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Debussy's "Syrinx" and "En blanc et noir"

May 3, 2022

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Debussy's "Syrinx" and "En blanc et noir". Featuring a performance by Yoobin Son, flute.

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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 podcast features two works by Claude Debussy. Syrinx for solo flute and En Blanc et Noir for two pianos. The flutist is Yoobin Son. Thank you everybody. (inaudible)

As you know, this is going to be a series about Debussy and Gershwin and... (inaudibke) Two of my favorite composers, let alone people. Before I say anything, I want you to hear just the opening phrase of Syrinx which will be played for you by Yoobin Son. (music)

Thank you.

So you can have a seat for a few minutes. I'll get right back to it. That's just the opening. You'll hear the whole thing soon. I just wanted to get Debussy in your ears in case he wasn't in your ears on your way here. I've said a lot about Debussy and you probably know a fair amount. I want to get back to that famous lesson that he had with a man named Gyro where Debussy, as a young man played a strange chord progression, which sounded like Debussy, probably like this. (music) We don't know, but something like that.

And we know what Gyro said, and I'll tell you why in a minute. He said, "That's beautiful, but there's no theory to explain it, so you really can't do that." It seems funny now, but it would be like a poet showing his teacher or, let's say, in a in a writing class, something that seemed interesting to say but seemed to mean nothing in particular and say, 'Well, those are a beautiful string of words and it has a nice rhythm, but I don't understand what it means.

And that's not how we use the language." That's basically what it was like. But I think I need to say a few things about Giraud. We primarily know him for being Debussy's teacher, but he also, you know him another way. He wrote the Recitatives for Carmen. You might have thought Bizet did that, but Bizet didn't do that. He wrote the arias and he left it as dialog.

And very often now it is done with spoken dialog and the recitatives are sometimes done. But for a very long time there were singing recitatives with orchestra and they were all written by Giraud. So he had written 11 operas. He was quite popular and by the time he was Debussy's teacher, he was a very respected guy. So I thought before we get back into Debussy, let's hear a little bit of music by Giraud.

So I'm going to play something for you so you can see the huge C change from this teacher to this student. By the way, all of the comments that the teachers at the Paris Conservatory wrote about all the students are available. Everything is now. So I read them the other day. And one of the interesting ones, it was a lot of reading to find an interesting one and it's very short too.

It's Giraud writing about Debussy though, and he says "Very intelligent but needs to be bridled." It's perfect. Okay. By the way, Debussy had no schooling until he was ten years old, and his only schooling was the Paris Conservatory. That's why he was so brilliant. In other words, he he saw everything afresh. So here's a little bit of music by his teacher, Giraud.

It's supposed to be cello and piano, but I'll just play it for you. (music) Okay, etc.. Now, it's very, very straightforward. I don't know anyone who plays that now, although it's nice, might be nice, it goes on. Very, very square and it does certain things that are so correct as to be wrong. No, but I mean, it takes a very long time to get off these two chords. (music)

But then when he does a fresh chord, (music) it's very French and all the high notes are accompanied with new harmonies. And then it changes key just when it should, after it's established, all these things. So this is Debussy's teacher. Debussy basically dislocated the grammar of music. He took the vocabulary out, he ignored the grammar, and he collected the sounds of music that interested him.

In other words, there's a chord here in a piece by Giraud. To Debussy, that's not a chord in a progression. It's just a sonority to collect. (music) This happens to be a ninth chord. I think I'm going to insist that everyone recognize ninth chords by the end of the... It's really easy. One, three, five, seven, nine. (music)

So if you take the octave, that's eight one more note, that's nine and you let it sit there. In Giraud, of course, it resolves immediately. (music)

There's a ninth.

Resolving. But of course, this is over 100 years old, this piece. And people would be thrilled. It's just exactly what you want. But Debussy never wanted to write exactly what anybody wanted. He just wanted to collect these sounds and reorganize them and have a fresh world because he felt that music had become too full of rules.

You could see why he thought that at the Paris Conservatory. In fact, there were two conservatories; The Schola Cantorum, and the Paris Conservatory in Paris, arguing about everything. The faculties hated each other. They call these the little wars between these faculties, which are is common in France. Even now. And they would argue about everything. And then when Debussy had his first success, Pelléas et Melisande, he had a group of people who called themselves the Debussy-ites and they were devoted to him like he was a guru, which is understandable.

And then when he tried something new, they hated him because he tried something new. So, this went on forever. Now, what I'd like to do is take a look at Syrinx, this piece, in real detail, because here you have a piece of music for one solo line, which incorporates a lot of Debussy's most imaginative ways of thinking. Just this solo line.

Which is interesting because among the criticisms there were of Debussy was that, I mean, even the people who criticized him a lot admitted that he had a fresh approach, new ideas, and changed everything in the whole scope of how music was written. But they would say, "Well, he only affected harmony. He did nothing to melody. In fact, he never wrote a melody, and he doesn't know how to write a melody."

