The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: 150 years later, do we still not know the real Debussy? | April 5, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

During the past few years we have heard a lot about the anniversaries of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Mahler. Next year is Wagner.

But this year is a Debussy Year, and we haven’t heard nearly as much, even in anticipation.

That is regrettable.

There is a strong case to be made for Debussy (below) as The Modernist of All Modernists, the man who broke the Germanic strangle hold once and for all on classical music and who pioneering new structure and new harmony.

So far, the best piece I’ve read is this one in the UK’s The Guardian that I have linked to. But I expect to hear much more from such well-known critics as Alex Ross, Anthony Tommasini and Anne Midgette, among others.

There is so much Debussy I love, and good Debussy with a strong rhythmic and harmonic  backbone – not just the gauzy focus and slushy sentimentality that we wrongly associate with Impressionism. There is structure and Cartesian rationality and irony galore, as well as a distinctly Gallic subversive sensuality, in Debussy’s work.

I love the solo piano works — the two books of Preludes, the two books of Images, the Estampes, the Suite Bergamasque and the Ile Joyeuse. I love the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet.  I love the orchestral tone poems like Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunLa Mer and Nocturnes. And I especially adore his “Homage to Rameau” (at bottom, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo).

How would you describe the “real” Debussy”

What are your favorite Debussy works and your favorite Debussy interpreters?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. My favorite Debussy is “The Maiden With the Flaxen Hair” and my favorite interpretor, of course, is my soul-mate. Debussy’s melodic sense is sensuous and lyrical, but perhaps his greatest strength was his unique harmonies, particularly his harmonic rhythms.

    Comment by buppanasu — April 5, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    • It is a great work, deservedly popular.
      I love playing it myself.
      And it is best when played coolly and without a lot of fuss or liberty.
      Debussy knew what he wanted and how to get it.
      Thank you, as always, for reading and replying thoughtfully.
      Best from
      The Boy With the Salt and Pepper Hair

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 5, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

  2. Suite Bergamasque No.4 – Passepied – Claude Debussy Pascal Roge, piano

    Comment by Michael Goldberg — April 5, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    • M
      A great choice of composer work and performer.
      Plus a handy link.
      Merci beaucoup.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 5, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  3. There are many pianists who excel at Debussy’s keyboard works, from Gieseking and Casadesus to Michaelangeli, Thibaudet, but for me none surpasses Pascal Roge.

    Comment by Michael Goldberg — April 5, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    • Hi Michael,
      I share your enthusiasm for Pascal Roge.
      I love his new series of the complete Debussy on the Onyx label.
      All two books of preludes on one CD.
      And what a CD!
      Great tone and great straightfowardness — unfussy.
      And I adore the dance movement of the early piano suite.
      Thank you for reading and replying – with a link to a video no less.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 5, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  4. All of your assessments are spot on! As an editor of many of Debussy’s works, and a player of some, as well as a reader of biographical material, I can say that Debussy was a fussy, insecure perfectionist. He was forever feeling inferior as a farmboy, to the City born-and bred musicians he hob-nobbed and competed with. He revised his compositions until the last minute.
    His music for the piano has neither fingerings not pedaling. The reason for the lack of fingerings is Debussy wanted everyone to find their own best way to play his music, and not impose his own view. Gracious of him, don’t you think. The reason for the lack of pedaling, and thus the rhythms that show endless held and tied notes, such that it is very difficult to see when the next notes begin, is the piano he wrote on for years HAD no sustain pedal! Yikes!
    The Real Debussy is the original modernist, and no program of modern music can be complete without some of his his music. Take That, Wagner!

    Comment by Michael BB — April 5, 2012 @ 8:27 am

    • HI Michael,
      Thanks for your comments and historical insights.
      It all makes sense and helps to explain his music — and why I like it.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 5, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

  5. I have always been fascinated by his opera, Pelleas et Melisande: think of “Tristan” stubbornly grounded in stark reality, but set against that masterful orchestration, and with vocal lines more “realistic” than any other composer achieved. For sheer beauty, I also love his last work, the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Thanks for everything, Jake!

    Comment by Greg Hettmansberger — April 5, 2012 @ 7:53 am

    • Hi Greg,
      Both are first-rate choices.
      And only Debussy cold have written them.
      Is there any really bad Debussy?
      Even the overplayed Arabesques have their charm.
      Thanks again for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 5, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,215 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,116,204 hits
%d bloggers like this: