Update browser for a secure Made experience

It looks like you may be using a web browser version that we don't support. Make sure you're using the most recent version of your browser, or try using of these supported browsers, to get the full Made experience: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.


Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp

April 17, 2020

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. Featuring a performance by Yoobin Son, flute; Beth Guterman, viola; and Bridget Kibbey, harp.

Download Transcript


Welcome to the Inside Chamber Music Podcast presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I'm Bruce Adolphe, Resident Lecturer at CMS, where I started the lecture series in 1992. In 2011, we began livestreaming the lectures on our website. The audio for this podcast comes from the ever growing archive of videos made available live and on demand at ChamberMusicSociety.org.

We look at the music from a compositional perspective and find parallels in novels, plays and poetry. Plus, we explore historical context and with live musicians in the studio during the lectures, we experiment with performance issues. Today's lecture is about Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Originally recorded February eight, 2012. Hello. Welcome back. I didn't quite finish what I was saying last week.

I'm going to continue a little bit about those pieces that we heard last week before we move on. Specifically the piece En Blanc et Noir, In White and Black. I don't think I said anything about the title of the piece, did I?

The title, some people think it refers to the fact that it's for two pianos, black and white, the keys. Some people say it has to do with war. I'm not sure how, but, actually, I'll tell you what it is. It has more to do with Debussy's interest in the visual arts, which was a lifelong fascination and a title such as In White and Black, what's missing from it is A Study in White and Black.

And he got that kind of idea from Whistler. You know, Whistler's Mother? I mean, you know what I mean by Whistler's mother. The painting we call Whistler's Mother, a portrait of the artist mother is actually, the real title is A Study in Black and Gray. And he also wrote many, I mean, wrote, he painted many studies in silver and blues, things like that.

But he also, Whistler, painted paintings called Nocturnes, which has influenced Debussy and his own Nocturnes, which were real pieces of music. The Nocturne usually is a piece of music. He also called some of his pieces symphonies. Not Debussy. Whistler called some of his paintings symphonies. In those days in the late 19th, early 20th century, especially in France...

A lot of the painters were using visual, excuse me, musical terminology. And a lot of the composers were using painting imagery. Just think of the title Image of Debussy. Esquisse, Sketches. So this was typical. So that's really where that came from. And this brings me to a point that I just want to address briefly, because the other alternative is to address it endlessly.

So I think I'll try to do it briefly. Which is, the idea of Impressionism and Debussy. I've said a little bit about this, but I'm going to say a little more now because I think I'll do it in trickles. Yes, he was called impressionist. Even by 1910. Remember, he died in 1918. By 1910, everybody called him an impressionist composer.

Yes, he is known for having said he hated the term, but there's much more to it than that because he only said that once in one letter and he said many good things about it. He is closer, as I've said before, closer to symbolism, which is the movement that has to do with dreams, feelings and not objects. Now, Impressionism is still an impression of something out there in the world.

So an impression of a cathedral, of people, of a park, of whatever. And it's it's it's about the subject still, even though it's about painting, it's about perception. And most interesting for Debussy, it is about time too. I'll get back to that. But symbolism which influenced him more, along with the people who influenced him from other areas like Baudelaire, was a symbolist, Edgar Allan Poe.

And in the beginning, Mallarmé and that crowd was very involved with Wagner. And Wagner's name will come up and so will his music throughout this talk, because Wagner initially was, held great fascination for Debussy. After a while, Debussy renounced Wagner. But first there was a strong pull, and I'm going to talk about what the pull was, not just in terms of the philosophical pull, but actual sound, because that, in a way, is necessary to understand the music.

So even though there was this symbolist pull, there was also an impressionist angle. And the impressionist angle was not the idea of things being vague because that wasn't what the Impressionists were trying to do. That's kind of a misunderstanding, that things that are vague impressions of something. What they did was say that reality, realistic painting before them was not true to life.

That if you really look at something scientifically, which was the word they used and let the light refract, and in a short moment of time were able to capture the way light hit something and the way it refracted, you would paint very differently than trying to do what the academy told you to do, which is to paint so-called realistic images.