That was a big complaint. So, let's take a look at this melodic line for a moment. And you have you have a page, not the tasting menu. We'll get right back to that. It looks very complicated, even to me, but it isn't. And remember, if you read music, this is very helpful. If you don't, it's okay. There are a lot of words and the shapes of the notes and the things will be very helpful.

You know that Syrinx or Syrinx, which for some reason in France they can't pronounce anything correctly, but Syrinx refers to the nymph who, not, the story of a nymph running away from Pan. And then at the last moment, she calls out to the water nymphs to save her from Pan, and they turn her into a reed. And then Pan picks up the reed and he makes his pan pipes so that he still has her.

And she is one of the pipes. She's one of the reeds. And of course, Syrinx is also the voice box of a bird, which, I'll add to this, is unlike a flute, a bird syrinx can do two sounds at once. I mean, you can do two sounds at once if you really want to, but it's not natural to the flute. I shouldn't say that.

It's completely natural to the flute, but nobody writes that way except for very recently. So, in other words, you can get two tones, if you're a bird, from your syrinx, and that's why birds can do all these strange things. But here it's just Syrinx. Now, Debussy collected musical thoughts, ideas, vocabulary, phrases from everywhere. Instead of taking the tradition of composition, which he knew very well, and he even won the Prix de Rome and he won a second prize.

Then he won a first prize, which is a very serious prize for young composers, which Ravel never won. He tried. All sorts of famous people that no one ever heard of won it. All prizes are like that. Six people you heard of and then hundreds of people you didn't. It's fine, but he at least knew enough about what they wanted in the conservatory to obey all the rules.

And as a young man, write something they thought was an absolutely perfect example of what they thought he should be doing. So, here you have a whole tone scale, which is very important to Debussy. He learned the whole tone scale from Liszt. Not personally. From listening to Liszt and from, there's even the whole tone scale in late Schubert but also from hearing the gamelan that came to the World's Fair in Paris, at the beginning of the century. Of the last century.

So here is a whole tone scale. (music) These are half steps. None of those. (music) Half step. So there are only six whole tones in a whole tone scale before you start over. And then if you transpose it once... (music) That's all you can do. In other words, if you take a major scale, you can transpose it many times.

(music) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, 12. 12 notes, 12 different major scales. The whole tone scales are only two. They're a half step apart and they cover all the whole tones and half steps. So is that a limitation? Messiaen called the whole tone, the scale, a mode of limited transposition, and he used many such modes. By limited, simply means less than 12.

You can't duplicate it or replicate it on every single pitch. So it's not really a limitation, it's just a fact of the scale. And it has some nice parts about it because if you've transposed it once, you're done. In other words, it doesn't have the ongoing aspect of transposition that's part of tonal music. For example, if I do this, (music) these are transpositions. I can skip around.

But with the whole tone scale... (music) I'm done. In other words, it really limits you, but it changes your focus away from key change because you're not in a key anyway. You can't be. You can't even do this in a whole tone scale (music) because you have no perfect fifths. That interval does not exist. The violin, which is tuned to perfect fifths.

I guess if you only played whole tone music, you'd have to redo that. (music) Like that. Tune your violin that way. Make it a lot easier.

So, there you have at the beginning, the two whole town scales and underneath it, but it's the same thing written with different, instead of flats, sharps, that's all. So you have whole tone scale and underneath it the same thing with F sharps instead of G flat. (music) And then the other one. Now, this is already enough to understand what he's doing at the opening of Syrinx.

He's doing something nobody did before. He's interlocking two whole tone scales. The opening phrase, which you see right there. (music) If you can look where there's a little bracket, the top whole tone scale on the beat is (music) and then off the beat is. (music) We're missing a note, but that's okay. So the whole tone scale consists of two whole tone scales that, the two whole tone scales, interlocking. One is on the beat, one is off the beat.

Does he want you to know this? No. It's just a new way of thinking. Well, why doesn't he just write any old note he wants? He is. That's what he wants. But he doesn't want disorder. Now, he was accused of being an anarchist, a musical anarchist in the paper. Of course, it wasn't a legal accusation, although it will be in one of the children's concerts coming up.

He has to go to court to defend himself, but he would have loved that. But anyway. So then (music) You see the little X? That's because he skips a note from one of the whole tone scales. There's no E-flat. So you get this motif which you can recognize because it's the only place that skips a note. Now, if we call it X, we'll see it all over the place.

And there are two versions of it. (music) And the opposite. (music) So the half step, if you think of this, is a major third, you'd be right because it is a major third. Okay, there's a major third. A half step down from the top. We have a half step because we've got two interlocking whole tone scales with a note missing.

So if we put that half step on the bottom, then we get the inversion of it. Did Debussy think of this? Probably. It's there. So, most likely. Now, the question always is, is someone like Debussy thinking in analytical terms or just by sound? My feeling is that it's sound only after, though, lots of investigation and thought. Which makes this second nature.

Just like when you and I talk in a conversation, well, I'll speak for myself. When people talk in conversation, you don't have to plan out what you're going to say, just as I'm not planning out even the end of this fragment. No, sentence is what I meant. The end of this caboose. But we don't say absurd things.

