Debussy in Jersey - 1904 by Diane Enget Moore - Page 1

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" Le temps de Debussy est aussi celui de Cézanne et de Mallarmé : cet arbre ŕ triple tronc est peut-ętre l’arbre de la liberté de l’art moderne. "
Pierre Boulez

The image of these three French men, Debussy, Cézanne and Mallarmé, representing a modern-day cultural trinity, a synthesis, a fusion of the arts – music, poetry, painting – is both a powerful and bold one. It is a very visual image, with Boulez seeing them as champions of a new form of modern art, as liberators  holding the key to something almost revolutionary. When one thinks about musical revolutions, usually it is in terms of sound and provocation, yet of all the musical revolutionaries, the one who rarely gets this label is the languorous and underestimated Debussy. If we look at revolutionaries, they have all radically and ostensibly modified one thing or rejected something else. Debussy has managed to reject and retain at one and the same time, thus dispensing with traditional syntax and rhythm, the romantic melody, certain classical forms and pompous orchestrations. And yet, through his work, Debussy never lets us forget where his roots lie, and elements of influence ranging from Couperin to Wagner, Mussorksky to the Javanese Gamelan colour his work. Debussy resembles no other musician before him. And yet, he has the gift to make us feel familiar with his work, we can feel at home with it, it is not alien. There is synthesis. His influence on the whole of western music, be it classical, jazz or pop, has been enormous, but to repeat a word I used earlier, underestimated. His influence on poetry and art likewise. And it is reciprocal, because the influence of poetry and art on Debussy, the interaction between the genres is phenomenal.

So back to the quotation – Cézanne, Mallarmé, Debussy – Cézanne the post-impressionist, Mallarmé the  symbolist poet, and Debussy. Three great spirits who paved the way towards a new vision. How interesting that Boulez should choose Cézanne and not, let’s say, a "true" impressionist like Monet who has been associated with Debussy far more often. For Debussy and Impressionism have often gone hand in hand according to many critics. However, this is a far too short-sighted approach.  Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism existed concurrently, they juxtaposed each other, they fuelled each other. Mallarmé, Monet and Cézanne were contemporaries, born within a couple of years of each other (Monet in 1839, Cézanne in 1840, Mallarmé in 1842). Debussy is neither a Symbolist nor an Impressionist composer, he in fact rejected both labels as “useful terms of abuse”, but he takes inspiration from what is happening around him, both in the cultural watershed of the time, from his own private life and from a gamut of interacting elements. And this is something we shall be looking at shortly when I discuss the music he was working on at the time of his visit to Jersey. 

To his contemporaries, Debussy's music had the effect of transporting the listener into a world of dreams. The language of music suddenly became rich and strange. The instruments were no longer stating things, but suggesting them. Notes became the memory, a piano could evoke a perfume, instruments would transform themselves into the white foam on the sea... Everything became possible, nothing was stated, all suggested, open to interpretation.

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