Thursday, December 05, 2002

It's always interesting when I find my tastes changing, such that something that I have heretofore disliked intensely becomes an object of increasing affection. This has been happening lately in my musical life, as I've been listening to a bit of French music from the Impressionist era -- composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

I've always had a difficult time relating to this area of music, because I think the music has more to do with color and evocation of mood than with more purely "musical" goals, such as the development of melodies in accord with the requirement of certain established forms. You won't find Debussy composing a classical rondo, and you'll be hard pressed to locate a passacaglia by Ravel. And sonata-allegro form? Forget it.

You don't even find melody, at least in the sense of a definite theme that can be hummed to oneself after listening to a work. There is melody in the Impressionist music, but it's a slippery thing -- it rises from the depths and sinks again into the musical texture, making it occasionally difficult to ascertain if one is listening to a melody at all, or if it is all part of a larger tonal painting. I find that in listening to Impressionistic music, I must resort to non-musical metaphors to describe it -- visual metaphors such as color, physical and emotional metaphors to describe mood. In fact, mood in itself seems to be of prime concern to the Impressionist composer; even though melody and development do exist, they are subservient to mood. The musical architecture, then, seems to me to be more emotional and less formal in nature. For a person like me, whose musical experience is so grounded in the classical tradition, relating to Impressionistic music has been difficult for a very, very long time -- so much so that I have always viewed the Impressionists with suspicion; I've found Ravel to be a master of orchestration but a composer of cold, lifeless music, while judging Debussy to be a poseur of the highest order, a composer of works that are sometimes enjoyable but at the same time are light and inconsequential. I've come lately to revise my views of both composers.

My reexamination of Ravel comes courtesy of his amazing ballet Daphnis et Chloe, which is more familiar to listeners via the Suite #2 which Ravel culled from the complete score of the ballet. I can't speak to this ballet's narrative elements, because I am unfamiliar with its story, but I can note that there are moments of supreme transcendence within it, including one breathtaking sequence with a "falling" motif is repeated and developed throughout the orchestra and chorus until reaching an apotheosis of majesty and elemental mystery. This is amazing, wondrous music, and it reveals to me new possibilities for music beyond classical forms -- especially in Ravel's orchestration, which is some of the finest orchestration I have ever heard. (Some of his orchestration anticipates the sound that some film composers, such as Jerry Goldsmith, would employ almost a hundred years later in their film scores.)

As for Debussy, I have been listening both to some of his orchestral works and to his piano Preludes. His musical landscape is less universal than Ravel's, more suggestive of ethnic color (particularly in a work like Iberia) and more intimate (as in his Preludes for piano). I had always dismissed Debussy as a lightweight, a wine-and-cheese Frenchman whose dull work has eclipsed my own supreme being amongst French composers, Hector Berlioz. That judgement was in error (although I doubt very much that Debussy will ever fire my soul the way Berlioz has for years). Debussy's music is even more illustrative than Ravel's, with his use of smaller orchestral ensembles and a "blocking" effect in his sound that yields orchestral sonorities that are much more complex than I have ever given him credit for.

I think sometimes that in this culture of ours, obsessed as it is with speed and with advancement, we sometimes forget all of the wonderful things we have either discounted or missed entirely along the way.

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