We say pretty much what- I'm sure somebody is thinking they do say- you're thinking of your mother in law or somebody says absurd things. Okay, basically, we don't say absurd things. We say pretty much what we need to say. And we don't need to think about the grammar. We don't need to think in advance. We can be spontaneous with our language.

And every composer works in a language, a mature composer, works in a language which is able to function in that spontaneous way. So even a new language that Debussy is completely inventing himself, he's going to study, he's going to think about it. He will take his two whole tone scales and get an idea about interlocking them in a melody.

And then things will evolve beautifully. So he could think about it both somewhat analytically and completely in sound, and they become fuzed. The same thing. So here we go. I mention this because very often people attack new music or old new music like Schoenberg, sometimes even Debussy, as being so-called cerebral. Where else can you think of it?

I'd like to know. Okay. What I mean by cerebral is the idea that it's all thought process, it's not felt, it's not evolved from emotion, but it is all one thing. So here, in fact, Debussy, boy do I interrupt myself a lot. Who else can I interrupt during a lecture? Nobody. So, Debussy said music is not about emotion.

It is emotion. I don't know if he's right about that, but it's a nice thought. (music) Now, there's a note missing from that, and there's a C missing as well as the E-flat. So the C comes in right here. And why is that important? Well, more and more in Debussy's music, but in music, you will notice a tendency for composers to be aware of the notes that are not being used because those have fresh value.

It's like a key change. But he's not in a key, so since he's not in a key, he has to be aware, by ear or by thought. Same thing. Be aware of what notes have not been used so that they can have some power. Now, I pointed out that the E-flat here is missing. (music) I'll put it in. (music) It doesn't really work.

But anyway, of course it doesn't. Now, moving on where it says number 12, one, two, three, four. It says chromatic upper voice. It says X inverted. You could also just listen, if you don't like looking at that. It's fine. (music) There's X inverted. It's this. And there it is. There's X. And the high note of the phrase is the missing E-flat.

Now, even though some of you reacted in a beautiful way because I said it, you reacted, believe me, before, when she played it anyway without knowing that. So why come to a lecture? I don't know. But I think it's interesting to talk about it, at least for, I always find that I learn something doing this. So maybe what you're finding out from that thought is that that E-flat that arrives is not just high.

It is expected. It's anticipated. It's been left out and it arrives. It's exactly, he sets up suspense. A kind of suspense that you're unaware of. It's a suspense that results from not saturating the music with all the notes, as some composers later do. Or simultaneously, like Schoenberg, who likes to saturate the palette. One of the reasons that, probably the reason that Schoenberg is hard for a lot of people to listen to is that the phrases are saturated with all the pitches all the time.

So you don't have missing notes that you can wait for. That is a very hard thing to deal with. Debussy never does that. If he uses tradition, he uses the old fundamental concept that saving important notes for important places will give you emotional resonance and some satisfaction. Alright, then what happens?

This is now, it says bar 17. We've already heard this. What he's doing is he saves the third beat. It's like he's constructing a little symmetry here. And the third beat of each bar changes. And then we go into what essentially sounds like pentatonic music. It isn't strictly pentatonic. What is pentatonic? I'll get to that, but it means a five note group. A five note scale, and I'll get back to that.

It's the most famous, most used and overused scale there is. So, here we get to it where it says exotic versus traditional modes and scales. (music) Oh, there's the pentatonic scale right there. (music) Now, this little F that's at the top takes you out of it, but it's right at the top. It makes it sound more dorian.

More of an old mode. Does he care which mode it is? As long as he's not writing in a traditional framework, he's very happy because first of all, Pan, the Greek god, Pan, is not- you know what? Let's play this without the accidentals. Let's see what would happen if the Greek God Pan was not written by Debussy, but was written by Giraud.

Let's just try it. So, don't play any accidentals. We'll play up until there. Okay. I'll do Giraud harmonies kind of thing. (music) Not bad. I mean, of course I was doing a little Debussy-esque piano parts. Let's do it a little bit straighter one more time and then we'll go back to the real music. (music) It's getting worse. Okay. Oh, I'll get Alan Gilbert.

He'll be right over. Okay. So, obviously we'll get right back to that in just a moment. So, that was in a key. DId you see how it's still lovely and there was nothing stopping Debussy from doing that. Moving along. (music) I believe you have that, too, right? Yes. The top of the second page. When it gets to the low point there, that's X. (music) And this... (music) The outline of this are all tritones.

Now, a tritone is simply... It's not simply anything. It's pretty complicated. A tritone divides the chromatic scale in half. It means three whole tones. So, obviously, a tritone is part of the whole tone scale in a big way. And he connects it with little chromatic notes, but in the whole tone scale, you have a tritone from every note. (music) In other words, every note in that scale has a tritone against it from some other note in that scale. That is very different from a major scale which has one tritone, right?