So they felt that they were doing something that was hyper realistic, more profoundly realistic, which is also what Debussy said about himself. That his own music, he was looking for realities, not impressions. But that concept also came from the Impressionists a little bit in that they would paint outside very quickly. A painting might be done in 15 minutes, and in that 15 minutes you're capturing a sense of time and light.

And that's one of the only kinds of painting that's about time. Up to that time. Later on, there's much more of it. But, so, for Debussy, that was a very musical concept, that you could see something that was about time passing and how light moved so that, if you will, impression of time and light rather than just a vague impression of what you may see, that, as Debussy called it, the rhythmicisation of time.

That's what music is. Alright. So I've said enough about that at the moment, but before I get into the first piece we're going to do, we'll have our live musicians soon. But I also want to talk a little bit about a solo piano piece, and I'm going to be using a dead musician for that. Horowitz. We'll play a recording of Horowitz playing some of that.

I have a few quotes that I would like to read to you. Can you see me through these harp strings? All right. Good.

"Wagner," now, this is Debussy after, quite clearly, after he no longer was interested in Wagner. "Wagner, if one may express oneself with some of the grandiloquence that belongs to him, was a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn." Now, the thing is, it's not only clever, it's actually true. Because he was revered as the great innovator, but actually it was closer to the end of a huge romantic epic.

And that's why we have the term post romantic, the people clinging to it, who found new things like Strauss, Richard Strauss and Mahler. But aside from that, it was really Debussy who was the dawn for many, many composers, who opened up new possibilities. But even for Debussy, there are things in Wagner that he couldn't let go of.

And I will get to that at the piano. These are two quotes that belong together of Debussy. They have to do with what he really felt music should be and how people should learn. Remember, at ten years old, he was in the Paris Conservatory. He had no other schooling, just the Paris Conservatory. That could happen at the Curtis Institute of Music, where you can get in at ten and leave at 22.

At Juilliard, you can enter the pre-college, but you must be enrolled in a high school or an elementary school. You must be enrolled in another school, or at least be homeschooled. You can't say that that's your only education, and you do not go from Juilliard pre-college into the college. You don't. You have to audition and you might not be accepted.

But at Curtis, you can go straight through, I mean, you could also be thrown out, but that's besides the point. But Debussy went straight through from age 10 to 22, basically studying nothing but music. And in the end, in fact, all the way through, he was a rebellious student. He did very well. He pleased everybody. But he also let it be known that he didn't really like this approach that music had preconceived ideas. That there were forms that you should use. Sonata form, a symphony, a trio.

He didn't like these ideas. I mean, why should we do that? Why are we stuck like this? He didn't like the idea that Harmony had progressions that you're supposed to learn and then use. When you think about it, it's true. Why does it have to be like that? Hmm. Anyway, so here are some of his quotes. "The composer of symphonies today in France are engaged in listening modestly to the voice of tradition which prevents one, it seems to me, from hearing the voice that speaks from within.

Okay? Here's another one. Writing a letter to a young composer who asked him for advice on orchestration. "Ultimately, you will learn orchestration better by listening to the sound of the leaves as they are stirred by the wind, then by consulting treatises." You have to have a really great imagination to learn that way, but there's a lot to it.

I mean, I actually know what that feels like because I never took an orchestration class, but I taught one. I don't think I need to go into that. You know what I mean? The whole time I was thinking, "Why are we doing this?" Alright. Now, this whole issue. Now I'm going to do it like a dramatic introduction, like a little play.

This whole issue of the imagination, intuition, trusting yourself versus tradition and learned and preconceived material. That's what everybody struggles with in becoming an artist of any kind. Where is your originality? How do you get there? How does it relate to what you've learned and the things you revere? Is it an extension of it? Is it a denial of it?

How do you put this aside if you don't know what it is? Etc. This is a big issue. Of course, Debussy, just to point out, had, from age 10 to 22, really good music classes. He could not have rebelled if he didn't know what he was rebelling against thoroughly because he actually, as you'll hear in the last piece, brought it back.

