The brilliant French composer set the tone for modern music that appeals more to the head than the heart.
Pity the poor street musician. After each performance at the Metropolitan Opera, a flautist in the Lincoln Center subway station plays hits from that night’s performance. On nights when they’re showing Carmen, this is easy — a little “Habanera,” or the “Toreador Song,” and the crowd, practically still singing themselves, fills the basket. But Tuesday night was Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and the flute player was struggling to make sense of its shifting tonalities, unusual modes, and above all lack of melody — to no avail. “I’m working away like a slave over here,” he grumbled to an indifferent crowd, bemoaning his lack of tips.
They were decidedly not indifferent about the music being performed earlier that night, and for good reason. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the new music director of the Metropolitan Opera, was conducting — and adding to his growing legend. Under his baton, the Met Orchestra was fantastic, bringing out the balance of Wagnerian influences in the horns, timpani, and low strings with the floating, light, French sound required in the upper strings and woodwinds. The orchestra also exhibited a startling degree of precision in a work that’s all too tempting to muddle, and the results were superb.
Pelléas tells a story as old as time, or at least as old as Francesca di Rimini: Boy (Golaud) meets girl (Mélisande), boy falls for girl, boy and girl get married, girl falls for boy’s younger brother (Pelléas), older brother murders his brother, girl dies, boy overcome with remorse. Debussy was adapting a symbolist play, so the plot really is that blatantly straightforward — there’s very little extraneous action (only eight characters, including three minor ones, and no chorus). It’s also filled with the kind of painfully overt symbolism that you would expect from a group with a name like, well, “the symbolists”: I was playing with your brother by the fountain, and my wedding ring fell in and I lost it.
The acting and directing, unfortunately, were indifferent, with the singers at times doing the bare minimum to justify the actions referred to in their lyrics. Almost the sole exception was a very affecting act III, scene 4, when Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) enlists his young son Yniold (A. Jesse Schopflocher) to spy on his wife. But the singing — by Ketelsen and Paul Appleby (Pelléas), Isabel Leonard (Mélisande), and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Arkel) — was first-rate. And oh, that music coming from the pit.
Still, I can’t help thinking of the street musician, and why he was struggling. Debussy’s music is often referred to as “impressionist.” This metaphor works well, not only for the nature of the music (which sometimes carries tunes but more often only outlines them) but also for its place in history. Like impressionist art, Debussy’s music looks back to the traditional methods that came before it but also forward to the near-dissolution of the art form that followed in the 20th century, with all that accompanied it — most notably, the alienation of traditional mass audiences, a self-reinforcing snobbishness, and a (very belated) sense, even among elites, that it all may have resulted in a dead end.
This is a huge, thorny problem. But reconsidering an ambiguous piece like Debussy’s provides an opportunity to examine some of where the trouble started — and some reasons it’s time to think of a new approach.
Debussy was part of a generation that revolted against the admittedly ossified musical norms of late-19th-century European music, just as the impressionists had against the strict conventions of “academic” art. Both in the process opened the door to questioning the very underpinnings of their art form that had endured for centuries — figurative representation in one case; tonality and the standard modes in the other. This is why, despite a number of obvious stylistic differences, Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898) look much more similar to each other than either does to Matisse’s View of Notre-Dame (1914). Similarly, it’s why Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1721) and Verdi’s Falstaff (1893) sound more alike than either does to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912). Impressionists such as Debussy (who ironically hated the term that has been almost universally applied to him) or Monet provided transitional bridges between the old way and the new.
World War I seemed to confirm the results of experiments that composers such as Debussy, Schoenberg, and others had been conducting at the turn of the 20th century: The modern world simply could not be expressed by old methods. Particularly as far as World War I goes, there’s a great deal of truth to this. It can be seen in modernism, as in the very title of World War I art such as Claggett Wilson’s Flower of Death — The Bursting of a Heavy Shell — Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. It can be heard in works such as Britten’s War Requiem (written after World War II, but partly in response to the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, which it quotes at length.) These works feel much more right as ways to depict the universe-shattering carnage of the Great War than any traditional method does. And indeed, in the immediate aftermath of World War I, French artists would reject Debussy as not going far enough. (He has since been restored to his rightful place as a genius and a father of modernism.)
Other trends reinforced this perception of inevitable, necessary movement toward the modern styles. The enormous factories of the second industrial revolution that dwarfed the individual, the pollution, the noise, the smoot and clang that filled the cities — all endorsed, indeed perhaps demanded, the kind of music that had broken with traditional notions of tone, tune, and even beauty.