If I do fourths, that's it. And also... (music) That's the tritone also. The tritone and also this. (music) Okay. (music) The tritone is used by Bernstein to cause trouble because it has always. It was called the devil in music in the Middle Ages by the church. Who else would call it that? Who else? Maybe a Tea Party candidate would possibly.

I'm sure that we're in danger of having tritones banned now. Do you think that's funny? They were banned in the Middle Ages by the church. Composers who wrote for the church could not write that interval. It changed the history of music. The pentatonic scale, which you see over there, where it says pentatonic. (music) The most popular scale. And by that I mean most folk music, not only of the Western world, but of the Eastern world, most folk music is pentatonic.

It has no tritones. And it wasn't banned by anybody. It's just that a tritone causes trouble and it's harder to improvise with. And you need to have harmony and organization. If you have a pentatonic scale... (music) The black keys are pentatonic scale, for example. You can't go wrong. Everything's going to sound fine. There's a lot of folk music... (music) That's nothing in particular.

Is that Chinese or is that Appalachian? That's the mode, some of you know, I call the Sino-Appalachian mode. But anyway, so what Debussy is doing is taking the two modes that are as polar opposite as possible. The pentatonic non tritone scale, the safest... It's very beautiful. A beautiful, safe, harmonically, improvisatory, friendly mode. Improvizational friendly mode.

And the whole tone scale, which is extremely dissonant. There's no major or minor chord in a whole tone scale. They're all augmented. And that doesn't mean he can't write a major or minor by using something from somewhere else. But if you stick to the whole tone scale... (music) Transpose it and then go to pentatonic. Those two things are very far apart.

So by putting them together, he's created a strange world. And, there's no system for using them together. And he never developed a system because he hated systems. He was really against it. So then if we move forward a little bit. Let's see. If we look at bar, where it says 29. This is the third line down on that page. Towards the end. That little thing at the very end of that line. (music)

This is a whole tone situation, even though there's a little half step here. Two half steps. But the outside, the triad, the structure, the skeleton of that beat is an augmented triad, which means it's coming from whole tones. So, of course, Debussy allows himself to use half steps connecting as connective tissue. Basically, this is a whole tone piece with half steps connecting the whole tone- like, the muscles are whole tone. Is that right?

And the sinews, no, well, let's put it this way. The parts of the brain are whole tone and the neural networks are half steps. So at the very end (music) we get a, finally, a completely pure whole tone scale to disappear. He's been wanting it the whole time. Right? And you finally get it. Alright, I think we are more prepared than any audience in history to hear this flute solo.

Shall we hear it? Okay. ( music) Hello.

In almost any book on Debussy, you encounter the word Impressionism. Here's some words for you. Impressionism, symbolism, baroque, ashcan school. What do they have in common? They were all negative criticisms that became the words that were then accepted. Even baroque. I'm sure you know that. The Baroque- I mean, we can still use the word to mean what it's originally meant, like an ornate pearl and over ornate, over developed. Too elaborate. So baroque.

Oh but then it became, from its negative connotations, it became accepted as a word. And now for many people, it means a time in music where none of those people ever heard that word. Well, that's not true. Some of them eventually did. And the same is true of Impressionism, which was a criticism. Of course, you could look this up on your phone in your pocket, but... Yes, it was first used in a Paris Journal called Charivari. April 25th, 1874, by Louis Lavoie, who was criticizing Sunrise by Monet.

And Sunrise by Monet, the painting, was subtitled An Impression. So, he ripped into that. That's what critics, they they still do that. They look for a word because writing about the painting is hard. So, there's a word. Impression. This is an impression? I don't think so. So then... That's direct translation. Debussy hated the word impressionism because, first of all, he hated isms because he was trying to create something fresh and new in person.

But beyond that, it was a negative word at the time. Symbolism, he somewhat, he didn't really like that either. He's somewhat more comfortable with because the symbolist poets were inspirational to him. Baudelaire and the American Edgar Allan Poe. People who wrote supposedly symbols instead of realities. This is complicated. And who dealt with dreams and images of dreams and images of symbols, rather than writing about reality.

But Debussy himself wrote that he wasn't trying to create an impression of anything. He was writing new realities. It's a great letter. And who's to say they weren't? I mean, they are new realities now, and I guess they were then. And the symbols. I don't want to get into this too much, but the symbols, aren't they real? Symbols.

Okay. Anyway, getting away from that. So let's take a look at the vocabulary. That's the tasting menu. The vocabulary that Debussy took from the things around him and changed by divorcing these things from their grammar, destroying previous syntax. So of course, the people who are upset at the conservatory, Giraud, who thought he should be bridled, he hadn't even written any of this music yet.

He was a student. They were right to be upset because he was destroying, in a way, what they knew how to do and what meant something to them. And they didn't understand what he was doing. Like a lot of people, Debussy, was a composer- like a lot of composers, was attacked relentlessly before he was accepted.

