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Debussy’s Radical Search for Simplicity (theatlantic.com)
100 points by overwhelm 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments

I love the mixture of pentatonic, modal, tonal, and atonal in the works of Debussy. He toes the line of modernity with wit, charm, and absolute beauty. For wit, check out Gradus ad Parnassum, a super bouncy piece in a beginner-friendly key. For charm, go with Arabesque No 1. Absolute beauty lies in store in Claire de Lune, yes, but also in The Sunken Cathedral, in the string quartet, and in the vocal music. He has astonishing creativity, look at his Preludes, his opera, or his Afternoon of a Faun for that, wow, sheer creativity.

Debussy (or perhaps Ravel) may be the one composer who most successfully commanded the widest range of tonal devices, before the modernists like Stravinsky and Schoenberg pushed tonality to its breaking point/broke it. Debussy was not the only innovator, as we saw innovation and creativity from Bach to Mozart, Debussy to Chopin, however I'd argue Debussy was the true bridge into modernity.

Debussy harmonic analysis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbjWgfNoO2U

To my not-very-well-trained ear, almost all composers before Debussy sound a little dated, corny, and constrained, and most composers after him - Bartok and Messiaen being important exceptions! - sound abstract and unmusical.

Debussy's music is at this equilibrium point where the harmonic language is complex and atonal enough to evoke a spectrum of iridescent colours and haunting, ambiguous moods inaccessible to traditional common-practice harmony, but just constrained enough to avoid the descent into hostility and noise.

As someone who also enjoys music in this vein, I'd recommend trying Ravel, Mompou, Janáček, Satie, Delius, Busoni, Milhaud, Fauré, Schubert, Liszt, Domeniconi, Sibelius, Ligeti, Messiaen, Xenakis, Martinů, and Scriabin among others I'm forgetting (in roughly decreasing order of likeness). Like you I don't get much out of most earlier classical music, with the major exception of Bach, or out of totally atonal stuff either.

20th century church music is worth exploring, too, whatever your faith or none. If you enjoy Fauré you should try Duruflé, and from there perhaps Howells.

The one I feel like I'm missing the most from is Mozart. To me Mozart sounds so trite, mannered, frilly, wimpy and boring. "Deeeeeee deedlee dee dee dee dee deeeee dee..."

FWIW, my favorite Beethoven pieces are the ones that sound the least classical in harmonic language -- especially the Waldstein Sonata and Sonatas 30-32.

Mozart can be hard to get. It's been said he was primarily a composer for voice no matter the instrument he composed for. His slow pieces are the most otherwordly.

I don't know. As a hobby composer this sounds so wrong. All compositions are restricted more or less. What's missing from Beethoven's 5th? Corny? outdated? What's missing from Vivaldi's pure childlike harmony? Chopin's nocturnes? Bach's complex counterpoint in the Art of Fugue?! Different eras are just... different, but like different flowers, or a glass of water to beer, not one above all else. This might sound corny.

They say Schoenberg pushed tonality to its limits, but to me there's so much ground to be explored harmonically and rhythmically way past Debussy and others, and way past tonality in general. How's abstract not musical? Think of extending Bach's complex counterpoint with AI; think of moving away from discreteness; think of adding technical extensions to every instrument of the orchestra in order to create new possibilities of sound; think of going past the 12 notes. Looking at it this way, Debussy is also very restricted in terms of depth and in terms of notes on and between the lines.

Someone modestly shares with you their musical tastes - To my not-very-well-trained ear - and you tell them what they say 'sounds so wrong'?! I don't think tastes can be 'wrong'. You sound like you think your tastes are reasonable and no-one else's are.

Hmm, it did occur to me that that phrasing could sound harsh to someone, but I didn't mean to belittle his/her opinion. Sorry about that. I tend to talk quite bluntly (as a Finn).

Ok thanks, Hi from Australia. Then you didn't mind my bluntness. :-) So.. Do you have a favourite piece, or.. top 3? top 5?

Hello. That's an impossible task for me, so I've given up on trying to do that. I can however give you 3 of my latest favorites:

1) Bach - Passacaglia & Fugue In C Minor - BWV 582 by Karl Richter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W4PJUOeVYw

2) Vivaldi - Stabat Mater https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGwvKU4_vaw

3) Bach - Piano Concerto in D Min. BWV 1052 by Polina Osetinskaya https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osg_WmeLxQk

I find Osetinskaya plays so fast that it's difficult to make out the counterpoint. Have a look/listen at Glenn Gould's version, which makes the counterpoint really clear [1]. As you might know, this interpretation was controversial at the time.

[1] https://youtu.be/9ZX_XCYokQo?t=307

I know Gould (of course) and the piece, he's awesome. Still, I found Osetinskaya's play very precise, delightful, and full of emotion. I did not have any trouble with the speed. One day I prefer Gould, the other this one. It's just like that.

Funny side note: Do you know Gould's So You Want to Write a Fugue? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHW1I8T0caI

> One day I prefer Gould, the other this one. It's just like that.

Amen to that! I frequently rediscover interpretations upon hearing them anew, which makes me go back and listen to other versions of the same piece again. It's what I love about classical music.

I do indeed known Gould's very clever fugue.


Don't be snarky.

It seems you assumed I'm the person he was replying to - I said nothing close to or even in the ballpark of 'eras are better than one another'. Every sentence of your comment was unacceptably condescending. Don't tell people on here to "relax". Or that their comments aren't interesting - just don't reply if that's the case. Thanks.

Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith.

> It seems you assumed I'm the person he was replying to

What are you talking about? He couldn't have been replying to you, because your comments were not in the ancestry of his.

> I said nothing close to or even in the ballpark of 'eras are better than one another'

You derived from my comment meaning opposite from what was plainly written?! Read more carefully.

> Every sentence of your comment was unacceptably condescending

Every sentence of yours to him was unacceptably rude.

> Don't tell people on here to "relax". Or that their comments aren't interesting - just don't reply if that's the case. Thanks.

Don't tell people on here that they sound like they think they're the only reasonable one. Just don't reply if that's the case. Thanks.

Don't be a fucking coward, downvoting and flagging when you're called out on your bullshit and can't answer for it. Shameful.

This is roughly how I feel as well. I'd identify it as a period, though, around 1900. Throw in Ravel and Mussorgsky, Copeland and early Stravinsky.

I also feel like there's a similar sweet spot for Jazz in the early 1960s.

However, I suspect this conviction has more to do with personal taste than with absolute realities.

>most composers after him - Bartok and Messiaen being important exceptions! - sound abstract and unmusical.

I don't find Shostakovich abstract or unmusical. Possibly an additional exception?

Its interesting to see the influence of Debussy through time. For example the wonderful work of Bill Evans.

The opening chords of So What capture this feeling perfectly.

Apparently those (jazz) guys called the 4ths voicings like in So What 'Ravel chords'. And the (Peace Piece-derived) Flamenco Sketches I can't help but think owes something to the first movement of Mahler's 9th, which even has the 'down a major 3rd' progression. (C -> Ab in F.S., D -> Bb in the Mahler)

..Speaking of which, I didn't learn until recently that James Brown stole the 'booo-dap' riff from So What for (maybe his greatest song), Cold Sweat. Apparently he wanted a song with horns going 'booo-dap' just like So What..it's even in the same key, almost the same voicing.

Pour le piano is to me one of the greatest piano works.

One interesting branch of Debussy's legacy is _spectral music_, e.g.:


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