Where's the Love for Debussy?

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The 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth on Wednesday is proving a bit more contentious than your average composer anniversary.

Several major institutions that would normally never miss a big anniversary year have largely ignored the occasion. In New York, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic have no special events or festivals planned. A similar neglect has been reported in other major cities.

This raised the hackles of New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, who, in a Sunday piece, argued that musicians and presenters take Debussy’s inventiveness for granted. “The alluring surfaces of Debussy’s works can mask the utter daring of the music, just as the surface beauties of Impressionist paintings can hide the shocking experiments the works represent,” he wrote.

While Debussy is sometimes pegged as a wishy-washy colorist, the composer's advocates note that he was a sonic explorer who discovered bold new approaches to texture, time, harmonies and structure, particularly in works like Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Images, La mer and Pelléas et Mélisande.

Some will admit that Debussy takes some extra effort to appreciate. Laura Sinnerton, a viola player with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, writes in a blog post for the BBC:

“I like the big gestures of Mahler, the rawness of Shostakovich, the unabashed heart on sleeve writing of Tchaikovsky, and for me, Debussy's music has always seemed a little too intangible, a little too diaphanous. I often find myself a little overwhelmed by what can sound like a wall of sound, an orchestral wash of colors.”

But, after some time studying the orchestral score to Images, Sinnerton concludes that “the thing with Debussy's music is that it is a subtler style of writing than the music of the German romantics whose music I love so much, or the Russians whose music thrills my mind.”

Recently, host Jeff Spurgeon asked the Parisian pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard why Debussy has drawn surprisingly little notice in 2012. Aimard has a new recording of Debussy's Preludes due from Deutsche Grammophon in October and he’ll also play Book II of the Preludes at Carnegie Hall in November.

There is a stigma about Debussy, said Aimard, and a narrow view of him as simply an Impressionist. “That is completely wrong," he said. "One should think about that – why and what does this mean.

“He’s incredibly varied in what he writes...The Preludes are so varied. You see there are really 24 ways to paint, to design, to suggest, to dream, to charm. This is the richness of Debussy at this moment. He finds a way to express himself in many ways.”

Listen to Jeff Spurgeon's conversation above and tune in to David Dubal's special show Claude Debussy and the Piano all this week at 6 pm. 

8/22 Update: Just brought to our attention is a major Debussy festival taking place at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY this October. It's slated to include recitals, talks an exhibition of manuscripts and more. Details are available on the school's website.