And there was, as I said, there was a group of Debussy-ists, but a lot of people were very upset. So, let's take a look at these scales in the tasting menu. You have the major scale. (music) They have no stems. I hope that doesn't bother you. (music) The natural minor. I played it differently too. Instead of (music) I'm going to give them moods. The whole tone scale. (music)

Now, I started each one on C. They're all the same notes with alterations so that you can, even if you don't read music, you can see they're all- if you look at the major scale with no sharps, no flats, these are all permutations, if you will, of those same notes. (music) You can only have six of those with the whole tone scale. Pentatonic. You'll notice we skipped two notes.

The E and the B. We skipped one, two, three is missing, four, five, six, seven is missing. One, two, three. (music) You can also take the bottom note and put it on the top and then you get a different feeling than this. (music) This is more major. This is more minor. Right next to it, I give you the, the next line, the pentatonic minor. (music)

It's the same thing, but I put them all on C so you can go home and make a chart. If you do that, I'd really like not to know about that. Okay. Then the octatonic scale. How did that get in there? The octatonic scale emerged, even though there are little intimations of it in Liszt. I keep mentioning Liszt because even though he primarily was a virtuoso and his music tends to be about showing off keyboard technique, he had some great harmonic ideas that were very innovative.

Liszt, Schubert, late Schubert- he only lived to be 31. So between 28 and 31, late Schubert, some very interesting things started to creep up. Not that scale, but some chord progressions that seem to relate to it. But it really came into its own in Russia with Rimsky-Korsakov. And it became something everyone knew about through Stravinsky. And Stravinsky, of course, never told anyone where he got it, because if they couldn't tell it came from other Russian composers, that's their problem.

And it took years until it was discovered that it was taught to him in a class. So, here. (music) Octatonic is an eight note scale. Everything has been seven or five. And just so you know, it consists of alternating whole steps and half steps. definitions as opposed to all whole tones. I mean, if you think, "How can you tell?" If you take Old MacDonald... (music) In a whole tone scale, you can't play that.

It's quite different. And the octatonic scale, it would also be difficult. (music) I'm trying to get as close as I can to it. The Dorian scale. (music) Very old mode. Lydian also very old. It's the same as major with a sharp four. (music) Mixoydian is like major with a lowered seventh. (music) One, two, three, four, five, six. And then you have the chords.

Now, you don't need to know these scales. So why am I telling you? Maybe you do. But if you come to a lecture, you got to learn stuff. Okay? So, that's one thing. But the other thing is that the whole concept of how these modes, these scales, are used to organize thought is really a big deal. If you studied an instrument as a kid and you practice scales all the time, you may not have ever made the connection between the scales and the music.

Maybe you did. Maybe you heard some pieces where the scales were going up and down. But that's not what they really do. They generate the harmonies. They generate the melodic lines. They create the textures that are possible, and basically everything that is possible. And what Debussy did was jettison the most traditional scales of France, at that time, in Europe at that time, and bring in something Asian. Two Asian modes, actually. A whole tone in pentatonic, even though they were floating around in Europe, and they were also floating around heavily in Russia.

For some reason, and we know the reason, a lot of interesting things happened musically in Russia in the late 19th, early 20th century. It's because they were so isolated from Europe. So things were different, like a different dialect of music. Now come the chords. One of those chords might have made you think of Jerome Kern or Gershwin right away.

That's fine. We're going to get to Gershwin. He was very, very influenced by France. But basically, if you take your your standard major chord (music) which you can find on almost any instrument that has strings. (music) And you had a seven, this is a standard harmony. Then if you keep going by thirds... (music) That's your ninth. And if I do nine, 11 and then 13, I now have all seven notes of the scale organized as thirds.

Debussy never really used that that way, but Copland did. We'll get to Copland. Dividing the scale up into blocks of chords and separating them. But where the 13th chord is, you see a note missing? The 11th is missing because the 11th makes it very saturated and dissonant. So that was too much for Debussy. So he usually left it out.

And where does it resolve? But to that very missing note. If you're in a key. Alright? Now, if you flat that 13th, (music) then you're going to want to leave out the fifth because that dissonance I mean, you might like it, but it's a dissonance that is sort of counterproductive to what, you're building this resonance structure. And that dissonance makes the resonance less stable.

And so you want it to ring. (music). Underneath the flat thirteenth you see I wrote you a note, I'm not sure which one of you has this on your paper, but the lucky one. It says, "If you leave out the fifth and the word "the" is missing, that's supposed to be humorous. If you leave out fifth, it is, and "a" is missing.

No, it's nowhere. It is whole tone related. In other words, if you know this does not come from the whole tone scale, Debussy, I'm sure, heard this because he used it all the time. If you leave this out and this, then you've got a whole tone scale chord which also relates to tonality. It's a common pivot. Pivots are very important to a composer.

He's got a chord that can be found in the whole tone scale. And a chord that can be found in major and minor. That's unusual. So that's beautiful. I mean, you could do that simply with this, (music) but this is better (music). Because it's richer, it's more resonant, it's more complex. Then you have your little augmented triad.

