Rock Around the Croc: Claude Debussy and an Introduction to the Modern Era

Good morning, you gently-swaying daffodils on the breeze of charm and delight, happy Sunday and welcome back to my little music series (hopefully none of you read last week’s installment and decide to just skip the content entirely from now on), and an introduction to the Modern Era.

When speaking of the modern era in concert music, I mean the period from the early nineteen hundreds to basically the present (some say we’re in the post-modern era, but whatevs). In Robert Greenburg’s wonderful series How to Listen to and Appreciate Great Music, his study of this era introduces the composers Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg, and that’s what I’m going to do as well, but this is a rich time period that also includes Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius, Ravel, Bartok, Prokofiev and so many more that we get to explore. Let’s listen to some music now:

Now if you’ve been following along all the while, and if you’re a music history nerd, you might be wondering what I could possibly be thinking, moving on to the Modern Period, when I never finished the Romantic Period. I never discussed or played anything by Richard Wagner, for example, who is reportedly the subject of the third highest number of biographies in history (behind Jesus and Napoleon). No Brahms, no Schumann (either of them).

And that’s true, so let me explain myself a bit. The reality is that I’ll never be “done” with any of these eras. Antonio Vivaldi wrote something in the realm of 700 pieces of music, and I linked one of them. Bach wrote so much music that Douglas Adams joked he must have stolen it from time-traveling aliens (see Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which is a wonderful book). Throughout this series I’ve been leaving enormous gaps behind, and that’s inevitable.

But at the same time, it’s great that I’ll never be done with any of these eras, because there will always be more to explore and discover. I remember when I first started into the Classical Era, Mitch made a comment about “before we leave Bach…” and I responded that we don’t ever have to leave Bach. That’s what’s so cool about an open-ended series like this. I can introduce everyone here to the different eras (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern), explain what the main features are, present some of the most famous composers of the time, discuss how those historical musical ideas have a continuing impact on our time, then move on, all while recognizing that I get to go backwards any time I want to get some more depth on some theme or person. And then you guys can listen – or not – and talk about it as much or as little as you want, and hopefully we’ll all be richer for the experience.

So back to the Modern Era. To a much greater extent than any other time in history, this era is defined by being undefinable. Baroque music is usually described with adjectives like busy, mathematical, precise, and complex, and there’s a very good reason for that even if exceptions can be found. Classical era music fits into the dominant forms of the time (opera, string quartet, symphony, concerto) and had a universalist sound, with an emphasis on lyric melodies and a natural feel. The Romantic era saw the rise of new forms like program music and the concert overture, as well as in use of folk music to create nationalistic sounds. And the Modern era?

It seems to me that the two dominant themes are deconstruction of previously musical notions, and radical individualism. It is to this first idea – deconstruction – that I now turn to discuss Claude Debussy.

Achille Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was born on the outskirts of Paris to a family of limited means and more limited cultural exposure, but he showed enough talent that he was admitted to the prestigious Conservatoire at the age of ten – at first to study piano. He won some early piano competitions, but he had a reputation for skipping classes and flightiness, and his later failures in competitions rendered him ineligible to continue piano classes, and he switched to composition. He thought the old symphonic forms of the Classical era were obsolete (something that his conservative professors held against him. He deliberately rejected what he saw as the chains of the past, and declared “the century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

His first published compositions were written while he worked for a summer as the resident pianist at the Chateau de Chenonceau, where he acquired a taste for luxury that he kept throughout his life. These were settings of two poems by Alfred de Musset, including “Madrid, princesse des espagne”:

He returned to the Conservatoire, worked as the accompanist in a singing class, fell in love with one of the (married) students in the class, had an affair with her, and began composing twenty-seven songs in her honor. Her husband either never found out or, being French, didn’t care, and remained friends with Debussy throughout his life. Now guys, I know sometimes I make stuff up for these biographies, but I did not make that part up.

Debussy’s composition teacher did not much care for the pupil, because he kept ignoring the rules of composition. Even so, young Claude won the school’s most prestigious prize, the Prix de Rome, for a cantata entitled “L’enfant prodigue,” which prize also included a trip to Rome to study at the Medici Palace.

