|Debussy enjoying a day at the beach in happier times|
Part One: A Sonata by Debussy & a Rhapsody by Bartók – The Music
In today's global world, we think nothing of these ethnic descriptors where, courtesy of the airplane, a performer can play on one continent one day and, jet-lag aside, another continent the next. And, after a century surviving two world wars, composers of various nationalities appear side-by-side on programs where, in the past, their compatriots might have been at war with each other or, in the age-old traditions of lowering art to the level of politics, waxing xenophobic about the cultural dangers of their music.
But more on that in "Part Two" after the videos...
Once again, I'll start with the “video with score,” in this case a recording by Schlomo Mintz and Yefim Bronfman.
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Or if you prefer a live performance, there's this one from the Josef Joachim Competition of 2015 with American violinist Nancy Zhou, from the semi-final round, with pianist Natsumi Ohno:
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It's in three movements, the first one starting with a simple “gesture” that might remind you of the Franck's opening. I'm not sure it's a coincidence: a reference to Franck, a voice from the now more distant past than it had been in Debussy's youth, would not be unlikely at this time of his life, whether as a direct homage or even as an inside joke.
The first movement, marked Allegro vivo, may sound quite austere compared to the lush “impressionistic” pieces of Debussy's you're probably more familiar with. There are gestures of a tempestuous fury where fragments seem to enter, recede, and return. The middle movement, marked Intermède, may start off jaunty but it's clear this is not a light-hearted scherzo. The Finale, très animé, is again more on the “dark side” with melodies (or fragments of melodies) going in circles, perhaps shards of melody but still recognizable. On the whole, this short work is far removed from Debussy's earlier works like the Preludes (for instance, Voiles) where you can just lie back and bathe in the beautiful sounds.
There isn't time to go into any real detail, here, covering some forty years of creativity, but perhaps a bit of biographical background may help.
After finishing both the Cello Sonata and the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp in 1915, in the midst of World War I, he finished the Violin Sonata in time for its premiere in May, 1917, playing the piano part himself in what would become his last public performance. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1915 and had undergone a colostomy operation – “the effort of dressing [in the morning] seems like one of the labors of Hercules” – but it did little to relieve the pain.
His own reaction to the piece was “conflicted” at best: “I only wrote the sonata to be rid of the thing... [It] will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what is produced by a sick man in a time of war.”
He would be dead within a year of its premiere, in the midst of the German's artillery attack on Paris.
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Between 1900 and 1902, Debussy was finishing up his opera Pelleas et Melisande, and Ravel, a 25-year-old student invariable in trouble with his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, joined a group of misfit students calling themselves Les apaches (“The Hooligans,” essentially the beatniks of their generation). When Debussy's opera premiered, the Conservatoire forbid its students to attend the performances; naturally Ravel heard every single one.
|Bela Bartók in 1927|
Meanwhile, Bela Bartók, then 19, arrived in Budapest to study at the Conservatory there and discovered the music of Richard Strauss. It wasn't until 1907 when fellow-student Zoltan Kodály came back from Paris bearing an armful of scores that Bartók discovered a composer named Debussy. Another discovery that year was overhearing a servant, a young peasant girl, singing a lullaby that was the first authentic bit of Hungarian folk music he'd ever heard – before then, the usual concept of “folk music” was the gypsy music (who are not ethnic Hungarians) beloved of Brahms and Liszt.
The first piece he composed after these two discoveries was his String Quartet No. 1 in 1908. Until then, his earliest music sounded a lot like Brahms and Richard Strauss. Now, the genuine Bartók began to emerge.
Fast-forward to the mid-1920s. Having studied authentic folk music of not only the Hungarians, going out into the countryside to gather and catalog it, he collected tunes from across the Balkan Peninsula and went as far as Northern Africa as well. All of these influenced the sounds and rhythms – and the structures – of his own music: when not arranging or transcribing these folk songs, he was creating his own themes and musical motives based on them, what he once described as “imaginary folk music.”
There were two violinists, friends of his, who figure in with his musical world – Josef Szigeti, perhaps better known internationally (you can hear Bartók and Szigeti's performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata a little later in this post), and Zoltan Szekely – frequently performing with them as a pianist both the standard repertoire as well as his own music.
In 1927 and 1928, he was working on two new string quartets, the 3rd and the 4th, both to be considered masterpieces of his “middle period,” which were premiered separately in 1929. Other major works like the 5th Quartet appeared in 1934, and the Music for Strings, Percussion & Celeste in 1936. Each of these were considered “difficult” works.
|Bartók & Szekely|
Both of these works are inspired by authentic folk-songs and -forms, opening with a slow movement (called a lassú) followed by a fast movement (called a friss) which is a “chain” of seven folk-dances, six of them Transylvanian fiddle tunes from the area (in present-day Romania) where Bartók was born, and a seventh from Ruthenia (now divided between Romania and Ukraine).
