Claude Debussy and the Prism of Life

Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1888 Vincent Van Gogh

Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh

Until the seventeenth century, light was accepted as a force of illumination, colorless and devoid of structure, the essential device by which God brought life from a formless void.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said Let there be Light. And there was Light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God separated light from the darkness.                                                            Genesis 1:  1-4  

Then Isaac Newton came along, and revealed that colorless light was actually a complex spectrum of many colors, the beams made of heretofore unknown constituent particles that disassembled by the prism could be easily reassembled. The understanding of the world and its realities were forever changed.  With the microscope, the wonders of microscopic life, with the telescope, the celestial heavens comprised of so much more than the visible known.

This new understanding, that the miracle of nature and life was not for simple interpretation but for complex experience of the seen and the unseen, the heard and the sensed, inevitably established itself as a device by which the artist and musician , as interpreters of the two most visceral senses, expanded their creative forces to interact with man’s ultimate tool of expression, his imagination.

The 19th century was period of the most intense experimentation in these concepts, with the end of the century achieving the synthesis of this ideas in a merged artistic school known broadly as Impressionism.  The goal of the impressionists, whether in writing , art, or music was to achieve a projection of the essence of a subject, rather than a description of it.  Paintings fragmented or blended light, removed both clarity and shadows, brought an ethereal sense of place without specifically demanding accuracy from it. To look at the same haystack at three different times of day or two different seasons changed entirely the essence of it, and the feelings it emoted.  The power of this human impulse to interpret the natural world this way was most developed in France, linearly from Manet to Monet to Renoir to Van Gogh and beyond.

A parallel track was occurring in music, initiating with Berlioz and the Russian Five developing the telescopic power of the modern symphony through Wagner and his symbolic use of sound through motifs, but the back to France to join the painters and authors, through the most original stylings of a very unique genius, Claude Debussy.

Claude Debussy was born in the town of Saint Germaine in countryside near Paris in August 1862, just before Manet’s Luncheon in the Grass was revealed to Paris in an exhibition highlighting the first transitions from realism to something altogether more evocative.  Debussy’s family was driven from Paris by the crisis of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, and moved to Cannes, where his musical talents were discovered and allowed to flourish under a diverse set of colorful instructors, that appealed to his contrarian and bohemian genetics.  Artistic education for talented people propelled through France’s Academe, where the principles of classical art and music were rigorously enforced.  Debussy like all scoundrel talented youths from time immemorial had no patience for the judgements of accredited types, and sought his own muse almost immediately.  He was never a fan of the concept of Impressionism as it was then understood, but preferred the symbolic aspects devised by Wagner, while repelled by its bombastic Germanic expression.    He was drawn more to the world of the microscope than the telescope, relating to more intimate expressions and internalized emotions, consistent with other avant-garde composers like Satie.

Debussy reduced the experience of music to its essence, but he was not averse to beauty.  For him the natural world was so inherently beautiful that even discordant voices and cords could be, like the prism, used to emote a unified whole that was spiritual by his definition.  And beauty was for him the most primordial expression of the senses.  It flows like its own force from the tone poems of Images,Iberia,  and La Mer to the crystal glass intimacy of Clair du Lune, Reverie, and l’apres-midi d’un Faune.  The music soars and dives, roles and ripples, like light through leaves or wind through a screen.  It is tactile and physical, but does not exist in the conscious emotions of passions or anger.  This is  the serenity of the natural world on the floating mind, clouds between storms and waves driven by the eternal tides.  Expressing like JMW Turner, we are left to feel the boat on the ocean, or is it only a cloud, though it matters not because it is after all, the essence of the sea.

Debussy produced volumes of work that ushered in other great composers like Ravel, and contributed side by side with contemporaries like Stravinsky.  He unfortunately lived long enough to see the realities of the mechanized world destroy the intimacies of the old innocence with the brutal forces unleashed by World War I, another August anniversary of note.  The faintly discordant sonorities of Debussy were soon over taken by the cold  post industrial mathematical expressions of Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.  The prismatic quality of Debussy was no longer capable of being reassembled as a unified expression linked by beauty.  The immense calamity of World War I and its effect on the psyches of both artist and audience alike saw to that.

But then, nobody is meditating to Schoenberg, or rocking their baby to sleep with Webern.  The innate stimulus of a special human place in the brain is Debussy’s gift to us, and like the prism, separates and re-assembles the world into a unified beautiful whole we long for in our daily lives, when the real world gets to be just a little too much.  Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the fateful declaration of war of Great Britain against Germany, exploding the conflict in the center of the continent into a world war, and changing the individual intimate world Debussy created for us forever.  The better memory will always be the gift of Debussy’s prisms of life.

And God said, let there be Light. And there was light.  And God saw the light,  that it was good.

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