Rather like the great impressionist painters, Debussy is now so familiar and popular that the sheer radicalism and originality of music can very easily be taken for granted. When I read Pierre Boulez many years ago stating that the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was the beginning point of modern music it rather took me aback, as the Prélude is such a beguiling piece which now feels familiar and friendly and about as revolutionary as an afternoon spent relaxing in the garden on a sunny May afternoon in England that the idea of it being the start of the musical dawn that eventually brought us Pli selon pli and Le marteau sans maître seems an incredible statement. Yet it is true.
Of all the sets of piano pieces by Debussy I've a particular soft spot for the Estampes of 1903. These are considered the composer's breakthrough pieces as regards him becoming the great radical of the piano we know (if we remember) from the Images and Preludes.
Estampes (meaning 'Prints') begins with an evocation of East Asia, Pagodes. What Debussy is doing here is rendering for the piano and impression of the soundworld of the Javanese gamelan, which the composer had only recently heard in Paris. The low notes sounding resonant fifths are certainly evoking gongs, but conjuring the specific sonorities of the Eastern percussion orchestra isn't really what Debussy is about here. Over soft gong-sounds, a melody is played. It is then repeatedly replayed at the same pitch and with no change whatsoever to its actual notes against a changing background of new harmonies and, later, a counter-melody. This is new in Western music, but not (of course) new in Russian music. (See my earlier posts on Glinka and Balakirev). Debussy learned a lot from Russian music. The process had already been tried in his orchestral work, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, where the opening flute melody is treated in a similar way. A pedal (those gong-like open fifths) makes this music float. The rest of Pagodes shows how Debussy abandoned the old tonic-dominant harmonic progressions and the old logic of the Franco-German tradition and began structuring pieces in a new more mosaic-like way. Passages come and go and are repeated or re-coloured rather than developed. Debussy made music from fragments, fragments that appealed to him, shoring them against his ruins (to make an apt allusion to Eliot's The Wasteland).
La soirée dans Grenade, the central 'print', paints the scene of a sultry night in southern Spain with an evocative power that bowled over Manuel de Falla. The piece uses the rhythm of the habanera throughout.This dance had an eventful career in French classical music but was born in Cuba early in the 19th Century. As the century progressed it migrated to Spain and became voguish there. The charming works of Basque composer Sebastián Yradier, such as La Poloma and El Arreglito, put the dance on the map in France. (See if you recognise who borrowed a tune from El Arreglito and made it very famous!) Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Chabrier and Ravel all wrote habanera-based works (all of them gems). In La soirée dans Grenade the rhythm strikes up and Debussy gives us a Spanish-style melody. The melody is heard and later re-heard but not really developed. It is a fragment to be savoured, like the scent of orange groves. A new, faster fragment is juxtaposed with it. A comparison to the art of mosaic-making could be made, with each fragment between a piece in the mosaic - all adding up to a total, colourful, coherent work of art. Other pieces are added to the mosaic as it proceeds towards its final form.
Estampes ends with the toccata-like Jardins sous la Pluie ('Gardens in the Rain'). As you will hear, this is no light drizzle on the garden but a full-blown downpour. Intriguingly, the tunes in this movement are, in the manner of T.S. Eliot, borrowed tunes - a couple of French folksongs, Dodo, l'enfant do and Nous n'irons plus au bois. These tunes dance on raindrops.
Perhaps the other reason why Debussy's radical originality is overlooked, of course, is that - unlike the likes of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez (etc) - his revolutionary music is revolutionary in the least threatening way. The results are so beautiful that the 'newness' of the means used to achieve them becomes almost irrelevant to the listener.