So, what Debussy did is divorce these things, as I said, from functionality. Now, if you heard a Debussy lecture of mine in the past, you know that I often compare them to different rooms in a building. I'll do that quickly, but I have another one I want to try, which is probably something Debussy would have understood. I sometimes say that you can take a chord (music) that exists, let's say, in the kitchen.

You know, each room of your apartment has a function. You have a kitchen, bedroom, a bathroom, a living room. They have names that tell you what they're for. That's what harmony used to be like before Debussy. You have chords that have a purpose and we know how to use them. We don't go into the bedroom to make lunch.

Well, I know some people do. That's not my point. Okay. And what Debussy did was, instead of using the different rooms, he would take one room like this chord. (music) I'll just use a simpler chord. (music) And just move it up and down the kitchen line from the different floors of the building. (music) They're all kitchen, so to speak. And you're not supposed to have a series of vertical kitchens, but that's basically what he did.

Now, I still like that. That's why I told it to you again. But from Debussy's point of view, he was collecting these chords as separate objects. In other words, yes, you can think of them in some metaphor, but to him, each chord had its own value just as a harmony without being related to anything at all. That's why he can put them anywhere he wants and puts any chord next to any other chord as long as it sounds good to him.

A young composer studying, not only today, but for the last 50 years, maybe a little longer, they would all think that that's what you do. You put things together musically the way you want to You just, what sounds good. Of course it's what sounds good. But until Debussy made that point, that theory is, he said the only thing that matters is pleasure, not theory.

It was a new concept. Stravinsky simultaneously did similar things, but Stravinsky had some systems he was working on. Schoenberg had a system that he developed. Scriabin had a system that he developed. Debussy thought, "Who needs a system?" Now, that doesn't mean he didn't get rid of vocabulary. Now, he didn't have a system, but he wasn't exactly an anarchist because- I mean, it sounds dangerous, but because he did have tendencies, his taste was predictable after a while.

So, it might be possible for somebody to go through all of Debussy's music and come up with a latent system or a subconscious system. That's fine. I'm sure I could do it because I imitate Debussy's music all the time, but that's not the point. He may have done that, but he wasn't consciously working with the system as the others were, definitely.

So, I mean, for example, The Rite of Spring of Stravinsky, which many people just say was just a wild torrent of sound. Anything that occurred to him, he did. And as Stravinsky said at the time, it was given to him by a higher power and partly to my friend Jonah Lehrer, who wrote a book called Proust, was a neuroscientist, in which he talks about how Stravinsky's music was completely wild and unpredictable.

And then we learned how to hear it because our brains adapt. The fact is, it wasn't. It had a system. It was full of highly, highly organized music. People took a while to hear it, but The Rite of Spring is not written by ear, only. It is an ear that is highly organized, based on a whole series of presumptions that Stravinsky came up with.

So getting back to this, the piece, En Blanc et Noir, which I'm going to say a little of that and we'll hear a little of it. We don't have two pianists today, so we'll hear some highlights and some ideas. This fits near the end of his life in a strange way, Debussy's life. The war, World War One, took a real toll on everybody, of course, but for Debussy, he stopped writing for a while.

He also developed colon cancer during that period. He died at 56, which is exactly how old I am. So if you want to know what Debussy, what he looked like, here I am.

He started to get interested in being French in a new way because of the war. He wrote letters about being French. He wrote anti-German letters at the same time as he, everybody was, in France at the same time as he didn't- he wrote a letter to the government of France saying we should not ban German music, which they were going to do. And he got other composers to sign that.

On the other hand, in some of his private letters, he was considering that it might be a good thing. I'll read you a couple of things and then we'll get to En Blanc Noir- is a war piece. It was written in 1915. It has bugle calls. It has Ein feste Burg ist unser ist unser Gott to be German.

A mighty fortress is our God appears to represent the Germans. A very weird almost incomprehensible quote of the Marseillaise is there. And I would not even have noticed it except Debussy mentions it. And when you find it you realize it's very weird. So here are a few things that Debussy had to say about all this. From his letters.

"For seven months now, music has been subordinated to the military regime. Although strictly confined to barracks or ordered out on charitable missions, she has in general suffered less from inactivity than from her mobilization. Today, when the virtues of our race," meaning French, which, of course, is not a race. But anyway, "Today, when the virtues of our race are being exalted, the victory should give our artists a sense of purity and remind them of the nobility of the French blood.

We have a whole intellectual province to recapture. That is why, at a time when only faith can turn the page," talk about a page turner, "And fate can turn the page, music must bide her time and take stock of herself before breaking that dreadful silence, which will remain after the last shell has been fired." Another from a letter.

"What I am doing," meaning composing, "Seems so wretchedly small. I've got to the state of envying Sarti," who is a corporal in the army, and is really going to defend Paris. "I believe that we shall pay dearly for the right not to love the art of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. As for Beethoven, it has happily been discovered that he was Flemish."

