Eurofebruari: Gamelanflirtaren Debussy

Eurofebruari på Panchamkauns: Gamelan-flirtaren Debussy –

“The Terrace for Consultations in the Moonlight” is one of three moon pieces written by Debussy for the piano. Probably the best known is “Claire de lune” from the Suite Bergamasque. More important in this context is “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fiat” in the second book of the Images, a piece that, in many respects, can be regarded as a counterpart to this prelude.

In search of possible sources for the wording of this caption we are directed to two contemporary publications. Pierre Loti’s L’Inde sans les Anglais (“India without the English”), published in 1903, contains a reference to “des terrasses pour tenir conseil au clair de lune” (terraces whereto consult with one another in the moonlight). Even more likely is the suggestion that Debussy might have taken the wording from René Puaux’s Lettres des Indes, which appeared in the newspaper Le Temps. In an issue of December 1912 we read the sentence “La salle de la victoire, la salle du plaisir, les jardins des sultanes, la terrasse des audiences au [sic] clair de lune.” (“The hall of victory, the hall of pleasure, the gardens of the sultans, the terrace of the moonlight audiences.”) Contemporary readers would have perceived these lines in the context of the festivities surrounding the coronation of King George V as Emperor of India, which received much comment at the time.

These remarks, however, are not intended to imply that the prelude contains any distinct element that could be isolated as conveying the flavor of the Indian subcontinent. Definite traces of Indian music are absent. This should not surprise us because, in contrast to Indonesian gamelan music and examples of Chinese and Japanese art that had been introduced to the West so successfully by the time Debussy was writing his Preludes, substantial knowledge of Indian art and music was probably not available to the composer.

images and ideas… var också helt renons, konstaterar Siglind Bruhn i Images and Ideas in Modern French Piano Music: The Extra-Musical Subtext in Piano Works by Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen (Pendragon Press), 1997.



Update: Det här kan inte få stå oemotsagt, för Debussy’s förhållande till diverse asiatisk musik är ett helt forskningsområde och i en volym som heter Recovering the Orient: Artists, Scholars, Appropriations hittar vi ett kapitel om ”Debussy and the Orient” av en Roy Howat. Som är betydligt mer inkluderande:

Indian Music. The role of this is hardest to trace, for until 1913 – near the end of Debussy’s life – there is no documentation of what Indian music he might have heard. Certainly one with Debussy’s curiousity, Oriental interests and wide contacts would hardly have missed any opportunities of hearing it in earlier years …

… under the musical surface, we find profounder relationships, not so much with the immediate sonorities of Indian music but rather with its theory and structure. Again Debussy, rather than imitating it here and there for isolated effects, appears to have integrated something of its essence and philosophy into his own normal language.

Peter Platt is one of several musicians with knowledge of East and West who have drawn attention to this affinity, which begins with Debussy’s love of drones combined with unusual modes and harmonies above that do not pursue a Western “functional” tonal dialectic of cadential progression. By itself the use of drones can be related to traditions from several continents. Where Debussy’s techniques go beyond these alternative analogies is in their affinity to the Indian principle of raga.

Raga means not just a mode or scale, but also the order in which the notes of the scale are first introduced – the way the musician progressively colours in his tonal canvas. Sometimes it specifies notes that have to be preceded  or followed by another, thus defining certain melodic shapes or turns.

Debussy’s affinity to this emerges from his way of building up a tonal or modal palette in a manner unfamiliar to Western tradition. The first movement of La Mer of 1903–5 illustrates this with several symbolic reverberations. The opening bass ostinato, especially its repeated falling fifth, recalles the tambura. At bar 33 the woodwind instruments introduce a fragment of pentatonic melody, whose parallel fifths and avoidance of major thirds allow it a distinctly Asian flavour. From this grows a longer melody at bar 35, adding the two modally “blue” notes C-flat and G-natural, modifying the initial tonal colour in the way that an Indian musician fills in, idea by idea or wave by wave, the colour of his raga.

Som ni ser krävs det lite välvilja för att tillskriva Debussy indiska drag. Ostinato och gradvis utveckling – så fortsätter resonemanget.

Debussy’s raga-like technique reaches a peak in the piano prelude ”Des pas sur la Neige” of 1909. Within a single two-page piece debussy concentrates the process three times, letting each of the piece’s three main paragraphs progressively introduce all twelve semitones (a usage going beyond that of raga) each time in a different but remarkable sequence. For example, in the first fifteen bars he opens with a complete aeolian mode (D E F G A Bb C) and then gradually adds the remaining five notes in a sequence of rising fifths, from B and F# (enharmonically) to Eb and finally Bb, with which note he completes the circle and ends the musical paragraph.

Most remarkable of all, Debussy realises this complete cycle of modulation without leaving his home key of D minor, which is held by a simple (and somewhat Indian-sounding) ostinato drone. Again the music disguises the techniques: some harmonies, especially later in the piece, sound purely Western. But both their means of modal gestation and their accompaniment, once examined, reveal their relationships to Indian music.

Not that all these characteristics can be argued back uniquely to Indian music. Some equally tambura-like drone basses can be found in Chopin’s music, which Debussy knew intimately. One wonders if Chopin, too, had been affected by Indian music. (!) No answer is known, though some Indian music could certainly be heard in Paris during his lifetime. Whatever the answer in Chopin’s case, the techniques seen in Debussy go far beyond just drone basses in their affinity to Indian music.

Hur som helst, i maj 1913 lärde Debussy känna (och hörde!) sufigurun Hazrat Inayat Khan som spelade Saraswati-veena i nordindisk stil. Några månader senare skrev han en hemsk balett, La boite à joujoux, med snutten ”pas de l’éléphant” som Debussy menade var en indisk melodi i en morgonraga, som används i elefantdomptyr. För allt indier gör har ju med elefanter, eller möjligtvis tigrar, att göra. Nu börjar vi tappa intresset för det här, men konstaterar att Debussy var långt ifrån renons. Det är väl inte omöjligt att han ställd inför indisk musik tänkte lite större än att bara kopiera melodier; han var ju ett av Europas stora genier. Men just därför är det också tänkbart att han tänkte i de nya banorna utan stimulans från Indien.

Hazrat Inayat Khan hörde han i alla fall, och den kvällen gjorde stort intryck på honom. Han kallade den för ”känslornas afton”. Spotify-generationen kan omöjligt föreställa sig vilket intryck det måste gjort för hundra år sedan – här kom en musiker från andra sidan jorden och man hade aldrig hört något liknande. Vi låter Roy Howat få sista ordet:

According to Musharraf Khan, Inayat Khan gave Debussy instruction on the vina, and when the brothers had to leave Paris on the outbreak of war in 1914, the vina was left with Debussy.

Visst skrev Siglind Bruhn om en yngre Debussy, men mindre renons kan det knappast bli.



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