He only lived to be 56, but in his last six or seven years, more and more, he brought back traditional ideas that he had jettisoned and mixed them with his innovations so that he came up with yet something new, which was an acceptance of what he rejected as long as he could keep the new parts. So here's a little story, a Native American story.

I just did this show in Chicago at this theater in the round, and the director told me to every so often go over in the corner and look at those people over there.

He said, They'll never forget it." Anyway, so this story is a Native American story that I love. Some of you may have heard me tell it, but I'm going to tell it now using some Debussy harmonies. It's a story that has nothing to do with music originally, but it's a story of creation about how the stars got in the sky.

It's what's called the creation myth, but it's not about the creation of the world. It's about stars in the sky. And the reason I'm going to tell it is I think it really, truly is about the struggle between imagination and intuition on one side and tradition, convention and learning on the other. So the great grandmother spirit... doesn't sound very French.

The Great Grandmother Spirit gave first man a jar of stars. And with the jar of stars was a guidebook, a treatise, if you will, on how to put stars in the sky. So first man is told, "Do it exactly the way it is in the treatise on stars, and it will be beautiful and last forever." So he starts to throw the stars in the sky. (music)

He puts them exactly where the book says.

Meanwhile, Coyote comes along. Coyote is in a lot of these Native American stories, and Coyote says, "What are you doing?" And first man says, "Well, I'm putting the stars in the sky according to the treatise made by the Grandmother Spirit." And Coyote says, "Don't do it that way. Give me that." And they have a big wrestling fight with the jar of stars.

And coyote gets the jar of stars. And he starts to throw them everywhere. (music)

First man says, "Don't do that. You're creating chaos." And Coyote says, "You call it chaos. I call it beauty." That's the story. Now, the point is, usually if I tell the story to kids without the music for some other reason, I just stop kids randomly on the street and I tell them the story. And if they're over there, I look at them.

But the idea is, which would you rather be? Coyote, the wild one with all the excitement or first man who does everything right? And they argue back and forth. They pick somebody and then, of course, we decide that these are two aspects of one person. You need to be both. You need to have that spirit and try things.

And you need to learn and study so that you can put these two things together and be an interesting and integrated, imaginative, but substantial, balanced, that's the word, balanced person. So that's the struggle that Debussy eventually came to. He started off with this amazing education. He was inspired by Wagner. He had to reject that and many other things. He rejected counterpoint.

He rejected harmonic chord progressions of a normal kind. He rejected symphonies as a concept. He rejected sonata form. He rejected dance forms that had very severe structures. He never came back to Sonata. He came back to the word, but not the form. He never came back to symphonic concept.

He never really wrote counterpoint in any kind of traditional sense either. But he did integrate some of the earlier harmonies in some of the simpler forms that he felt were essential and fundamental. He brought them back into the music. A few words about this piano piece L'isle Joyeuse, and then we'll get into the piece of the day, the big piece.

Already the title, L'isle Joyeuse, means The Island of Pleasure. Why does it have a title? I thought that he was interested in pure music and pure feeling. That's what he said. Music is feeling. Why does there have to be a title that makes you think about some other thing? The Island of Pleasure is named after a painting by Watteau.

Who's the same as Watteau Watteau. Watteau. If you live in my house, if you know my wife, you can't say Watteau. You have to say Watteau. But anyway, it's a painting of lots of people either disembarking or leaving. It's hard to tell getting on or off the island. And it's an island where, Cythera, Cythère in French. It's the island where Venus was born.

And on this island, if you go, you will find your perfect mate. That's the story. So there are all these people and they're all paired up already, which makes people think they're leaving. Some people think they're not leaving. They got there like that. And it's going to change. Anyway, Debussy decided to set this painting, in a sense, to music. That makes it somewhat impressionistic because he has an object, he has something programmatic.