Note: the prelude to that cantata lasts about 2:40, after which the solo soprano enters. You should at least listen to that part, if nothing else. I take that back. You should listen to the whole thing. The piece tells the story of the Prodigal Son, but with the soprano singing the part of the mother, lamenting that her son Azael has run off to seek worldly pleasure. Her husband Simeon is irritated that she thinks of nothing but Azael. When the son at last returned, she is overjoyed, and convinces Simeon to forgive him. All the drama and beautiful singing of opera, but without the four-hour time commitment. Debussy composed several works during his stay in Rome, but the Conservatoire generally rejected them as being bizarre, incomprehensible and unperformable – all due to his rejection of the old forms and rules. He travelled back to Paris at the end of his period of study and took up a bohemian life of poverty and scraping together a bare existence, while also being exposed to new musical influences from Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Javanese gamelan music.

[Don’t ask me to analyze that one, I know nothing of Javanese music. Maybe that’s for a future post after a lot of research.]

He also attended the performance of a play entitled Pelleas et Melisande, and decided he wanted to compose an opera based on it. That turned out to be his only opera, but it was also the piece that made his career and brought him into international fame as a composer. While he was working on that opera, he wrote my personal favorite of his, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

This piece is so incredibly Debussy: it has such an airy feeling to the melody, it feels completely without structure (in fact there is a structure to it, you just have to analyze it very carefully to detect it), and it treats timbre as a motivating theme – something I’ll get back to later.

It was during this period, while trying to get the completed Pelleas staged, that he abandoned his third mistress, took up with that third mistress’ friend Lilly, and convinced Lilly to marry him via the old-fashioned method of threatening suicide if she refused him. That was not the douchiest thing he did.

Starting around 1900, a loose group of musicians began forming around Debussy and calling themselves Les Apaches (roughly “The Hooligans”), because they considered themselves musical outcasts. The group included Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, about which more in future posts. This idea of musical rebellion, which the composers took as a badge of honor, is an incredibly modernistic idea that animated a century or more of music. When Pelleas was eventually staged, it met with mixed reviews, with the Conservatoire even forbidding its students from attending (narrator: “they attended anyway”) but with Les Apaches championing it into national and international success. Here’s the first act, because the whole thing is two and a half hours and I know most of you aren’t opera fans (and I haven’t listened to the whole thing, either):

A year after the opera was premiered, Debussy was involved in another social scandal. One of his students was dumb enough to introduce him to his mother, Emma Bardac, who did not place a super heavy emphasis on marital fidelity. Debussy had that in common with her, so he sent Lilly away and moved in with Bardac for a while, then wrote Lilly a letter saying their marriage was over (but without mentioning that he was now living with another, married, woman). When Lilly found out, she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the chest. Reportedly, Debussy found her body, assumed she was dead, stepped over her to check her clothes for money, found some, took it, then left to go drinking. [This is the douchiest thing that he did.] But Lilly was conscious the whole time, and although she recovered from the injury, she carried a bullet lodged in her spine for the rest of her life. The affair became public, Debussy lost many friends over it, and he and his lover had to flee to England. He ended up marrying Bardac and having a daughter (who was kicked out of her previous family), but, somehow, that marriage didn’t end up happy either.

Mary Garden, the Scottish soprano who debuted the lead role in Pelleas et Melisande, later reported that she did not think Debussy every truly loved anyone except for himself and his music, but she noted that he really was devoted to his daughter.

While in England, Debussy composed his most substantial orchestral work, La mer:

It is because of pieces such as La mer (“The Sea”) and Nuages (“Clouds”) that Debussy came to be known as an impressionist, although he rejected and hated the term. Other composers had pieces with nature-looking titles, such as Beethoven’s “Moonlight,” but the reality is that Beethoven didn’t name it that, and the music itself is not intended as a reference to moonlight. Not so with Debussy’s music, in which he was trying to evoke these natural phenomena. Here’s Nuages:

