Arts » Classical Music

Butler celebrates Debussy's 150th

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Debussy in 1897. - PIERRE LOUYS
  • Pierre Louys
  • Debussy in 1897.

Just about all roads in the world of modernism point to French composer Claude Debussy. At least that’s according to Dr. James Briscoe, director of Butler’s Debussy Celebration, which will, beginning Sept. 29, feature concerts and lectures in the interest of taking stock of the French composer’s legacy.

Briscoe celebrates Debussy’s philosophy of artistic freedom, an approach which distinguished the composer from his modernist ilk, who were far more inclined toward a systematic, agenda-driven approach: “He was open to all possibilities. Not that all were valid, but that all possibilities ought to be tried, tested, to see their validity. Each artist, this is, in his view, had to find his or her own way.”

The celebration’s four concerts will offer a glimpse into different aspects of Debussy’s body of work, from piano music to songs, orchestral to chamber works, early pieces based on poems by Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire to his final piece, the Sonate for Violin and Piano.

Briscoe got the idea to put on the celebration while attending an international forum on Debussy’s work this February in Montreal. But he’s been thinking about the composer’s wide-ranging influence for years — and he’s been asking others their thoughts, interviewing major American composers by hook or crook, calling up Wynton Marsalis while he was on the road between gigs, sitting down with Philip Glass in the Clowes Hall basement.

He’ll present some of those findings and interviews during a session of the American Musicological Society at Butler on Sept. 29 (see the complete calendar for more information), and he’s toying with the idea of a book of interviews.

Briscoe was impressed that, not only did Marsalis take the time to talk with him about Debussy — with Marsalis noting that Debussy “taught us organization of sensual experience” — but that Marsalis called him back twice, including the next morning, when he woke up Briscoe and his wife, Anna (a pianist performing during the celebration) with another thought on Debussy’s legacy.

Briscoe, who has the air of a Southern gentleman despite his many years at Butler and in Indianapolis, takes it from the beginning of Debussy’s career in the following interview.

Dr. James Briscoe
  • Dr. James Briscoe

James Briscoe: Many among the American composers I interviewed pointed to how he set off his career by attending the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. That was when the Eiffel Tower was built; Alexander Graham Bell brought his telephone across the waters; Edison had installed electric lighting; and there were French, German and English inventions all over.

But one thing that interested Debussy was what was called primitive music, not called, of course, music of the world. Musicians came from French, Dutch and other colonies; from Vietnam, which was a French protectorate; from Bali, which was, of course, a Dutch protectorate. This Vietnamese theater, for example, was so sparse and improvised, that it moved Debussy toward the idea of simplicity and improvisation. Likewise, the Balinese gamelan was a new sound world, and a new sound source of a percussive, shimmering sound, and this moved him a great deal.

In turn, of course, Debussy’s music subsumed some of these influences and interested American composers, who are still alert to that opening to non-European ways of hearing music. That opening to a possibility of testing, of renouncing, ultimately, European forms, harmonies and the rest is perhaps Debussy’s greatest legacy. The composers, to the person, man and woman, that I interviewed recognized that freedom, that mandated, self-individualized expression.

NUVO: And he had this notion of America as an untapped, unexplored land.

Briscoe: Debussy thought America held enormous potential for such development for two reasons. We have to be, first of all, candid in saying that he saw economic possibilities. He was not naive, he didn’t think like many ignorant Europeans coming here that the streets were paved in gold and all of that. But he knew that there was an economic potential here that the artist could dip into.

But secondly, he saw a melting pot of musical interests, artistic inspirations: German, French, English, and you name it; non-European inspirations, as well. He thought there were possibilities of opening new combinations and new solutions, new paradigms for musical thought.

NUVO: How did Debussy work with these “primitive” traditions?

Briscoe: Debussy took what he wanted, what he could use and converted it, translated it into terms proper to himself. He didn’t simply incorporate African drumming into some symphonic piece. That would have been kind of silly. But he could certainly show a polyphony of rhythms, which West Africans are very strong on. This new sound interweaving, the polyphony of sound color, is something that perhaps the non-West showed him.

NUVO: You use the term the “abyss of total freedom” as part of the title for the Oct. 9 concert. Can you unpack what Debussy meant by that?

Briscoe: I couldn’t say it all in that title, but what he said was: “I approached the abyss of total freedom and just withdrew”, barely withdrew; that is, he looked into, sampled the depths of it and found the extent of the possibilities of total freedom, but withdrew enough, withheld himself just enough to find those potentialities that might well be personalized for him, that might well be integrated into his own way of thinking.

NUVO: You’ve spoken with a number of contemporary composers about Debussy. Were there any commonalities between the way that they view his music and describe his influence?

Briscoe: He stated that his music would be understood by the grandchildren of the 20th century. The grandchildren of the 20th century are the very composers we’re talking about in Europe and the United States; these are people born in the ’40s and ’50s, having skipped a generation, almost from Debussy. These composers are unanimous in their praise of Debussy’s liberation; that is, his trying of multiple possibilities of oneself.

Debussy withdrew from the abyss of total freedom, and he could not, and would not, influence by way of a complete chaos or any sort of happenstance music. I don’t think Debussy would have been comfortable with John Cage’s music, for example, in which happenings and complete happenstance sound were involved. He was a quite structured composer, if in a very individual way.

NUVO: But he was also reluctant to embrace any single structure or approach.

Briscoe: Yes, any agenda in music was foreign to him. The new agendas coming on at his time, at the later part of his life, were not comfortable to him. The two primary ones that he saw were, firstly, Stravinsky and the agenda of primitivism. He found the rhythmic demand, the rhythmic poignancy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring quite mechanistic, because it was so agenda-laden. Likewise he couldn’t abide by the coming of Schoenberg and his agenda of chromaticism, because of its rules and regulations.

NUVO: And is that balance between structure and freedom something that you value in Debussy’s work?

Briscoe: That’s the particular strength, but also the charm of Debussy, because it is a delicate music, a suggestive and not an imposing music. One must be alert to these quite subtle strengths, to the prismatic, kaleidoscopic changeability in what Debussy was doing.

Key events (all free):

Sept. 29, 8 p.m. @ Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall
Songs and piano music, including Preludes pour Piano Livre I, En blanc et noir (for two pianists) and three selections from Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire; preceded at 7 p.m. by a lecture by Michael Oravitz (Ball State), “Tradition and Revolution in the Piano Music of Debussy”

Debussy and the New Modernist Orchestra Sept. 30, 3 p.m. @ Clowes Memorial Hall
Performance by Butler Symphony Orchestra of three orchestral works by Debussy — Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Nocturnes and Iberia — as well as Ives’s Variations on America and Vaughan-Williams’s On Wenlock Edge; preceded at 2 p.m. by a lecture by David Hertz (IU), “Debussy, Mallarme and Symbolism”

Debussy’s Adventure and Achievement Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m. @ Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall
Songs and a piece for violin and piano, including selections from Fête galantes pour Madame Vasnier and Ariettes oubliées (both drawing on poetry by Paul Verlaine); Trois ballades de Francois Villon; and Sonate pour Violon et Piano

Debussy and the Abyss of Total Freedom Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m. @ Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall
Three chamber pieces: Trio pour piano, violin et violincello (written by Debussy at age 18; performed by guest cellist Kurt Fowler, guest pianist Minju Choi and faculty violinist Davis Brooks), Quatour pour deux violins, alto et violincelle en sol mineur (played by the Vero Quartet of Butler student artists) and Sonate pour flute, alto et harpe (featuring guest flutist Rebecca Price Arrensen)

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