And he started to hate Wagner because Wagner used words and stories for everything he wrote. He basically only wrote operas. There's one piece that's still performed that is not an opera. Siegfried Idyll. That's it. The rest of the stuff is juvenilia. So anyway, there is a sense of it being about something which is somewhat ironic, but you don't have to hold him, of all people Debussy to a strict rule, because that's the exact opposite of everything he stands for.

So it starts like this. (music) So what's happened so far with just a little bit of knowledge of Debussy, it really couldn't be anybody else but Debussy or something imitating Debussy. Because, right away, (music) these are all augmented triads, see, they know a lot. You'll be very impressed.

Augmented triads, which means we're dealing with a whole time scale. (music) So this is one whole tone scale, but it's connected by little half steps. (music) And then more of the same whole tones. (music) Whole tone scale. So it's all about whole tones at the opening. And this piece either is whole tones, pure and simple, or the lydian, if you look back, if you have your tasting menu or you can remember it, the Lydian scale or a little bit of the octatonic or major scales.

And the reason he's using those scales is he's sort of playing around with the connection between major (music) and Lydian and whole tone. How close are they? (music) Major. And the whole tone and the Lydian both have that raised fourth degree.

Isn't it strange that a composer can decide that that's what it's about? Is that interesting? It is, because I mean, you only have notes to deal with. The more and more involved with music you get as a composer or a performer and as a listener, the more each little thing matters. Because to play this tune, which comes up right away (music) when you have this. If it were A major, it would be... (music) It's very big difference.

As opposed to... (music) It changes it from something extremely familiar that has a long history to something slightly odd. That's one note. And then the scales do that and they inform every aspect of it. Here's a passage which I probably will bring back next week when we get into Gershwin, because this is the kind of thing that connects to that world too. (music) I'm playing it slowly.

This serves several purposes. The baseline is a whole tone scale. (music) Each chord is a 13th chord. (music) One, three, five, seven, nine, 13. And then the nine drops to, like this. Each time the nine drops to what's called a minor ninth. (music) And then... (music) So that kind of chord progression you could easily find in Gershwin. (music)

Especially in the, not the songs so much as in pieces like we'll look at next week like American in Paris. So it's already written all over the place with the things that we looked at as whole tone scales, Lydian Scales, ninth chords, 13th chords, and this sound. (music) This is the pentatonic sound. It goes by so fast when you hear it, it's just ridiculous. But it is a pentatonic thing.

If I divide the notes up, it's those five notes. No matter how you do it, it's five notes from the pentatonic scale given in this very Debussy piano configuration. It goes by like that. At the end of this piece. Debussy subs, in jazz, it's called substitution. In Debussy, it's the vocabulary itself, which is instead of doing this (music) or this (music) you get... (music) So you, instead of this chord (music) to here, (music) You can't do that with whole tones because they're not whole tones apart.

So therefore he's going to have to find another way to do it. But ironically, what he really wants to do is have two whole tone collections. One substituting for this (music) Sorry. (music) And one for this. (music) So we get a dominant seventh in a different key entirely and it goes to whole tones and they're both ninth chords and he brings back all the whole tone scales like fireworks at the very end.

And this way you get, also, in the baseline, (music) which is a nice way to end the piece, but it also has a quality of an old mode. There are Phrygian modes that end that way that are like this. (music)

So by doing this, (music) he's giving that Phrygian quality too. (music) Alright, now that's enough about this piece. So what I'd like to do is play you a couple of fragments of Horowitz performing the piece. I believe it's Ann Marie McDermott who's going to play, which will be thrilling. She's just really great in the concert of her. Energy is remarkable for this.

And here's a little bit of the beginning and the end, and then we'll get into our piece of the day. (music)

Now, I'm going to stop it right there, because we just heard a whole series of long extended whole tone passage. This is all just whole tones. (music) And then we got our pentatonic for a moment. Let's hear the end because we want to get to our live musicians. But I'll tell you, is this a dead end to write like this?

