Sunday, January 15, 2012

Debussy and Messiaen

Now that, as a result of my writing for, I have joined the ranks of music critics (even if I continue to believe that “examining” is not the same as criticism), I find that I have become more cautious in what I say about what my colleagues (who call themselves critics) are writing.  I figure it is better to take what I have read from others and use it to reinforce a point, rather than pick a fight.  However, an interesting difference of opinion arose this week over the San Francisco Symphony semi-staged production of Claude Debussy’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian that deserves a bit of perspective, without turning the opposing thoughts into grounds for a contentious argument.

I am referring specifically to the review that Joshua Kosman wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle after the opening night performance (which is also the one I attended on my “beat”).  It did not take me long in my reading of Kosman’s text to recognize that he was being more lukewarm than I had been, even though it was clear that he was giving Debussy his due at just about every possible turn.  I suppose what struck me was that he was not giving due acknowledgement to the context of Debussy’s music, which was a five-hour latter-day mystery play with five acts worth of text by Gabriele D’Annunzio and choreography by Michel Fokine for the role of Sebastian being danced by the highly flamboyant Ida Rubinstein.  As I wrote in my own piece, “it would be sadly accurate to describe Debussy’s music for this affair as ‘incidental.’”

Nevertheless, the music was the heart of the San Francisco Symphony performance;  and Kosman kept his focus fixed on Debussy’s score.  However, here is the conclusion he drew:

Yet Debussy never quite gives in to the work's underlying premise; he always seems as embarrassed as we are by the fervid expostulations of d'Annunzio's text, and by the shiny colors of the story. So he buries everything under a layer of propriety, culminating in Sebastian's ascent to a heaven that sounds like some kind of drab gentleman's club.

Again and again through Thursday's performance I kept thinking of Olivier Messiaen, whose brand of unabashed religious frenzy is the only thing that could have made this project whole. When Messiaen depicts heaven, or the saints, or the unearthly bliss of suffering, his belief is so profound and unbridled that it carries you along. Debussy, here, is always hedging his bets.

My own impression is that, if you want to approach this in terms of an ecstatic take on Christian faith, then I am not sure it is fair to use Messiaen as grounds for comparison, simply because Debussy had to work with D’Annunzio’s aesthetic, which, in all likelihood, was far more detached and abstract than Messiaen’s far more sincere professions of faith.  Put another way D’Annunzio’s priorities in conceiving his mystery play were grounded in his particular (some would probably say idiosyncratic) approach to aesthetics.  On the other hand what Kosman calls Messiaen’s “unabashed religious frenzy” was a product of sincere faith of the highest order, far beyond the scope of intellectualization or anything dreamt of in D’Annunzio’s philosophy.

From this point of view, I would not say that Debussy was “hedging his bets.”  Rather, he was, as I like to say, playing the cards that had be dealt to him.  Since I get the impression that his own religious convictions were never as strong as Messiaen’s, I feel he deserves to be judged on his own mindset and the practices that emerged from it.  In that context it is not surprising that Kosman heard “echoes” of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in Debussy’s score.  Here was a case of one composer with a relatively detached relationship to a religious narrative drawing upon another, who was probably just as detached.

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