Today is the birthday of Claude-Achille Debussy a French composer who was one of the most prominent figures associated with so-called “impressionist music,” though he himself disliked the term when applied to his compositions. Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales, chromaticism and atonality influenced a great many composers who followed him.
I suppose I could go on for a bit about how revolutionary Debussy was, how he marked a turning point in Western music, about his use of modal scales (notoriously difficult to harmonize), whole tone runs, ambiguous chord progressions and whatnot. That’s my usual thing. But I’m not going to this time. Instead, I first want you to just LISTEN. Then I want you to read some of the things he wrote about music, about life, about art, and about the world. His thoughts inspire me in ways that are rare among musicians talking about their work. Here’s “La Mer” – a popular favorite and certainly one of mine:
The fact that this piece, like so many of Debussy’s pieces, seems to go nowhere yet always makes sense is astonishing. It’s like the sea itself, yet is anything but programmatic. Debussy drew inspiration from nature, poetry, art, sunsets – everything. Of course, he drew inspiration from music too, yet what he wrote always seems fresh and new. Here’s his words with the occasional reflection from me. This is a paltry fraction from his vast mind.
Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.
I don’t know how to decide maestro. I don’t know what you felt except through your music.
I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.
I hear an echo of Michaelangelo’s thought here – I saw something sublime and failed to capture it. A real humility of self spawned from pure genius. Yet what he wants to do is make us rise above the mundane and dream.
Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist’s soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d’Annunzio’s mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church.
I do not practice religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpetted earth, … and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. … To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.
I believe the principle fault of the majority of writers and artists is having neither the will nor the courage to break with their successes, failing to seek new paths and give birth to new ideas. Most of them produce them twice, three, even four times. They have neither the courage nor the temerity to leave what is certain for what is uncertain. There is, however, no greater pleasure than going into the depth of oneself, setting one’s whole being in motion and seeking for new and hidden treasures. What a joy to find something new in oneself, something that surprises even ourselves, filling us with warmth.
To find something new in oneself? That is a rare treasure !!
Search for a discipline within freedom! Don’t let yourself be governed by formulae drawn from decadent philosophies: they are for the feeble-minded. Listen to no one’s advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind.
To complete a work is just like being present at the death of someone you love.
All people come to music to seek oblivion.
Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.
I hope my cooking conforms to the last sentiment. Debussy claimed to like Russian food best. Maybe another way he is linked to the great Russian composers. I’ve given a recipe for shchi already here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/modest-mussorgsky/ — a superb classic Russian soup. Now I’ll give a recipe from the heyday of Franco-Prussian cuisine (Debussy’s time): crab and mushroom gratin.
Crab and Mushroom Gratin
200g firm white fish fillets
315ml milk )
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1½ tsp ground cayenne (or to taste)
3 tbsp plain flour
150ml double cream
2 tsp Dijon mustard
fresh lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
325g button mushrooms, roughly chopped
3 tbsp brandy
400g white crab meat
30g white breadcrumbs
2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
35g grated Parmesan cheese
25g melted butter
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Put the fish fillets and the milk into a pan and gently heat to a simmer. Poach the fish for about 5 minutes, or until barely cooked. Lift the fish out with a slotted spoon and break it into chunks.
Heat the butter in a skillet and sauté the onion for 5 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cayenne and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the flour and stir with a whisk for a minute or so until it is well incorporated. Take the pan off the heat and gradually add the poaching milk, whisking continuously. Return the pan to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring constantly. Turn down the heat and cook for about 3 minutes, still stirring to prevent sticking. Add the cream, mustard and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Set aside, but keep warm.
In a clean frying pan, heat the oil over high heat and sauté the mushrooms until they are golden. Do this very quickly so that the mushrooms stay dry. Add the brandy and reduce to about 1 tablespoon. Stir the mix into the white sauce.
Divide the white fish and crab between 6 small gratin dishes. Season to taste. Pour the sauce over the top.
Mix the breadcrumbs with the parsley and Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle over each gratin, pour the melted butter on top and bake in the oven for about 10-15 minutes, until golden. Serve piping hot straight from the oven.