Did he have followers? It's not a dead end, but it was a problem because the whole tone world is quite limited. So there were composers immediately writing pentatonic music and whole tone music, but it all sounded like Debussy because what they didn't know how to do was, at first, was find rhythms and shapes that were also not what he was doing because it's not just about the whole tones.

So they just took it en masse. And these were the Debussy-ists, and the followers of Debussy, students, everybody. In France, it was either you were for Debussy or you weren't. And a lot of people wrote like him. So those people, for them, it was a dead end because they were imitating him. It was not a dead end in the idea that you do not have to use a particular vocabulary or grammar. You can express something, find some feeling, and let that determine what interests you and what you're going to use as your raw material.

That's where we are now with music, of course. Debussy had a gigantic influence on composition after him because the freedom is so enormous now and it started, in many ways, with this kind of revolution of Deb- He wasn't the only one, but he really was the primary figure in the liberation from received forms, traditions. As I say, it doesn't mean he ignored tradition completely.

But the idea that you don't have to, let's say, develop a theme. He doesn't do that. When we look at Brahms, we look at Beethoven, we look at Mozart, we look at Bach. We're always talking about development. Those are all German composers, by the way, development of a small idea, exhausting it, doing everything you can. And it's quite brilliant and extraordinary.

By time it got to Debussy, though, he felt like that's the only thing there was to do and that is what everybody was doing. They were taking a melody or a part of a melody and exploring it and developing it or doing variations on it. And he asked a very scary question, "Well, what else is there?" And nobody had any answers, but he did.

And his answer came partly from the visual arts and also from poetry, because he couldn't find it in music, which was, "What if it's like a dream and you get a little bit of a theme and you never hear it again? Or it comes back in another way, but it doesn't develop, it just appears in another way.

And then it comes in a new harmony. Then it comes back in a different instrument, but it still doesn't develop and there's never a variation. And right in the middle, something new happens. It's like a dream about music." You have to be a good composer to work that way because you have nothing, no anchors, but that is what he does.

Now, here, this piece is in APA form and many of his pieces are. And the piece, the first movement which we will hear of this sonata actually is kind of a palindrome. You hear some music and it comes in the opposite order later, but nothing is exact. And that lack of exactness is very modern still, because the more we know about memory, which is a lot now, we know that we never remember anything quite accurately anyway.

At least that's how I remember it. Okay, so here's the end. Here's the end of the same piece with Horowitz playing. This is a live performance, so don't be alarmed by the audience reaction. (music) Remember that. It's a great reaction. Okay. That thing at the end, (music) that is a major chord with the raised forth from Lydian, which also is a tritone from the root.

That's the evil interval, the tritone, the one that was banned by the church in the Middle Ages called the Obelisk in Musica. It also, though, it wasn't new that Debussy did that because that tritone from the root is in a lot of music, a very highly developed concept. For example, in Petrushka. (music) That's not just a tritone from the root, it's the whole chord that's a tritone. C major and F sharp. Not just one note, but the whole chord.

And not only did Stravinsky do it, but so did Ravel in his beautiful piano thing, Gaspard de la Nuit. I was in the air this tritone division of, instead of just perfect fifths that you would have this tense raised fourth or lowered fifth. Okay. Now we're going to get to this piece after I say one more thing.

Wagner. Let's go back to hear something instead of just talk philosophically, to hear something that Debussy might have heard in, let's say, the opening of the Tristan Prelude. I have no proof or I've never read anything that says this is what he heard. But it seems to me to be very likely, and if I wrote about it and it was published, then you could find it and say that it's in a book, so it must be correct.

This is prebook which, if you think about it, we have a big problem in this society with the word pre, with the prefix pre. Do you ever buy anything pre-sliced. What does that mean? I mean, isn't it the opposite of it. I'm not going to go into this too much, but pre-sliced means it's not sliced yet.

Okay. All right. So here is the pre and analyzed concept, the opening of Tristan. (music) It's usually played a lot slower with an orchestra. One of the things that got everybody crazy about this in the music world is that this opening phrase makes you think you're going to be in D minor or if it's dissonant, it is still D minor, but to do a chord that is completely unprepared and unpredictable.

