Saturday, August 21, 2010


A happier 148th if you can, Claude Debussy.

The 17th and 18th century paved his way: the motto (in the celebrated words of Kant) "dare to know." And enlightenment thinkers did just that, opening new vistas of science and a rational understanding of the universe.

The l9th century intensified the motto: "dare to master"--and the financial might of capitalist industrial revolution empowered the quest for domination of the natural and political world.

With his revolutionary message, Beethoven epitomized this vision of human creative power. Take a theme and develop it, twist it and explore it, find its inner possibilities and squeeze them out, prod its reflexive interaction with the tool of the will--the creator transformed by its history. With Beethoven the "development section" of classical sonata from grew to engulf the work, and from Beethoven sprang Wagner's manipulation of leitmotifs, and Schoenberg's permutations of the twelve-tone row. The message: man the master.

My favorite Debussy image is of the young man at a concert, whispering to a friend, "Let's go--he's beginning to develop!" What? Leave at the most exciting, revealing, genius-testing moment? What does this guy want? A little insight from his school days when he submitted a composition to his professor which flouted all rules. When asked what rules he observed, he said, "None--only my own pleasure!" "That's all very well," was the retort, "provided you're a genius." We don't know what grade he received in this battle, but we all know who won the war.

The premiere of The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun helped initiate the birth of a certain kind of modernity--some would even say post-modernity--in which there were no grand rules applying, no agreed-upon values, no fixed forms.

As the music flows from moment to moment, mood to mood, at its own "pleasure," eschewing "development," embracing only the barest symmetrical form, so do we flow as a culture: enveloped in our private dreams, resisting "government," despairing of "solutions," heedless of what may come, going with the flow.

Twenty three centuries earlier, Chuang-Tsu wrote "Am I a man dreaming I'm a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I'm a man?" More than a century ago, Debussy dreamed his prophetic dream. And here we are today.Is it an accident of fate that Debussy died in agony, of cancer, in the middle of a war?

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