Meanwhile, other potential paths seemed blocked. World War I and a host of lesser conflicts discredited musical nationalism along with its more malignant varieties. There was an element of chance and individual genius: Who knows what may have happened if, after Puccini died in 1924, there had been another master to pick up the baton of Italian lyric opera, as he had from Verdi. Instead, the series of movements — modernism, postmodernism, minimalism, etc. — that rejected traditional tonalities and forms would take over more and more of the cultural landscape.
After World War II, these trends intensified. Richard Wagner’s (literal) heirs led the way in the deliberate weirdening of opera in Europe, partly to cleanse it from its association with the Wagnerphile Hitler and partly due to the larger, Europe-wide alienation from traditional beliefs that had failed to stop the war’s horror. The modernists (broadly speaking — including postmodernists, abstractionists, etc.) and their enemies got caught up in geopolitics to such an extent that the CIA would wind up funding a great deal of avant-garde art during the Cold War.
In America, the closing of European immigration — the source of masses who, like my Italian great-grandmother, consumed opera as first-language entertainment — and the end of the time when our elites looked to Europe for leadership, would have spelled trouble for opera no matter what. But a new wave of composers and performers increasingly turned to positions in the universities and to endowed institutions to provide them new homes, which reinforced a cultural tendency to snub the public and insulated the artist from any countervailing economic considerations. It’s common to blame rock-and-roll for the decline of classical music, but this is snobbery and evasion as much as anything else. Traditional theater, for instance, managed to survive the advent of television in considerably better shape.
Ah, but what about the ghosts of Beethoven and Van Gogh, who are always summoned to defend the modern composer? So what if the music isn’t popular? Wasn’t Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica) initially disliked? Well yes, it received some bad reviews — for about two minutes. Within a few years, it was rightfully popular; soon it was universally recognized as the masterwork that it is. Whereas it has been over a century since the appearance of Pierrot Lunaire — and the public doesn’t seem to have gotten the message yet.
All of this has been increasingly difficult to deny. About two years ago, Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ music critic, wrote a brave piece that more or less asked if the last hundred years have all been a big mistake. Increasingly, in fitful experiments focused less on theory and more on audience enjoyment (what a shocking concept), composers are struggling for a way out. (So far, it must be said, without the level of success needed for an epochal turnaround.)
Yet a funny thing has happened. Even as the revolutionary modernist techniques became conventions, then clichés — even as passionate cries about responding to a changed world became customary pieties — the world changed again. The disruption of the industrial revolution has been tamed by everything from computers to environmentalism to new production processes that shrank factories. The last generation that can remember major-power conflict is passing. And in areas such as the culture wars, manners — which is to say, harmony — seem increasingly a preoccupation. All has changed — except classical music. At a production level, to be sure, opera may be in as good a position as it has been in recent memory. But in terms of composition — in terms of spirit — classical music has remained mired in trends that are no longer new, or daring, or popular.
The highbrow Left — which has been in the driver’s seat in cultural criticism for some time now — has singularly failed to find a way out of this mess. It is too enmeshed in the institutionalized world that produces such work and too attached to the nostrums that surround and justify it. (There is an odd resemblance between the pieties that justify the administrative state and those that justify modern music — both correlated by their shared fondness for a period when the modern highbrow center-Left took control of certain commanding heights.) And it has a problem that derives less from politics than from the fact that it’s an establishment. It has absorbed that snobbishness — inherited from composers such as Schoenberg and refined in the academized world of modern composers — that leads critics to look down on even fans of classical music as the unwashed masses. This is how you wind up with critics confessing after 30 years of writing that there might be something to the Star Wars music, surprised to realize that this is because, rather than despite, its popularity.
In turn, this means that conservative criticism — if it’s not the get-off-my-lawn variety — has real value to offer. The emphasis on respect for tradition and history keep it closer to the vital wellsprings that traditionally moved great art. The balance of highbrow taste of the William F. Buckley variety with (yes) populism keeps us more aware of the need to appeal to the heart as well as the head. (There are also intra-conservative or intra-political reasons that we need opera critics, too — that politics is downstream of culture; that as elites increasingly set the table for the nation, critical attention to elite pursuits is necessary — but these are arguments for what opera criticism can do for conservatism, rather than what it can do for opera.) And, since we are not the establishment, we need not praise the emperor’s fine new clothes.
Against Debussy, it must be said, we cannot lay the charges of aridness, complacency, or lack of originality of which many of his heirs are guilty. Quite the contrary. As this performance of Pelléas demonstrates, his lyric yet unsettled music was revolutionary and brilliant; it has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, he is to a degree responsible for our current situation. He would have been tickled that the street musician was unable to perform his work: “I expect you have noticed how you never hear Bach being whistled . . . an honor that is not denied Wagner,” he once wrote. I am not so sure. We shouldn’t only judge music by such things. But for all his genius, is it an honor to Debussy that one could not take a spark of Pelléas out of the opera house, and onto the subway platform?