What’s the reality underlying the music?
People write music & perform music, and the notes & phrases are parts of our day, parts of our lives.
Last night I wanted to leave early to go to the opera. It was raining, and I wanted to park underground to avoid getting soaked. So there I was all dressed and ready long in advance, and someone else, aka my wife, was, um, unable to decide what to wear.
So I sat down at the piano.
Now of course, when you’re going through your wardrobe trying to calmly find something fetching, decide what to wear, the last thing you want to hear on the piano is Schreker: one of the scores sitting there waiting to be explored, in the wake of reading Michael Haas’s Forbidden Music. I am chuckling because in a real sense this stuff really is forbidden music around here. NOT because it’s from Jewish composers, but because too much dissonance & passion can upset people at certain times of day.
I have safer scores though. I am wondering suddenly, is that why I chose Debussy as my area of scholarship: because I could safely play his music at home with minimal freakout? Debussy is tranquil & a lover of pleasure & beauty above all, famous for tunes like “clair de lune” or “reverie” or “Prelude á l’apres-midi d’un faune” (and thank goodness for the piano reduction),which are for the most-part quiet meditations.
Books I & II of the Preludes sit by the piano for times like this. I pull out “The girl with the flaxen hair”. Nevermind that Debussy’s women seem to have been dark-haired, at least from the photos. Does the title of the piece suggest a fascination with blondes?
Speaking of women, I couldn’t help noticing something in the music, that I’d never spotted before. As Erika tried –and discarded—one outfit after another at the other end of the house (and I could hear her mutter unhappily about how X or Y worked with a particular set of footwear), I was playing through passages on the piano that turn this way then that, going this way then that way, trying this pathway or that pathway.
Or trying on this dress or that dress?
Has indecision ever been so beautiful?
Listen to the piece.
There are lots of versions online. I chose this one –with Lang Lang—partly because a friend brought up the question of sincerity, one lurking underneath considerations of virtuosity. I was dressed for the opera, but without the shiny outfit, and nowhere near so much product in my hair. But even in this performance –especially this one—you can see how clearly Debussy is assembling something of wonderful simplicity into a rhetorical construct, a series of phrases and moments, that are a meditation for us. There’s lots of wonderful melody, but notice the way the rhetorical construction suggests changes of mind, turning of the head or perhaps changes of direction, as if the piano is painting a picture, telling a story. No I don’t think Debussy was describing his wife getting ready to go to the opera, but I do think he was exploring the eternal feminine, as he saw it. He was an admirer of women.
If we believe what Mary Garden wrote in her memoirs, Debussy was obsessed with her, even if the feelings were not fully requited. If it was a self-serving observation on her part, at the very least we’re treated to a portrait of a man who loved women.
I think the piece is an attempt to create the serenity felt in the presence of genuine beauty, not to be confused with something erotic. And in the end –while we’re on the subject—I think Erika’s final choice was a winner. And we made it to the opera early, avoiding the messy weather outside, that might have mussed everyone’s hair (of whatever colour).