- Debussy’s Late Style
Writers on music, and indeed many performers, have commented on the special qualities and originality of Claude Debussy’s last works, with varying degrees of sympathy, understanding, or plain bewilderment, comparing their inner-directed refinement and rarefied atmosphere to the last works of Beethoven. In this short book, Marianne Wheeldon examines Debussy’s late style from several standpoints: the historical and cultural context of Debussy’s late works, his idiosyncratic reinvention of the sonata form as an emblem of French national pride, his preoccupation with specifically pianistic problems, and the effects of failing health and World War I on his state of mind. A final metacritical chapter discusses the impact on the musical world of Debussy’s last compositions themselves, which even today have never achieved the popularity of his earlier works.
The year 1914 was one of darkness for Debussy the composer. His score for the Diaghilev-Nijinsky ballet Jeux, a large-scale effort and one of his finest accomplishments, had been poorly received at its premiere the year before. Already seriously ill with cancer that had appeared five years earlier, Debussy was haunted by awareness of frustrated inspiration and decreased productivity, and had to reach back to unpublished fragments, composed in 1900 to accompany recitations from Pierre Louÿs’s Chansons de Bilitis, expanding them into the six Épigraphes antiques for piano, four hands in July 1914. The outbreak of war a month later depressed him still further, and his only other composition from that year was the Berceuse héroïque for piano (also orchestrated) commissioned for a charity album honoring King Albert and the war dead of the Belgian army.
Nevertheless this otherwise barren year set the stage for Debussy’s final period of evolution as a composer, which included, in 1915, a last brave burst of brilliant creativity—a heartening example to composers everywhere that even in the awareness of world catastrophe and approaching death one could grow and evolve, and to produce works of remarkable richness and originality.
Chapter 2 covers Debussy’s works motivated by the war. Three of these were short piano pieces, of which the Berceuse héroïque is the most substantial. Another short piano piece is examined in detail because it is a recent discovery: “Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon,” which Debussy gave to his coal dealer early in 1917 in lieu of payment for a delivery. (The title is a line from Baudelaire’s “Le balcon,” which Debussy had set in 1888 as no. 1 of his Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire; the piece itself has brief echoes of “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” [Préludes, book 1, no. 4, 1910], whose title in turn is from Baudelaire’s “Harmonies du soir,” no. 2 in Debussy’s cycle.) For another charity [End Page 293] album, Debussy composed a song in December 1915, “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison,” later arranged for children’s chorus and piano; the text is Debussy’s own. But the most poignant of Debussy’s war pieces is no. 2 of En blanc et noir, for two pianos; this is dedicated to the memory of Debussy’s friend Jacques Charlot, killed in battle in March 1915. The distorted chorale “Ein’ feste Burg” as an emblem of the German invasion in this grim piece is obvious to every listener (Debussy had already whimsically combined this melody with Chopin’s Mazurka op. 7, no. 1 in a letter to Louÿs from 1901), but the inclusion of an altered Marseillaise melody is much more subtle; in a letter to his publisher Durand, Debussy referred to it as a “pre-Marseillaise” in the form of a “modest carillon call.” Wheeldon points to the brusque interruption of the octatonic chord in m. 5; this chord is no less than a widely-spaced Petrushka chord of the F major and C major triads superposed.
Urgently in need of income...