Where's the Love for Debussy?

Pierre-Laurent Aimard on why Debussy Matters

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 03:37 PM

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.

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Comments [12]

Ron from New York City

I too very much miss David Dubal's program Reflections from the Keyboard. I listen to WQXR at work. When his program was on I found myself so mesmerized that I would not be able to focus at all on what I should be doing and was just listening to both the music and David Dubal's extremely interesting and unique commentary. Anyway that WQXR could bring him back would be definitely an enormous plus.

Aug. 31 2012 12:51 PM
Renate Perls from New York City

I had learned something of Debussy from my mother... but my main teacher was the superb pianist ALDO CICCOLINI known as the greatest exponent of French piano music. Ciccolini, although now in his late 80's, is still alive, and I must say that I was horrified that David Dubal paid no attention to that finest of pianists and his deep understanding and superb renditions of Debussy's wonderful music.

In fact, I met Dubal through Ciccolini..... How soon we forget.

Aug. 30 2012 05:47 PM
CHESTER PAGE from Brooklyn Heights, NY

How thrilling to hear David Dubal once more on QXR. His wise, warm and profound comments and the rare music he plays by the greatest pianists are a joy to listen to and benefit from. I am so grateful! Chester Page

Aug. 24 2012 08:58 PM
Barbara Bach Sternberg from Merrick, NY

So wonderful to hear David Dubal on WQXR again.His amazing knowledge and presentation of piano music and its composers has always inspired me.I would love to once again enjoy his weekly broadcasts.

Aug. 24 2012 06:17 PM
Michael Meltzer

Welcome back, David. You have been very much needed here, as has been the legitimate as well as standard repertoire of the piano. Perhaps the WQXR downgrade of piano music is arrested.
More power as well to Pierre-Laurent Aimard, sure to be one of the most memorable pianists of the 21st century.

Aug. 24 2012 04:49 PM
Eva Jedruch from Summit, New Jersey

I am so, so very delighted to hear Mr David Dubal again on WQXR. He was sadly missed these last several years. And he brought back with his Debussy that most excellent among excellent pianists, Krystian Zimerman, whose recordings are rarely played by WQXR. Thank you, Mr Dubal.

Aug. 23 2012 07:08 PM
Jonathan Miller from Forest Hills,NY

I must add my thanks to QXR for devoting some time this week to Debussy and Mr Dubal. I was very disappointed that he was taken off the air when NYC acquired the station. Last night's program was so inspiring. I had to stop what I was doing and just sit and listen to the exquisite music played by some of our greatest Debussy interpreters. Thanks you again!

Aug. 23 2012 08:47 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

It seems apparent to me that Debussy would have apologetically fired Mr. Dubal as an instructor in that he isn't strict enough. But then he's probably just right for Paul McCartney who wanted to enjoy learning about music, it's beauty and how it's made beautiful.

Thank you Mr. Dubal.

Aug. 22 2012 07:07 PM
HYH from New York

I have to admit, that when I realized on Monday evening that the station was doing a Debussy dedicated hour all week, just at the time when my office is clearing out and quieting down so I can get more work done, I was a bit underwhelmed. I've always really enjoyed the Debussy hit-parade music (and loved playing some of the piano works when I was a young piano student) but, never a big fan as I am with Mahler, Bach, Brahms, Strauss, etc. Thankfully, I stuck with WQXR (vs. switching over to WRTI streaming)because what a true delight -- listening to Mr. Dubal....what a wonderful voice, and great passion and the incredible pianists and pieces he is showcasing. I miss Mr. Dubal and am grateful for this terrific series. It has opened my eyes tremendously to the beauty and complexity of Debussy's music (and a few pianists too). THANK YOU DAVID DUBAL!

Aug. 22 2012 06:51 PM
Eileen Pollock from New York, NY

Thank you for giving us a week of Mr. Dubal on Debussy. I learn so much from his programs - and inevitably his recommendations, which are of the best, shape my own buying decisions. I weep that Leon Fleischer's Suite Bergamasque is only available in MP3, a format I cannot use as I-pods elude me. If only it were on CD! Be that as it may, Mr. Dubal teaches you so much (in between the high flown phrases and atmospheric raptures). You do not fail to learn when he is "on", and on he is now. I only wish he were on a bit later. I can't get home from work and appointments in time for the start of the show, and come in when I can get to him. Can't you schedule his next show for 7 pm? And there will be another. By popular demand! Thank you for showcasing this very talented polymath. I was in his evening class at Juilliard for five years, and he shaped my musical taste. What an enriching experience, which I highly recommend.

Aug. 22 2012 06:43 PM
chrystie sherman from new york city


I nearly cried to hear David Dubal on the airwaves covering the birthday of Debussey. It was so shameful that
you took him off the air. He is brilliant and passionate and my weekly schedule evolved around his broadcast.
It was a gross error on your part.
Chrystie

Aug. 22 2012 06:35 PM
Raffi Momjian from Old Greenwich, CT

Tommasini's Times article was right on point, but far too polite: Is it not shameful to neglect the anniversary of one of the greatest composers of all time? The public may not know Debussy well except on a most superficial level. There are two, perhaps three Debussys: The neo-classical, the "impressionist/symbolist" and the radical of the preludes and etudes. It should be a point of pride for qxr to showcase a 5-part series on Debussy's music with Mr. Dubal. I am grateful for Mr. Aimard's Debussy concert in November! I will not miss that.

Aug. 22 2012 01:16 PM

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