And now back to something I referenced earlier: timbre, which is defined as “the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch or intensity.” Put another way, it’s why if you play a middle C on a piano or a saxophone, they can both be middle C at the same volume and duration, but each note will still be very different because of its sound or “tone color.” Before Debussy’s time, musical themes could be a musical phrase that gets stated, repeated, then elaborated or changed throughout a piece; or an extra-musical idea as in a concert overture, which tells a story that the music interprets. But Debussy’s idea was to use timbre itself as a theme. As you listen to Nuages, as you think of the clouds that its name references, as you consider how the light plays with the crystals and the wind blows them from one shape into another, think about how the music glides from one instrumental voice to another, and the effect that that gliding has. Notice especially the how the shimmering effect created by the strings in the introduction is so very different from the piercing sound of the English horns that first appear at 0:29 in the linked video. Again at 1:03, we have the introduction of the contrabass, which is a stringed instrument, but because it is plucked here (rather than bowed), and because it is on such a lower register than the other instruments, really jumps out to the ear. I chose the video above because it gives you a visual read on how Debussy jumped from one voice to another to create the whole effect. It’s exactly the kind of thing that the Paris conservatives hated about him, but which so perfectly encapsulates the Modernist drive to ask fundamentally deconstructive questions like “what is a theme, anyway, and how can I think of them in wholly different ways?” We will see much more of this kind of thinking as we continue through the Modern Era.

In 1909, Debussy was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, a disease that would kill him nine years later. He underwent one of the first colostomy procedures in medical history, which brought only temporary relief. He died at his home in 1918, during a German bombardment of Paris that made a public funeral impossible, and he was carried through abandoned streets.

Claude Debussy was, in the words of one commenter, “dickier than a giant bag of dicks” in his personal life, and I agree whole-heartedly. He was also an almost universally-acknowledged musical genius and a rebel whose influence continues to this day.

Wikipedia specifically mentions Bill Evans as among later musicians who were influenced by Debussy, so here’s his Waltz for Debby:

And in a connection that I’m sure Debussy would hate (but I don’t care), here’s The Atari’s doing a cover of Boys of Summer:

I pick that one because punk, like Modern Era concert music, is really a musical movement that grew out of deconstructionist impulses. Groups like the Ramones were trailblazers of simplicity, breaking music down to its most basic possible elements so that they could recontextualize those elements and create something new, something that rejected old dogmas and put something new in their place (in the case of punk, a politically-charged anti-social message that was also profoundly democratic, to the effect of “see? anyone can make music”). And that’s basically true – every kid who grew up jamming out in their friend’s basement or garage and dreamed of being the next musical superstar had the idea of doing a punk cover or two, because punk covers are extremely easy to do. I could have picked any one of a hundred actually recorded covers as stand-ins for the thousands or tens of thousands that were never recorded, and never made it past those teen-aged basement dreams of fame and fortune, but I picked Boys of Summer because the original is so amazing, and the cover is pretty good.

And that’s it, that’s all I got for this week. And although I’ve made some promises about the direction of future posts, I will also take the opportunity to announce that because of a change in my work and home situation, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to keep doing these posts regularly – I’ll have to see. If not, well, it’s been a great ride and I’ve learned a ton, I hope you guys have enjoyed these scribblings, and remember that you are a beautiful person who deserves love. Have an amazing day.



    (Imgur video with sound)

    So thirsty.

  2. I now know more about Debussy than just his name which I had heard more than a few times. He sounds like a guy you wouldn’t want to leave your mom, wife, sister or daughter alone with. So, a lot like Brandon

  3. i love our casual ethnocentric stereotyping. Any Frenchmen in the house? Eh, sluts?

  4. I’ve noticed something in life as well as from Sobek back-story telling, does it seem to you as it does to me that Genius-Level Talent more often than not is also Tortured-Soul Level personal life?

    I don’t know if I am saying this clearly, but mental instability, family tragedy, loose morals, deviancy, arrogance, defiance of authority, disease, addiction all seem to play a part.

  5. For the record I’m not calling myself a genius.

  6. Pupster, yeah, I have absolutely noticed that. When’s the last time you read about some brilliant genius having a happy, fulfilling home life? Never, right? I’m not sure it’s worth it.

  7. Schroedinger (the cat guy) had 9 mistresses that we know of, and got run out of more than one city by a jealous spouse iirc. That’s less common for the math/physics types, though. Mostly they get suicidal depression or go schizo.

  8. Yeah, Paul Gauguin was a real sack o’ crap too iirc. Abandoned his family and went to Tahiti? Something like that.

  9. How many kids does Elon Musk have, all out of wedlock, right? I imagine stable marriage must seem stultifying to such persons.