But of course there is the van, not the von. You know that Beethoven's name is V-A-N, not V-O-N and Beethoven himself, this is another lecture, but really fast. Beethoven, in print, printed V-O-N a lot so that he would be mistaken for nobility. But it was a Dutch name and when it was discovered he got in a lot of trouble in court.

So during this period, I just have one more wonderful quote. This is a very simple thought, but I like having it in print to say." War is a state of mind contradictory to thought." That's it. I think it's an amazing quote. Now, here we have some music of Debussy where unlike his other music, he actually is an impressionist unarguably or inarguably, depending on whether you're speaking French or English.

He is an impressionist because he is taking musical objects, tunes from other people and putting them in strange contexts like a painter. An impressionist painter is doing one thing that is very hard for a musician to do. An impressionist painter is painting a cathedral, is painting the moon, is painting the landscape. With an impression of how we see it or how the painter sees it.

What is the composer making an impression of? Music is not normally an impression of a thing, so that's a very complicated situation. Yes, it may remind you of Impressionism because it has an indistinct quality. It may feel like moonlight, especially if he puts Clair de Lune on it. But if he puts something else on it, you know, just E Clair would sound like that too.

But he starts quoting things. Bugle calls, just in a few pieces. First, I'll play you a little bit of a piece that no one ever plays anymore, except there are unfortunately performances of this occasionally, berceuse héroïque. The heroic lullaby which he dedicated to Belgium, the king of Belgium. And it has the Belgian national anthem in it. So here's a little bit of it. It's very strange piece of music.

I'm going to move forward in the quote for time's sake. (music) You can't believe it's Debussy if you know Debussy. Little bits of the Belgian national anthem. In Blanc et Noir, the second movement, whoops. This thing is very sensitive. The second movement has a real war quality to it. And by the way, musically speaking, he's occasionally in a key.

Then he shifts to pentatonicism. Then it's whole tones. Then it's whatever he wants. He also does something that was really shocking to people at the time, which he would harmonize things in seconds. I don't mean really fast. I mean if you take this this little melody (music) Here's a melody. Instead of thirds, he would do this. (music) Or (music) But if you do enough seconds, you have a whole tone scale. And sometimes the whole tone scale emerges.

Now to write seconds is not so strange, but at the time, of course, this was really bizarre. Here's some of this music where you will hear A Mighty Fortress is our God, the sense of impending doom and battle. A little bit of what sounds like patriotic music, which cheapens it a little bit. You know, patriotism is a very unartistic emotion.

It's strange. There are people, though, who have achieved only that successfully, like John Philip Sousa. But because he didn't do anything else, it's hard to put it in perspective. That's all he did. Patriotism. Debussy, who wrote this huge palette of emotional and intellectual ideas, in his palette, patriotism is jarring. But here, you'll hear some patriotism. You will hear the enemy coming as a Lutheran hymn, for which he was criticized.

People being, "Why did you put that Lutheran hymn in there? Are you for the Germans?" Okay. And then you will hear, at some point, or you won't hear, the Marseillaise. But I'll point it out you. Actually, I better tell you what it is, otherwise you'll never, ever hear it. This is it. (music) You would not know that. But if you go. (music)

But he does this. That's it. In fact, nobody recognized it until he wrote in a letter that the Marseillaise is... Then everybody found it. Okay. So here's a little bit of this music. This is from a performance that the Chamber Music Society was, a few years back with Anne-Marie McDermott and Lilu Vizi. (music) It's pretty obvious.

You can feel the cannons rolling.

It's like a movie. Marseillaise.

There it is again. And victory is around the corner as the page is turned by fate. It's impossible to hear that piece without putting it in context to actually appreciate it. Unlike a lot of his other music. Each movement is dedicated to a friend who was killed in the war. But even though it is very different from his music generally and it is essentially programmatic and therefore has a possibility of being impressionistic because it is based on images, sonic images like the rumbling, you know, it's programmatic, meaning drums, bugle calls and those things are like birdcalls, which are not in this piece, but with Messiaen and other composers.

Those things relate to something outside of music, and because of that it can be somewhat impressionistic. Even with the detail, though, every little thing in this piece is as thought out as in his masterpieces. I mean, this is a beautifully written piece. There's a big chord that you heard when things are looking good for the French. (music) This chord is a ninth chord, big, fat, dominant ninth.

But when things are not looking good at the beginning, he does this chord. (music) It's kind of obvious, but that chord is related to the other one. They are both (music) This one, he flatted the fifth and added a minor ninth and kept the fifth. That was the same chord. So this incredibly dissonant sound (music) which, by the way, it's for two pianos.

That's why I have to go like this. (music) When the German element is expunged from the harmony, you get a pure ninth chord. (music) And you get... So that he actually was using the language that he developed literally to portray the trouble and the triumph. The trials and the triumph of the notes. In the notes, I should say. Every little thing in here has- almost everything Debussy did gave an entire way of composing to to the next few generations.

Even musical comedies in America owe a lot to both Debussy and Ravel for the whole sound world opened. But in fact, if you think of something like The Fantasticks, if you know that piece, without Debussy, you wouldn't have it. Here's the opening of the same piece. First movement. (music) The freedom of the textures and all of these unresolved but beautiful harmonies.