Now, also, this chord happens to be what's called a half diminished chord by people who speak English, only. A half diminished chord. It's one of Debussy's favorite chords, but it's not a strange chord. If I resolve it in a traditional way... (music) I can resolve it this way too. And it sounds very ordinary, but it wasn't in a key.

And then he did this instead. And then this. And what I think Debussy heard were two things. First, he was very intrigued by the baseline of dissonance being raised. In other words, immediately, what's acceptable is completely ambiguous. That ambiguity meant you don't know where you are. It's a rejection of a lot of things and that, he like that. But more importantly this, if you stay here you've got whole tones and then the next chord, if you stay here, we've got more whole tones.

I doubt that too many people in the audience thought that way, but I'm sure he did. (music) Strange, eh? So those- Oh, yeah. So, those whole tones were lurking right there. And I think the rejection of the traditional opening, the ambiguity and the implied presence of those whole tones is why Debussy was a Wagner fanatic and also needed to push Wagner away because he was too much for him.

But he did, when he wrote Pelléas Melisande, it is the only great example, really, of somebody completely understanding Wagner and also breaking free of it at the same time. Now, he also made fun. See, almost stood up. He also made fun in a very famous piece called Golliwogs Cakewalk. He made fun of Wagner in that piece because this is just a light little fun entertainment.

But it has this in it (music) and then it goes... (music) And it keeps happening. (music) So it's kind of funny, but it happened over and over and over and everybody knew that that was supposed to be Wagner being trivialized. Okay, please welcome our performers today. Yoobin, you heard last week. Bridget, you must have- and Beth have played with us for quite some time.

All the time. Do you have the tune? Okay. You can check out their instruments here. If you would play the first three measures of the first movement, and then I'll discuss that for 45 minutes. (music) Okay. We should stop there for a moment and we will hear this entire movement and maybe more of the piece.

Right away, you have an opening which is dreamlike because you can't locate a key. Talk about ambiguity. It's much later. This is 1915, but, still, you can't locate exactly where you are rhythmically. Sonority-wise because they bleed in, and maybe not bleed, but they blend in and out. They form textures that are fresh.

The harmonies are ambiguous, the rhythm is ambiguous and the melodic line is also ambiguous. The texture is appealing. It is like a dream. The very opening chord, because Debussy as innovative, original and personal as he was, he still was somebody deeply trained and rooted in tradition at all times. So there is something going on here that can be analyzed which doesn't make it better.

In fact, I haven't been able to find anything that can't be analyzed because that actually is a frame of mind. No matter what it is, even if it's completely random, you can get at what it's not and, eventually, you've analyzed it. Analysis is almost a problem. But, in other words, it's almost a condition.

But there are some things going on here. (music) We feel that it needs to resolve and it immediately does. The core that it resolves to is a diminished seventh chord. Now, some of you who've taken this course for 19 years, and there are some of you, know that a diminished seventh chord traditionally in the music of up to this time, in the music of the 19th and the 18th centuries and even some of the 17th century is considered an extremely dissonant, dramatic, and, as Beethoven put it, terrifying harmony. (music)

Debussy said that too many operatic heroines have died to the diminished seventh chord. He doesn't give you a diminished seventh chord right away. But what's interesting is that the first harmony that you relax into from a dissonance, that you accept as a consonant and peaceful harmony is a diminished seventh chord. That's the kind of thing he learned from Wagner's opening where the bar has been raised.

The ambiguity is at a much higher level. You are accepting now, as a peaceful gesture, a peaceful offering of a first chord, one of the most dissonant chords of the 19th century. And before he does it, though, this itself, if he left it there, that happens to be chord too, in Debussy's language. (music) It's a ninth chord with a flat fifth, but he resolves it and then the flute does this.

So that's as if he were doing this. Moving one note. Taking a diminished seventh chord and lowering one note, just like Wagner. Taking a half diminished and raising one note. It's exactly the same kind of idea. And to start, it doesn't sound like it at all, but it's the same harmonic concept. It resonates on the page and in life completely differently than the chord progression in Wagner.

