in the use of a painterly epithet for Debussy when his scores are among the most carefully created of all music, so much so that they can be seen for their aesthetic design qualities upon the page: particularly if one accepts the hypothesis in Roy Howat’s Debussy in Proportion.  Howat examines the musical specimens in terms of two numerical concepts associated with formal balance:

  1. symmetry or bisection
  2. the ratio known as Golden Section

Howat explains Golden Section this way (in an explanation at the very beginning of his book):

…Recognized since ancient times as important in architecture, painting and natural organic growth, the Golden Section (Golden Mean, Golden Ratio—henceforth “GS”) is the way of dividing a fixed length in two so that the ratio of the shorter portion to the longer portion equals the ratio of the longer portion to the entire length.  In mathematical terms, b/a = a/ (a+b)

Howat then mercifully gives us a diagram to illustrate, one that I will more or less paraphrase roughly (forgive me that the proportions aren’t properly illustrative of GS: the line is roughly at the division point):

|                     a               |        b           |

There’s another proportion known as the Fibonacci series, where each number in the series is found by adding the two previous numbers.  Here’s an example of numbers in the series (even if it goes on and on from here)
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, and so on to infinity.  Notice that each number is the sum of the two numbers immediately before it in the series.

Golden Section and the numbers of the Fibonacci series can be observed in nature, which is one reason that such proportions are important.

pine cone

An example from nature illustrating the applicability of the Fibonacci series to proportions in nature

There’s no smoking gun for Howat’s hypoethesis, but there is one remarkable letter Debussy wrote to his publisher Jacques Durand that Howat cites.  On that occasion the composer was carefully counting bars and beats.  The letter tells us of a necessary change to give the piece (“Jardins sous la pluie”) le divin nombre.  Was Debussy on this occasion giving us the one and only clue to an otherwise mysterious compositional process?  We don’t know for certain.

Howat gives several examples of compositions that he parses for size, showing how the various sections (delineated by such features as changes in orchestration or tempo) often seem to reflect something like a proportional construction using either Fibonacci numbers or Golden Section.

Remembering that such proportions also have metaphysical associations –for example as noted in the letter where the composer called it “the divine number”—we can see additional indirect support for Debussy’s possible adherence to such an approach in his fascination with the occult.  One could list several pieces of evidence, both among Debussy’s works and in his known friends & associates, that lend support to the idea that Debussy was fascinated with metaphysics and hidden meanings.

Among the compositions parsed by Howat, some of his analyses are virtual tours de forces, exquisite explorations of the ways music can be constructed.  I am persuaded by his prose, for example his reading of L’isle Joyeuse, an illumination that takes the work apart without dissecting it.  I play and hear this piece differently since reading Howat’s study. The additional advantage of this performance by Maurizio Pollini is that you can see the beauty of the design for yourself even if you don’t read music.

Howat ends with the humble assertion that his book should raise more questions than it answers, a thought that works well for me, considering Debussy’s stated objection to formulas.  In the end I was relieved that Debussy couldn’t quite be reduced to a system, although I wasn’t surprised at the evidence that he was much more than an intuitive artist.

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