Sunday 27 May 2018

Classical: Debussy, Schubert and a tale of two classics...

Mystery: Claude Debussy
Mystery: Claude Debussy

George Hamilton

One of the greatest of symphonies is Schubert's Eighth, the one we know as the "Unfinished". Just two magnificent movements, instead of the classical four, there is a school of thought that the composer left things where they'd arrived because he reckoned there was nothing more, musically, to say. In its very incompleteness, it was complete.

That notion hardly stands up, though, when you dig a little deeper, and discover that there was as well a scherzo, an upbeat passage to follow the slower second which fits in with the standard symphonic construction. No fourth movement finale, it's true, but Schubert had done the third part, sketching it out as piano music, and fully orchestrating the opening bars.

There he left it. We'll never know why, but the existence of the piano score surely scotches the theory that the two-section symphony was intended to be the finished article.

Another piece of music that has a similar air of mystery about it was written by a man who was born on this day in 1862. Claude Debussy's most famous tune is probably the piano solo Clair de Lune (French for "moonlight"), inspired by a poem of the same name, but it's his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune that connects him to the Schubert symphony, and this was a groundbreaker.

Again it was a poem that was the starting point. Just as Clair de Lune was one of a suite of pieces telling a story, the prelude was to be the starting point for the tale of how the faun of the title - a forest god from Roman mythology - might spend an afternoon in the woods.

By the time Debussy had finished his prelude, he realised he didn't need to go any further. The 10 minutes he'd produced said it all.

Debussy's music is often bracketed with the work of the impressionist painters of his time - Degas, Monet, Renoir - though he himself despised the term, but you can hear why in the Prélude. Just as the paintings were impressions of what the artist saw, inspired by colour and light more than the strict rules of art, so Debussy created a soundscape unlike anything that had gone before.

This isn't music that fits a framework. It conjures a scene. The solo flute that snakes through the opening bars going nowhere in particular suggests a mind at ease in the still of a summer's afternoon. A harp ripples in the background, as the woodwind leads, clarinet and oboe joining in to underline an atmosphere of calm. The brass is restrained, the strings delicate. The flute meanders, the melody sounding more like improvisation than something carefully scored. The music drifts this way and that, scarcely ever coming to the melodic equivalent of a full stop, the complete chord to end a statement.

Though there was nothing to follow, for whatever reason Debussy stuck with Prelude as his title. He'd created something that would change the direction of music. Leonard Bernstein spoke of its ambiguity. Debussy had ignored the rules and opened the door to a whole new world of harmonic potential.

Pierre Boulez reckoned the Prélude marked the beginning of modern music. It opens an album of his conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Debussy - Images, Deutsche Grammophon 435 766-2). The same label has Bernstein conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performing the Schubert (Symphony No. 8 - Unfinished, 478 4039-8).

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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