It's also like Schumann, Robert Schumann. See, I told you I was going to talk about this for a while. Robert Schumann's, who was a composer who Debussy really, truly admired. And Schumann was the first composer who in print wrote and, by in print, I'm saying that he composed and we have it for posterity, an opening that was strange and dissonant that started out of nowhere and made perfect sense at the same time, which is the opening of the first song of Dichterliebe.

These are the first two notes (music) In the concept of Debussy that doesn't sound so dissonant. And it goes like this. (music) That's the opening of Dichterliebe, but you don't know where you are until maybe there. And what is that chord? It's a half diminished, same chord than Wagner used, but in a different location. And not until we get to the next harmony do we have a sense of location.

So Schumann and Wagner and also Chopin, very influential in Debussy's ambiguity. Then the flute played this. If I do a lot on this opening, then we don't have to do as much on the rest of it. But it's the same idea. (music) What's interesting here is that if you take out the E natural, you have a diminished chord.

I'm sorry, what am I doing? I was doing a completely different thing. Let's go back to this. If you leave out the E-flat, is what I meant say, you have an augmented chord which comes from whole tones. If you put it in, you have the major chord that was implied here. So again, the ambiguity here, which you heard in Syrinx also, is to connect and interlock two harmonies. And let them both coexist.

Something that he did a lot early, but also Stravinsky did this a great deal and there's a very strong relationship between them. (music) And then you heard in the harp back and forth the same, the E-flat and the E are the notes that make us not sure where we are. And what you started to hear was the viola taking an e natural rising out of the texture and starting what becomes a melody.

But it's not a theme that gets developed. All of these are little fragments that recur, like in a dream. You can have a dream where many things recur and come back and change, but they're not developing. They could be. But it's very unusual to have a highly structured dream. Where things proceed, develop, come to a climax and resolve.

It does happen, I'm sure, but that's not the typical dream state. So then you get the tune. And one of the great things about this is the way the E natural emerges is also a brand new, very Debussy thing, which has become part of the way we think, the way composers think, and the way musicians are used to playing now, which is that the texture of the instruments is all about blending and sonorities and color. Because more than any composer before him, Debussy heard and thought in color.

Just like the Impressionists and his favorite painters who were not impressionists, Turner and Whistler. And then the last thing. We hear this tune. (music) If we were to play that without the A-flats, it would fit in a in a mode. But because of the A-flat, we are still hanging on to some ambiguity. We're not sure where we are.

And the next thing that happens, which I won't give away, is plain old F major appears. And we get a cadence in a traditional key that is almost disturbing. It's beautiful, it's welcome, but it's a little bit shocking because it's like a dream where strange things are happening and then all of a sudden there you are in a place you know and everything's just right.

So let's hear maybe from the beginning. I think we should go further than that. I didn't go all the way to the D. So what you're going to hear is a mixture of the things we've talked about, whole tones, parallel harmonies, coloristic devices, modes that are ambiguous but linked with a kind of pastoral F major that, and I say pastoral because it has that quality of sheep.

Okay. Not that he followed people around the way sheep do. Okay, go ahead. (music) Okay, that's that first section. And all the music you heard will not come back exactly the same way, but be referred to in the inverse order like a palindrome. And it's very easy to hear that, but it isn't exactly the same. There are maybe two bars that are exactly the same. Little bit, but very little.

Now I want to point out something quite interesting. Can you play just the bar before three and then play the one, two, three, four, five, six, seven... Well, I guess play up to tempo one. (music) Okay, great. Debussy in 1915, many years later, was not through with Wagner. Did that sound like Wagner? No, but the Tristan chord sits there for quite some time.

It's just you would never recognize it, because what he's done here is exactly what a painter who's doing an impressionist, I hate to say impressionist, but it really is here. It's as if the chord, instead of being a sound, was an object you could see. And he let the light hit it and it refracts and the chord sits there and shimmers in the light.

