The Quiet

Victor Lederer
(Amadeus Press)
This Debussy was hardly, as Lederer dubs him, "a revolutionary." He certainly wasn't quiet. In his critical comments in Le Revue Blanche, Debussy called Wagner's music "a beautiful sunset that has been mistaken for a sunrise." And he wrote that the music of Frederick Delius was

    very sweet, very pale --- music to soothe convalescents in well-to-do neighborhoods.

As for Debussy's music, those of us who have had to spend endless hours listening to endless background classical music stations trotting out the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn or that laconic iconic soft-soap La Mer have learned from simple overexposure that this is music beyond the pale: perfect for the well-to-do convalescents that throng the Philharmonic Tuesday evening concerts.

Lederer tells us that Debussy was a good cook, interesting to women, bad with money and a lousy tennis player. He also tells us that when Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music at the Exposition Universalle in 1889, it "blew his conceptual doors and windows wide open." 'Allo?

The writer also tells us that Claude Debussy was not only a "major composer," but, that, perhaps "he ranks with the greatest." If he is offering up Bach, Schubert, Telemann, Handel, Rameau, Couperin and Scarlatti as "the greatest," and somehow wants to include Debussy, you can let me off the bus right here. In the company of Chopin, Mahler, Fauré, Ravel and that big boor Jacques Ibert ... well, maybe. Do you know that one of my friends calls Ibert "Jackie Bear?"

In these boredom sweepstakes, I am reminded of Ravel's Bolero. I had a friend who did French horn with the late, lamented and very wet New Orleans Symphony before it got puddled. My friend said that Bolero would drive him and his buddies in the French Horn business mad. Imagine tooting one note for twenty minutes before a full house of elite bourgeoisie. (He also told me that Dennis Brain had a pact with the devil ... which is why he died so young. Remember Brain doing Leopold Mozart's Horn Concerto on a garden hose at the 1956 Hoffenung Festival?)

We can't fault Lederer too much. In "Listening to Debussy," he has to give us thirty-three pages of the usual copy about a man who was a better critic than composer. He also has to pretend that Pelléas et Mélisande is right up there with La Boèhme, Tosca, and Rigoletto, which it ain't.

Debussy was crazy about the writings of Edgar Allen Poe which may tell you about his mental limitations. According to Lederer, two of Debussy's operas (which, thank god, never saw the light of day) were based on Poe's short stories. Le Diable dans le Beffroi --- "The Devil in the Belfry" --- was supposed to consist mostly of the devil whistling. Make of that what you will.

There is a CD that accompanies this volume. It contains sixteen selections. I noticed that as I was listening to it I had to keep adjusting the volume control. Debussy's music does not lend itself to subtlety ... it is either too wispy or too fortississimo. The Hommage à Rameau makes you wish he had spent more time listening to the master. The two movements of the 'Cello Sonata are execrable. The song Beau Soir with the baritone Gerard Souzay is beautiful beyond belief.

--- Richard Saturday
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH