Listening to Debussy

Listening to Debussy

I just listened to Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, one of the great composer’s last and best works. I’m in the process of working out a commission to write a set of pieces for violin and piano, something I haven’t done since High School, and the Debussy Sonata is a fantastic model. Its three movements move through a fantastic array of sounds, melodies, and textures, all in about 14 minutes.

14 minutes! Often, when one says that a piece “feels longer than it is”, that’s the worst type of criticism. It’s usually an indication that the listener is bored, that stretches of the piece pass slowly, for lack of interest. In the case of the Debussy, I would say that the piece does feel much longer than it is – but I mean it in the best of ways. The work is so concise, with material developed so carefully, and with nothing thrown away, that the scope of the musical journey far outweighs the amount of time it takes to move through it. This is an economical work.

It’s hard for me to write that – “economical” – because it’s a term that one sees and hears very often, without much (if any) explanation. It’s usually attached to highly developmental music – German (if old) or modern, for the most part. It describes music that never gives in to the “temptation” to languish on a chord, where the transitions are themselves developmental – “multitasking music”, perhaps. It’s music that keeps moving. It very often describes very bad music.

Go ahead and see for yourself: search on Google for “economical use of musical material” (without the quotes, perhaps), and see what comes up. You’ll find many descriptions of contemporary composers’ music, often self-descriptions. I’m not passing judgment on these Google-hit composers, of course, since I don’t know their work – but that’s really the point, isn’t it? There’s no correlation to be found between this attribute (“economical use”) and the success of these composers.

But then, perhaps these composers and those who describe them are just plain wrong – perhaps they are not, in fact, “economical”. The truth is that it’s not really that hard to be economical with the use of your musical material. The challenge is to do so and also write music that sounds good. The other type of description you’ll find, should you perform that Google search I mentioned, is that of certain more famous composers, usually in reference to particular works. These composers – who all had something going for them to begin with – tightened up the dramatic structure of their work, packing more in a smaller space.

But more what? This is hard to answer, so I return to the Debussy. The Sonata is hardly an endless romp of development; much of the music consists of simple chords and themes with lots of space, and even silence. There are seemingly endless numbers of beautiful melodies in the piece, many of which return in surprising and touching ways. What I think makes the “economy” of the piece work is that all the material is absolutely beautiful. Each melody carries the piece forward to a new place; not much happens and yet, in retrospect, so much has happened.

This is the type of writing to which I aspire. I leave pure economical writing to the economists – composers should be economical through the use of good materials. Like a fine chef, it’s all about the ingredients. If you eat better food, you won’t need as much of it to feel satisfied; it’s the same way with music.