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Feux d’artifice

After a work of mine was performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a friend sidled up and archly remarked that I was ‘getting a bit French’. Now she may have known that a forebear of my mother made the inexplicable decision to migrate from France to Ireland many years ago, but something waspish in the tone suggested that, like Lady Bracknell, my friend finds something inherently ‘improper’ in the sound of French music.

So naturally I took it as a huge compliment, but one in which there was a large measure of truth. For ever since I became interested in music I have had a particular love for the music of a number of French composers, most of all those of the 20th century from Debussy and Ravel through to Messiaen and Boulez; and certain echoes of their music remain in mine. From Debussy for instance, I learnt, as did Boulez, how to create glittering flashes of colour through the use of high rapid figurations in the woodwind, harp and tuned percussion; how to thread constantly changing solo lines through the velvet background of widely-spaced string chords; and how to vary the palette subtly through unusual doublings such as muted trumpet and cor anglais.

As an adolescent doing music theory exams I came to love Debussy for the way in which he would frequently ignore the ‘rules’ of chorale harmonisation and species counterpoint in favour of creating a sound which created an immediate and sensual effect. Movement by parallel fifths, for instance, is strictly proscribed by the textbooks, and yet this sound (which gives much medieval music its particular resonance) is freely used by Debussy to suggest the dreamworld of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande and more wickedly, the ‘golden bar of heaven’ in his cantata La Damoiselle élue, a work written to fulfil the conditions of his receiving the Prix de Rome from the Academie des Beaux Arts. One assumes that the young Debussy’s academic mentors frowned on parallel fifths as much as does the Australian Music Examinations Board.

Debussy’s harmony has been described as ‘non-functional’, meaning that no chord necessarily implies movement to another chord, that the relationship of chord to chord is flexible and ambiguous. This is in part a reaction against the emotionally supercharged music of which Wagner was the prime and dominating example. According to Ravel, it was Chabrier who ‘changed the face of French harmony’ in his opera Le Roi malgré lui.

Following Chabrier’s example, Debussy developed a harmony which often gives the impression of weightlessness. As I came to know the music of Messiaen, I realised that he had taken Debussy’s principle to the point where almost immobile series of beautiful chords could express his faith in the eternal. In fashioning his melodies, too, Debussy cultivated this principle of ambiguity. His beloved whole-tone scale imparts a fluidity to his melodies; his love of the pentatonic scale suggests mythical, imaginary landscapes; his most famous melody of all, the flute arabesque which begins the Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’, winds hypnotically through half a chromatic scale before settling on B major – the key is almost an afterthought.

Now these characteristics of a sensual use of harmony and orchestral shading, of suggestive rather than emotive melodism seem quintessentially French, and many of these characteristics can be found in the music of Berlioz, with whom French symphonic music begins. But between Debussy and Berlioz stretches the 19th century, a time increasingly dominated by Wagner and his influence.

An important motive in the development of Debussy’s style was his attempt to break free of the influence of Wagner – even quite late in life, Debussy could in the same breath lampoon the endless declaiming of Leitmotivs in the Ring, yet pronounce that work a monument ‘whose architectural lines stretch far into infinity’. Part of this ambivalence was born of the fact that many French composers, and particularly those in the academy, were great emulators of Wagner and Liszt. The works of D’Indy or Chausson for instance are distinctly Wagnerienne, while the music of César Franck takes up Liszt’s principle of thematic transformation in an orchestral palette where the composer’s roots as an organist distinctly show.

Not all composers swallowed the ‘music of the future’ – someone like Saint-Saëns, for instance, produced a flexible harmonic language and lucid orchestral palette which looks to the 18th-century Classicists for a sense of coherent form. Another escape from Germanness came from the exploration of the music of Spain, as we find later in the music of Ravel, not only in the explicitly-titled pieces, but in a work like the G major Piano Concerto, originally planned as a ‘Basque fantasy’.

W.H. Auden once remarked that in order to understand the 19th century, one needs to understand Berlioz, and there is a sense in which Berlioz personifies much of 19th-century French cultural life. In the first place, it was Berlioz’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare, Goethe, Gluck and Beethoven which enabled him to transform the face of French music, and we need to remember that 19th-century Paris was the city of such celebrated foreigners as Offenbach, Meyerbeer and Chopin. Second, the taxonomic boundaries between the arts and their constituent forms were for Berlioz, as for Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Debussy, somewhat fluid. One of Berlioz’s formative musical experiences was seeing Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, and in a breathless letter to his sister he described the scenery and story by saying ‘it’s all in the orchestra!’ Later he was to describe the Symphonie fantastique as his ‘novel’, though he also tried to suppress the now well-known program.

The result of this way of thinking was a method of creating which gives the impression of intuitive realisation. In the Symphonie fantastique Berlioz is concerned like Mallarmé in his poetry, to ‘paint, not the thing, but the effect it creates’. It is instructive that a German composer like Hugo Wolf could describe Berlioz’s work as a ‘fragmentary mosaic, a building without plan’ while the French poet Gautier lauded him for ‘breaking old patterns’ and ‘creating new forms’.

We need to return to Debussy, briefly, to discuss the notion of form, because he, like Berlioz, creates the impression of relying on intuition when in fact there is a rigorous architecture behind the evocative surface. While Debussy eschewed the principles of symphonic elaboration that we find most commonly in German music of the 19th century, he nonetheless experimented, as scholar Roy Howat has shown, with the division of pieces into sections whose temporal relations accord with classical theories of geometric perfection. Significant events in a piece by Debussy – be they climaxes, the introduction of new themes, changes of texture or speed – occur at points in a section comparable to the ratio of the height to the breadth of a Greek temple: the ideal rectangle or ‘ golden section’ is translated by Debussy into time and sound.

Thus the title of this essay (also that of a piano prelude of Debussy) which I like for its literal (‘artificial fire’) rather than idiomatic (‘firecracker’) translation – what appears as spontaneous as fire is only possible through artifice. Ravel might have been speaking for French music in general when he once said that it was his ‘nature to be artificial’.

© Gordon Kerry