  10. Is Sean Kemp a genius?

  11. Deadernahammer.

  12. Where is everyone? Warming their Johnsonville brats by the tailgate?

  13. Ben drives DoorDash every now and then almost as a social activity with friends. Last night he made a hundred bucks. I think it’s been a few weeks since he did it last.

  14. He skipped over Wagner? HE SKIPPED OVER WAGNER!!
    Loads squadron of attack helicopters, cues “Ride of the Valkyries”, assaults Sobek’s village

  15. Yeah, it’s kinda like the same willingness to conveniently disregard boundaries can lead to both amazing achievements and really, really shitty personal choices.

  16. There is no limit to the stupidity and introspective lack of the Left.
    Here is the vox ‘splainer that tells you nothing, except as a confirmation of the effect where the more these idiots go Left, the more extreme the Right looks to them.

    I would love to see what this guy’s political positions were 15 years ago, and compare them to the woke tropes he undoubtedly vomits up on command today.

  17. Memory lane…I used to spam the hell out of Sobek’s posts back at IB. Thoooose were the daaaayssss….

  18. I met my neighbor’s puppy this morning. She is one of these. Her name is Rosie and she’s 5 months old.
    Such a beautiful dog that I squeed, then she squeed, and I gave her a few skritchies between her musclely wiggles.

  19. FBI are jackbooted thugs. They should be ashamed but aren’t because I bet the agency is full of David Hogg(whose dad was fbi) type shits.

  20. Known wolves are called that for a reason. The reason? The FBI allows this 💩

  21. Is that some kind of mastiff, beasn? Did she look like she’s gonna be a big dog?

  22. “I used to spam the hell out of Sobek’s posts back at IB.”

    Ah yes, I remember that.

    *eye twitches*

  23. Lumps, that link about the SWAT hit on the pro-life speaker makes me want to vomit.

  24. Dryer Vent = Cleaned
    Futon = Repaired, but 2 trips to Home Depot so no man-credits awarded

    To be fair Sobek looks pretty hot in jackboots and a MAGA hat.

  25. Sobek, dismissed locally. Feds got involved. Quote Breitbart. IYKYK

  26. My Tio was an AUSA. They never prosecuted a single BBA case. EVER. He didn’t even know it was law when I challenged him. Current DOJ has politicized everything. We dodged a bullet with Garland. His Evil abides.

  27. Appliance shopping! Fun. Sort of. We need clothes washer / dryer and refrigerator. The Samsung washer / dryers look nice at Lowe’s. And I’m eyeballing a Whirlpool French door fridge with that extra drawer betwixt the main compartment and the freezer section.

  28. RL friend is all in with Greyhound Rescue. Juarez greyhound races. She trains them to be service dogs.

  29. Santa’s Helper if you need a Simpsons mention

  30. My fridge is like that Mitch. We love it.

  31. How was the wedding?

    How many bears tried to kill you?

  32. Wedding review forthcoming. I’m still on the road . I need my keyboard for this.

  33. Bears took your keyboard.

  34. Mitch, I bought a Samsung washer/dryer set recently. Front loader. Keep the door open on the washer to keep it aired out. I figured out how to turn off the jingle when the appliances are done, it’s waaay too happy chirpy.

  35. If you want the exact model numbers, let me know.

  36. I’m looking at a Whirlpool fridge too, french door also. hadn’t considered the extra drawer, because I have a short wife, which is the reason to get the freezer on bottom anyhow.

  37. love my maytag top loader washer. does great job, 10 year warranty on the important stuff.

  38. my nephew, just graduated from Purdue Ft Wayne with engineering, worked delivering appliances through college. He’s a great source of information, from reliability to top end stuff. He can install almost anything.

  39. We bought new living room furniture on Friday – the old couch finally got to be too uncomfortable for Paul to sit on. He’s never gonna leave the new couch – it has power reclining built in, along with a USB port and a phone charger…

  40. My currently-in-storage recliner is like that. I miss it.

  41. Does anyone watch GB News? My computer updated, and I can’t get it to play any more. I’m missing Mark Steyn and Nigel Farage.

  42. Diego emulated Reggie’s posture.

  43. Won’t play for me either Roamy, even with the Brave browser shields down.

  44. MMM 512

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Comments RSS