Sensuality and Coldness in Debussy and Boulez

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Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Pierre Boulez (1925-): Two great French composers, one at each end of the continuum of twentieth century music. Debussy would typically be characterized as the more sensual and accessible, Boulez the colder and more forbidding, the hard-line modernist, but a little listening demonstrates their connections.

Like the back end of a cosmic echo, Boulez’s Rituel of 1975 makes use of gamelan methods, something first evoked in Debussy’s Pagodes, written in 1903. Debussy’s explorations of form and tonality, as heard in late works such as the Douze Etudes for piano and the “poeme danse” Jeux, were truly revolutionary, suggesting a kind of flexible generation of material that would become a regular feature of Boulez’s work almost a half century later. 


And while the enfant-terrible Boulez of the forties and early fifties strove (on the advice of his teacher Messiaen) to out-Webern Webern by sternly serializing every aspect of his composition, his music from the mid-fifties on has been marked by coolly seductive sensuality (Pli Selon Pli,) playfulness (Explosante Fixe,) excitement (Sur Incises) and emotion (Rituel.) And of course Boulez the conductor has been a tireless advocate for Debussy, as we will hear this week in one of his remarkable recordings of Jeux.