The pungent harmonies – “dissonances” to the traditional ear – are, in some respects, attempts to approximate the intotations of the original folk-style. We might think they're just singing or playing out-of-tune, but in many cases, Bartók found a consistant use of “micro-tones” – intervals smaller than the half-step between C and C-sharp – and so chose this way of harmonizing these melodies which, if played cleanly on a classically-tuned keyboard, would merely sound “too nice.”
In this recording, I've chosen the violinist to whom it was dedicated and who gave the premiere with the composer at the piano. However, despite what the screen-image says on this one, the pianist is not Bela Bartók: it's from a 1974 recording Szekely made with pianist Isobel Moore. Still...
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PART TWO: Politics and Art – Enter the Reality Behind the Music of Debussy and Bartók
The French have had a – how you say? – “cultural antipathy” with the Germans long before World War II. In fact, aside from high points of tension like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, one could argue it probably goes back before the days of Charlemagne twelve centuries ago, before there even was a nation called France and an identity called German. Since Germany as a nation-state didn't exist before 1871, we must think in terms of “cultural identity” with its language and art as a major feature, rather than in terms of real estate. Americans have difficulty with these questions but “what defines the French” or “what defines a German” while often intangible are more at the heart of what has kept Europe (and the rest of the world when the need to dominate one another spills over into Colonialism) on the verge of boiling over through most of history, erupting all too frequently like tectonic plates when enough has become enough...
I start with this awareness because this sense of art and its larger role in our individual cultures is at the heart of the lives and the music of the two 20th Century composers on this concert's program: Claude Debussy in France, writing his Violin Sonata in 1918, and Bela Bartók writing his rhapsodies for violin and piano in Hungary ten years later.
Now, innocently enough, you may wonder what that has to do with war and nationalist hyperbole.
On one level, Debussy's sonata was written at the end of World War I. It was the last piece he completed when he died during the German shelling of Paris.
From the morning of March 21st, 1918, the French capital was hit periodically by explosions. Initially, no one knew where these were coming from with no aircraft or artillery visible anywhere. They soon found the explosions were coming from shells fired from guns behind the German lines some 120 kilometers to the northeast. That it could hit Paris from there was terrifying enough, yet another war-time breakthrough in the science of how to kill people, the introduction of a kind of Super Cannon.
Though the accuracy of the shells was doubtful, the psychological impact of the bombardment was immense – if not increasing the French sense of fatalism. Still, the day of Debussy's funeral, one shell hit Notre Dame during a Good Friday service where a section of roof collapsed, killing 88 people.
Debussy was working on a series of six sonatas – thinking back to what I'd said about composers in the 18th Century writing works in “sets” – in which the next one would be for trumpet, horn, and harpsichord and the last combining all of these diverse instruments into a chamber orchestra. The intent was to honor French composers of the 18th Century, much as Ravel would do after the war with his Tombeau de Couperin. On the title page, he signed himself “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”
Debussy's style, even in his earliest works, was specifically French in sound. To us in our American melting pot, this seems obvious: we have no “American Sound” and glibly say So-and-So is an American Composer because he or she is an American. (Yes, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is held up as an example of The American Sound but few American composers then or now sound like that. The music was, more, an evocation of what America might have sounded like, once upon a time.)
Claude Debussy was always a visually-inspired artist. His studio was full of those souvenir postcards from art museums, reproductions of great paintings. During most of his career, he never gave something an abstract title, always a “picturesque” title – think of the individual Preludes – even if they did not tell a story. Perhaps it's better to think of the term Impressionism when applied to his music less about a vague style of painting than something giving the listener “an impression” of what the music might evoke in the imagination?
Still, his use of the whole-tone scale, negating the dominance of the tonal major and minor scale that had been the bedrock of Classical Music since around 1600, was considered revolutionary – if such vague, vaporous music could be “revolutionary” – and did as much to usher in the 20th Century as did the rhythms of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire or the folk-influenced style of Bela Bartók, discovering scales from outside the concert hall that also had little relationship to the more cultured major and minor scale of Classical Tonality. But in fact none of these composers could have existed if Claude Debussy hadn't set his shimmering light on a new path at the end of the 19th Century at a time when French Music was still trying to free itself from the influences of that dreadful music from across the Rhine...
There was nothing – at least to our ears today – that might define Camille Saint-Saëns as particularly French and specifically non-German. Called “The French Beethoven” in his day, mostly due to his stature as a composer, he wrote symphonies and sonatas like any German composer of the day. The main distinction was a lack of reliance on counterpoint which Erik Satie would eventually call “Sauerkraut in music,” the different fibers of musical lines moving in dense textures according to strict rules.
