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Saturday Art: Debussy – “The beauty of a work of art cannot exist without mystery”

One hundred years ago this month, Claude Debussy wrote an article for Etude Magazine titled “Musical Taste in Modern Times”. Some snips:

The sense for the mysterious is gradually disappearing in these days in consequence of the irrepressible desire to prove everything, to explain everything; yet there is something which will always remain mysterious—and that is Taste. Be it understood that here “taste” is used only in its application to music—a subject already difficult enough, for the question of taste enters into close contact with innumerable feelings and nuances in feelings which are one with, and inseparable from, the word “Taste.” In most cases the question is evaded with the usual assurance that “about taste and color it is impossible to argue.” This argument is just as vain as when someone pounds his fist on the table in support of his pet view.

And if a definite stand is to be taken, and an opinion voiced, so that it does not seem as if one were simply juggling with subtly-colored words, then this can be said: The beauty of a work of art cannot exist without mystery. That is, it cannot be accurately ascertained in a work of art “how it is done.” …. Let us preserve this particular charm to music, at any cost. By the very nature of its art, music is more sensitive to this than any other form of art, for everything in it is mystery. We know nothing about its beginning. Learned savants claim that man sung before he spoke—that song existed before speech. This opinion seems too poetic—altogether too contrary to the barbarism of primitive ages. Let us rather accept the theory that it was the warbling of the birds which first gave man the thought of music.

Debussy, I think, quite literally meant that bit about the “warbling of the birds” as he wrote a set of Preludes this same year, 1912, and there are quite some mentions of birds, including this prelude Ondine or “The Swallow”:

That ain’t Claire de Lune now, is it?

Many casual classical music listeners don’t realize this wild and somewhat unrestrained side of Debussy. I love it, meself. Here’s one more Prelude #12 from book 2, “Feux d’artifice

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Kelly Canfield

Kelly Canfield