But it's done instrumentally. If I were to play this, (music) the chord would be this. Now, could you just play bar three? I mean, not by three. Bar numeral, rehearsal three. (music) Okay. That's the Tristan chord. And it stays there for quite some time. The viola, let's hear the viola. (music) And then add the flute. That's the whole chord. Of course the harp comes in too and it stays there until it goes away.

So it's not golliwogs cakewalk anymore, but it's still an obsession because, you know, it's not just a half diminished chord because they're all over the place. Bach used them too, but it's the exact position of the chord... (music) Because if you take this top note and put it down here, then it's just a half diminished chord. I might not have noticed it, but it's the fact that it's that same chord that he never was able to get away from.

And this is a perfect example of his impressionistic technique, combined with the symbolist concept, which is it's a dream. It unfolds without logic. There is patterning. There's a sense of order, but it's not a rigid one. In fact, it has seams showing like crazy. In other words, between sections, things stop. There's a single line, there's a solo, there's a silence.

It's not connected. In a composition class, a traditional composition class. Even if one accepted all of the strange things he was doing, he would be told, "Well, can you tighten this up so that there's not all of these holes it?" But the holes, the silences and the solos and the changes of tempo that seem to just stop it, that's dreamlike.

So he's turned the whole thing on his head, which is to allow the things that were wrong to be right. Is there anything else about this movement? Maybe we'll say one or two words about the rest of the piece and then you can play it because I think listening... Oh, by the way, I should say something about the very end.

Can you just play the the last two bars? Just to hear the chord. Of this movement. (music) Sounds very common to us now, but to end a piece on a seventh chord in 1915 was still a fresh string sound. It's so common that it became a cliche in popular music eventually, 30 years later, where, as you know to end the piece you would play a ninth chord in the dominant and then a seventh chord. And maybe you do a ninth and then you play the root.

That's basically what it is. Okay. You know what? I think because of time, we should just do this whole first movement. And so Debussy might not want me to say this, but try to pay attention to how it unfolds because he wants you to be in the moment and to just follow it like a dream, which you can.

But if, when you hear things, everything does come back except the middle. The middle never does. But everything at the beginning comes back either exactly the same for a moment or or changed and in backwards order. Which makes it brief. When you play it, do you think of that? I mean, you don't need to. It almost doesn't work. If you're playing a sonata by Beethoven, you need to be aware of those things because the structure is determined very much...

I mean, the structure determines how you play and how you perform. Here, it works against it. There's no reason to be aware. It really does just flow from one moment to the next and there's no reason to do the analysis. In fact, my last word will be to tell you, did I tell you the story of the old man in the beard?

Did I tell you that story? No? I did? Okay, good. I was at a conference in Salzburg this past April, a music conference with people from all over the world. And a lot of the Western musicologists were speaking and they analyzed and analyzed and analyzed. Not really quite the way I'm doing, but they were just analyzing and a guy stood up who was actually Russian, but he felt very alienated from the analysis and he said, "I would like to tell a story," but I won't do the whole accent.

He said there was an old man who had a very long beard and he was visiting his grandson and his grandson, who was very tiny, said, "Grandpa, how do you sleep with that beard?" He said, "Outside the covers or inside the covers?" So Grandpa said, "Well, I'm not sure, but tonight I will pay attention and I'll tell you tomorrow."

So he went to bed and he put it outside the covers and he couldn't sleep. So he thought it must be inside. So he put it inside the covers and he couldn't sleep. So he put it outside the covers. He put it inside the covers. He put it outside the covers. And he died. I'm glad you laughed because when the guy told it in Salzburg, no one laughed.

And then he said, "In Russia, this is funny." But anyway, with Debussy, if you are too involved with the beard inside and outside, too much analysis is not what it needs. On the other hand, it's an appreciation of the extraordinary innovative mind that he had. (inaudible) (music) We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Visit ChamberMusicSociety.org to watch videos of these lectures as well as masterclasses and concert performances. And while you're there, check out the calendar of upcoming Chamber Music Society events in New York and around the world.