French minds rarely thought in terms of such strictness – or precision. Where the German (especially the Prussian) mind was conscious of the passing (and therefore the wasting) of time – I remember a friend of mine from Berlin who would become nervous as a choral concert would begin and the singers had not yet been ushered onto the stage: “We are now twelve seconds late!” – the French might be a little more lax about such things (to an extreme, perhaps, but “if not today, perhaps tomorrow”) and my German friend would say “No wonder the French have never accomplished anything!”
American composer and Francophile Ned Rorem once said something about two mindsets in the world – things are either French or they're German. And in a sense this stereotype (such as it is) might help us understand the music of these two cultures.
Going back to the Baroque Era, a major difference between Bach as a German and Couperin or Rameau as Frenchmen was one of texture. Couperin was “simpler” in his presentation, less involved in counterpoint (even then) and more concerned about decoration, those incredibly complex ornaments musicians have to master to approximate the little curlicues of the surface, just like the paintings and architecture of the day were full of “ornaments” to the basic visible shape. Rameau would never have written a fugue as part of a harpsichord piece and though Bach's suites are full of dances both French and German in origin, as were Couperin's, he would never have called something “The Hen” or “The Little Windmills.”
And so Debussy, writing preludes called “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” or “Sails” rather than Prelude No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, was carrying on this visual tradition of French music already over 150 years old.
The fact he shattered the grasp of tonality in the process by using different scales was merely a way of saying, okay, if the Germans under Wagner, especially with Tristan, were already destroying the diatonic nature of Classical Tonality with their highly-charged (erotic!) chromaticism, he could do the same, still using major and minor chords but chords that didn't move the same way they usually did in traditional Classical Tonality, always heading for a resolution to the dominant and tonic chords of a given tonic's scale.
And so, basically, atonality was loosed upon the world in the innocent, lush sounds of something like Debussy's “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” – the riot at its premiere, by the way, had more to do with Nijinsky's choreography with its erotic suggestions than with Debussy's music. Still, even today, many people find this “rootless” music with its ambiguous sounds unsettling. It's interesting to realize when Paris first heard it in 1894, Brahms had just written his two Clarinet Sonatas and Tchaikovsky (speaking of rivalries) had died only the year before.
Is Debussy becoming “more German” in writing something so abstract-sounding as a Sonata, in writing music that is in itself abstract rather than picturesque?
No – the influences that drive this change of style is still the result of French music, in this case the works of the early-18th Century French Baroque masters who were to influence Ravel, his younger contemporary (often paired together, Ravel was 13 years Debussy's junior and, given Debussy's role as an influence on younger students, aesthetically a different generation). Both were making the transition from a "romantic" lushness of sound to a more abstract, cleaner, less overtly emotional style we now call Neo-Classicism.
The question also exists, where would this take Debussy, moving onto this “new path” with these latest works of his, the abstract, technical piano etudes (now lacking picturesque titles) and in particular these three sonatas – and the three more he had planned but never started – if he hadn't died of cancer in his mid-50s?
Here is one more performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata, offered as a bridge to Bartók, significantly influenced by Debussy's music in the early part of his own career. This 1940 Library of Congress recital features the great Hungarian violinist Josef Szigeti with Bela Bartók at the piano.
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Bartók's early career was dominated by the Germans of the Austrian Empire even before World War I and the end of his career was ruined by the Germans of Hitler's Germany during World War II.
Hungary had long been a province of the Austrian Empire, only in 1867 becoming an odd “dual-monarchy” in which the Austrian Emperor was also the King of Hungary but the Hungarians had a certain limited autonomy with their own capital in Budapest. Still, the sense most Hungarians had was their land – and their culture – was occupied by the German-speaking Austrians.
Young Bartók, arriving in Budapest, became caught up in this search for a national identity. It was more than just wearing “Hungarian-style clothes” or speaking Hungarian at home (German being the official, “public” language) – it was also a search for what made Hungarian music sound... if not Hungarian, then, at least Not German.
Ultimately, the Empire dissolved in 1918 after World War I, an independent Hungary then fell into chaos both economically and politically, and eventually, in the late-1930s, the Germans returned, incorporated Hungary into its Fascist Axis, and in this case it was a true political and psychological occupation.
Bartók and his family would ultimately leave Hungary for America in 1940 where, in 1945 just five months after the fall of Berlin, he would die in poverty at the age of 64 in a New York hospital from a form of leukemia diagnosed too late, a sad ending to the hope one hears in this short piece of music from 1928, where, in the midst of the real world going on around him, he took a little time to savor a Hungarian musical voice.
So, for the moment, let's leave it at that.