Debussy at 151
Some musical revolutions begin with a bang, like the pistol-shot chords that open Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. Others begin with a whimper, such as that unto which Elvis Presley's voice descends in "Heartbreak Hotel."
Then, there's the subtlest musical revolution, no less profound for its stillness and quiet — a solo flute, in the cool lower part of its range, meandering down and up the chromatic scale (like going down the piano keyboard playing all the white and black keys), deliniating the interval of a tritone (like playing the clashing F and B notes of a keyboard), going nowhere, building to nothing, savoring the moment and its own sensuous beauty. This is the opening of "Prélude à l'après-midi d'une faune," the 1894 tone poem whose liberation of harmony and tone color make it one of the earliest harbingers of 20th-century musical modernity.
The author of this quiet epoch-maker, Claude-Achille Debussy, was born 151 years ago today in the Paris suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. And his innovations still reverberate through contemporary classical composition, as you can hear practically every day on New England Public Radio. As for today, we'll spread several of Debussy's finest works, in all-time great performances, throughout NEPR's classical music. Here's a rundown:
La fille aux cheveux de lin ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair") and other piano Préludes, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
Prélude à l'après-midi d'une faune, with Herbert von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic...and solo flutist James Galway!
The String Quartet in G minor, played by Quartetto Italiano
Images pour orchestre (including "Iberia"), in one of the great Debussy interpretations by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
La mer ("The Sea"), in an incredible, scalding rendition by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
...and Debussy's best-known song, "Beau soir," in a surprise performance. Tune in at noon and see if you can guess the singer's name.
In the meantime, here's "Beau soir," as performed by the American soprano who debuted the role of Mélisande in Debussy's only opera: