A hundred years after his death, Debussy’s place in the pantheon of great composers is unassailable.
Just as Impressionist painting changed visual art, and the way we see, so Debussy created a revolution in music and the way we listen. While remaining within the bounds of tonality his music broke away from traditions of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic structures that had reigned for centuries. In this he was as radical as the atonal composers who were his contemporaries: his music today still sounds strikingly modernist, although it is as approachable and gratifying as the equally celebrated work of the Impressionist painters. The concept of images – ‘pictures’ – is fundamental to our understanding of Debussy’s art. By employing the word as a generic term for a wide variety of compositions with highly evocative descriptive titles, he was exploring the nature of music as an art of suggestion, in keeping with the ethos of his Symbolist generation.
I’m examining the intentions of Debussy’s titles, his ‘pictures in music’, to show how, in piano music above all, sight and sound might be fused into a kind of magical realism. The individual tones of the piano are neutral, but ten fingers and a sustaining pedal can create a blending of harmonies and colour resonances that make us believe we are not listening to a piano.
‘In Debussy’s piano music, sight and sound are fused into a kind of magical realism’
And as in all the greatest art there can be a wide range of interpretations – ten different pianists can give ten wonderful performances, all of which are completely different, but still honour the intentions of the music.