Claude Debussy, Estampes
Claude Debussy was born on this day in 1862. Of all the composers I admire and whose works I have studied and love, Debussy ranks near the top. Not just beautiful; not just original—Debussy's music is interesting. There is always something new to hear in it, new to learn. All that is good of an age and a heart is in Debussy's music.
Impressionism is a late nineteenth-century movement that began in painting, and it began in England, with Turner—who was not at first accepted in his own country, but who influenced an entire generation of French painters, such as Renoir, Manet, Pisaro, Monet, Degas, Cézanne. These masters attempted to capture not the exact details of a scene, but the impression, emotion, or mood of it, and, perhaps, the wider meaning of it. It involved looking at a beach or a group of trees, for example, from unusual angles; and it included common, everyday objects lifted through light and color to become something more: it painted dancers backstage at the ballet, just before they danced out into the stage lights.
The influence of this astounding art began to be felt in music through Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Other major impressionistic composers include Isaac Albéniz, Frederick Delius, Manuel de Falla, and Ottorino Respighi (each of whom we will spend time with in future posts).
The word estampe, in French, means print, or engraving. Debussy's Estampes is a work for solo piano in three movements, and the titles suggest three different geographic locales:
- Pagodas (images from China)
- La soirée dans Grenade (images from a party in Granada, Spain)
- Jardins sous la pluie (images from a garden in Normandy, during
These shimmering pieces are. each one, beautiful, memorable. They are masterworks of the piano repertoire.
Here is a recording of Estampes by the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau (1903 - 91), from the album Claudio Arrau: Debussy (1991):
In 2001, I wrote a story called "The Pagodas of Ciboure" (it was a finalist for the Nebula award in 2002, Best Novelette). The story was written for an anthology called The Green Man, edited by Ellen Datlow. That book brought together stories about nature, and the unexpected things in it. My story featured the French mythicalogical creature pagodas, which are small, usually invisible beings capable of healing through song. I do not know if Debussy meant to invoke these creatures in his Pagodas, but, being French, he would certainly have known about the creatures, real and mythical, that inhabit the forests of his country.
I have previously written about Debussy's music in the following posts:
- La Mer, in "Four Fears: Water"
- "Beau Soir," in "Like Air and Breathing: Interview with Virginia Baker"
- Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, in "Afternoon of a Faun"
- The Sunken Cathedral, in "The Sunken Cathedral"
I created "Shadow of the Stone Pagoda," the image above in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals, and is meant to look like an Oriental engraving or print. The title is from a haiku by one of the four masters of that form, Masaoka Shiki (Japan, 1867 - 1902):
The shadow of the stone pagoda,
The shadow of the pine tree.