Now we accept them. They're part of the jazz world. They are part of, as I said, musical comedy, but they're part of not only a pop music that mostly is not being written anymore. I mean, it's mostly contemporaneous with Ravel that the- and then of course musical theater in America harmonically is usually 50 to 80 years behind some European composer which is fine.

In other words, Richard Rodgers is Brahms simplified. And the people who come in the sixties are looking more at Debussy. Almost 100 years, well, not 100 years. 60 years later. And then, of course, I don't know where else to take that. But I mean, I will tell you one neuroscience test I looked at recently, rap does not register in the right, in the hemisphere where music is registered. Only where words are.

And so it makes sense. If you think of it as theater and poetry, it goes there and the music part of the brain does not respond. But, you know, it is words. Now, I mention that because it's the tendency of popular culture, and this is often denied, is that it is very far behind the vocabulary of art culture, very far behind.

But it sort of makes sense because everything is familiar by then. One of the great dilemmas... as a composer, I can tell you this very humorous dilemma to live in America. If you want to be in the classical, so-called classical world, which is a word that I don't think means anything exactly, because, you know, it was the 18th century.

But anyway, then you have to always write something that seems somehow fresh and new and not like any other piece. But if you're in the more popular world, you have to write something that sounds extremely familiar and like the stuff we already like. That doesn't mean people don't break through quite... But you're always caught between having to be extremely original, supposedly, and having to be definitely in a way that's established.

And yet they both morph. And the classical one moves much faster because people are trying to be innovative. And that's the M.O. is to have new language, have a new style. And then once that gets established. Then the more popular styles can say, "I'll take that." I've heard jazz pianists, even today, recently, who are basically using a vocabulary that comes out of Ravel. And one of them, very fine pianist, suddenly started playing some Ravel, like eight or nine bars of Ravel. Which I thought, meant that he was thinking, "If there's any musicians in the audience, here's some Ravel, and then I'll get right back to where I was."

Which I thought was very, very entertaining, actually. Here is another piece from Debussy, the last prelude of Debussy. Fireworks. Feux D'artifice, which he quotes the Marseillaise again, for different reasons. Because it has to do with fireworks. (music) That's the very end of it. And this is all it is. (music) Near the end of Debussy's life when he, you know, one of the first people in the world to have a colonoscopy. Didn't work.

But you probably didn't expect to hear that bit of information but I prepare. So anyway, he started to sign all his music, "French Composer," after his name and actually musician. "Musician Francais," because he wanted to make it clear that he was and that being French mattered to him, which was not something that was on his mind for most of his life that way.

But it was in a certain way because when Debussy was young and when he was a student at that Paris Conservatory with Giraud and all these other people, the biggest problem they had was that German music was played more than French music and that the canon was German. Beethoven still ruled. Debussy felt that Beethoven was an extremely talented composer who occasionally had bad taste. Which he also said of Liszt.

Of course, the difference between Beethoven and Liszt is enormous, but he put them both in the category of composers who occasionally had bad taste. Debussy's favorite composers were Robert Schumann and Chopin and Mozart. And what you get by linking Schumann, Chopin and Mozart is a delicacy and a clarity, but also, especially in Chopin and Schumann, harmonic innovation, that there's always a sense of new in the harmony.

Mozart, it was more for him, the textures and the structures being so good it could have been French. And of course, Chopin came to live in Paris. Schumann didn't, but he should have. So next week going to hear and we will have playing for us the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, one of his great masterpieces written near the end of his life as part of his project of six Sonats, six sonatas that were all by Le Musician Francais.

He didn't finish them all, but and this is one of the most extraordinary, well, at least we'll be able to hear it and examine what we already now know about Debussy's language to see how this creates a new piece. And one thing I didn't say at all, to prepare you for that piece is that aside from being innovative in all these ways, he also looked back to the Baroque.

He was very much inspired by the French Baroque. But as your last parting moment, you thought you were done. He also looked back to the Renaissance, and one of the pieces that inspired him when he wrote these war pieces was a vocal work called La Gare by Jean Cant written in the early 17th century. I'll play you a little part of it here.

It's all voices. But it was the idea that a great composer and this was a great Renaissance composer could write something about war and be kind of literal. Here is an impressionist vocal work from the Renaissance. (music) Whoops, no. That is not it. That's the same piece. Here we go. Whoops. Wait. My finger is touching everything. Here we go. (music)

Okay. (vocalizations)

So you see that this, back there in the early 1600s, here's a composer imitating war and actually they're making sounds just like a lot of people do now. Because when you, if you're singing and you only have your voice of course you will come up with those things. Nothing is really new. But there you have something that inspired Debussy to include drums, cannons and bugles going back because he felt one way to make French music great and new was to go back to the earliest French music.

So we went back to French Renaissance, French Baroque in order to reinvigorate and combat German hegemony. Thank you. Goodnight. 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. See you next time.