An Exploration of Musical Impressionism: Building a Library of Claude Debussy

I am by no measure well-versed in the realms of classical music. The principal foci of my archive center around minimalism, ambient works, the classical avant-garde, and early milestone compositions of electroacoustic / musique concrète. But with that said, I understand and greatly revere the foundational soundworks which directly inspired much of what came to pass in 20th century music. Paramount among these are the musical impressionism of Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, (though Debussy, himself staunchly rejected the “impressionist” label). These composers’ use of musical “color,” unique chord combinations, ambiguous tonality, extended harmonies, use of modes and exotic scales, parallel motion, extra-musicality, and evocative titles were together fundamental in inspiring what came to be known as “ambient” music in the West later in the 20th century.

So it seemed only fitting that I obtain for my library the finest and most complete collection of these composers’ works. For the first stage of this endeavor, I selected Debussy as the target of my research. I began by securing collections and compilations and researching the release history of interpretations of Debussy’s work by various performers, and reading up on the mastering and performative quality of each.

 On compact disc I obtained –

  • A multi-volume collection of Alexis Weissenberg’s interpretations of Debussy on Deutsche Grammophon issued in West Germany in 1986
  • The Orpheus Trio’s renditions of Ravel, Faure, Debussy, and Devienne issued by Vanguard Everyman Classics in 1987/1980
  • Four of the five volumes of the 1991/2 EMI Classics France albums comprising unparalleled performances of Debussy by Aldo Ciccolini
  • The London Philharmonic’s performances of La Mer, Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune, and Jeux conducted by Serge Baudo issued by EMI Eminence in the UK in 1986
  • The Solomon Trio interpreting Ravel, Debussy, and Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Trio issued by Masters Pickwick Group in England from 1992
  • Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Debussy’s Images, Jeux, and Musiques pour “Le Roi Lear” issued by EMI Digital in 1990
  • Debussy – Images performed by Simon Trpceski issued by EMI Classics in 2008

Then I collected the following digital releases – 

  • Claude Debussy – The Debussy Edition [17CD+18th bonus disc of historical recordings] box set issued by Deutsche Grammophon in 2012
  • Debussy · Ravel – Orchestral Works [8CD] set directed by Jean Martinon featuring Aldo Ciccolini on piano, recorded by Sale Wagram, Paris, 1973 & 1974 issued by EMI Classics in 2002
  • Claude Debussy – The Complete Works For Piano performed by Walter Gieseking [4CD] set issued in 2006

I found some particularly interesting details about the Gieseking 4CD set.

Cristofori on Amazon reviewing Gieseking’s The Complete Works For Piano stated:

There aren’t many historical/mono classical recordings that I can firmly say have not been bettered by more modern renditions but Gieseking’s Debussy are among a handful that have yet to be surpassed. Gieseking’s use of tones and colors is amazing. Listening to his playing puts you in a dreamlike state. There may be more technically perfect pianists out there but I have yet to hear one that gives the same kind of feel and nuance as does Gieseking’s.

These recordings, made in the mid 1950’s near the end of Gieseking’s death, are his final say on the piano music of Debussy. Many aficionados will point to his 1930’s renditions as superior but truth be told I can’t give an opinion as I haven’t listen to those much. I do know that his first Debussy cycle has always been harder to find and sound quality may be hit or miss depending on who is doing the transfers.

The mid 1950’s mono sound on these recordings actually enhances the listening experience rather then take away from it, giving it a ghostly, ethereal quality that cannot be duplicated today. This new 5CD box by Warner is probably the cleanest these have ever sounded but I actually don’t mind the “haze” on some of the older editions as it adds to the dreaminess of Gieseking’s playing.

Curiously, upon researching this release further, I discovered that the original 1990s CD release was later remastered for Super Audio CD and issued as a hybrid 4xSACD set in Europe in 2012.

Additional commenters on Amazon described the noticeable improvements on the Super Audio edition. Leeber Cohen said:

This is an incredibly wonderful box !!! I learned the Suite Bergamasque and Chidren’s Corner Suite decades ago and I forgot how much I enjoyed Gieseking’s performance which was one of my favorite LPs as a child. Gieseking is a perfect pianist for this music. His range of color and dynamics is very close to perfect. I agree with the other reviewers that the quality of the recorded sound in these CDs is a vast improvement. I compared my 1990s copy of the two books of the Preludes to this CD and the haze is pretty much gone. Please obtain these 5 CDs while they remain available. The box is budget priced and is an incredible bargain.

And Thomas said:

I like this remastered version better than the remastered version of 1992. In this newer version, all the notes are clear and resonant. In the older version The notes sound shallow and muddy.

Also, on vinyl, my library already included the following – 

  • The Debussy – Leonard Slatkin, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra – La Mer • Prélude À L’Après-midi D’Un Faune • Danses Sacrée Et Profane LP issued by Telarc Digital from 1982

  • Tomita – Snowflakes Are Dancing (The Newest Sound Of Debussy), comprising Tomita’s arrangements of Claude Debussy’s “tone paintings” performed on a Moog synthesizer and a Mellotron

Snowflakes was released by RCA Victor in 1974. It was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1975, including best classical album of the year, and it was NARM’s best-selling classical album of the year.

The release notes for the La Mer Telarc Digital LP state the following about the recording and mastering:

During the recording of the digital masters and the subsequent transfer to disc, the entire audio chain was transformerless. The signal was not passed through any processing device (i.e., compression, limiting, or equalization) at any step during production.

Sampling frequency conversion of Telarc’s Soundstream digital master to the Compact Disc format was accomplished with the Studer SFC-16 sampling frequency converter. The digital information was not subject to any analog intersteps, thus preserving the integrity of the original digital master.

My goal was to acquire as complete a library of Debussy’s work as was available in the vinyl format. I performed a search on the Discogs database for complete box sets of Debussy’s works issued on vinyl and I found the following:

  • Claude Debussy, Werner Haas – Complete Works For Piano Solo • Das Klavierwerk • Œuvres Pour Piano Seul – 5LP (Netherlands) and 6LP (Spain) complete piano solo box set
  • Claude Debussy, Walter Gieseking ‎– L’Œuvre De Piano5LP box set
  • Claude Debussy – Louis De Froment, Orchestra Of Radio Luxembourg – His Works For Orchestra Volume I: La Mer, Prelude A L’Apres-midi D’un Faune, La Plus Que Lente, Le Martyre De Saint Sebastien, Le Triomphe De Bacchus, Le Roi Lear, Marche Ecossaise, La Boit A Joujoux, Excerpts From L’Enfant Prodigue, Berceuse Heroique – 3LP box set of Complete Orchestral Works Vol 1 which is concluded with:
  • Debussy – Orchestra Of Radio Luxembourg, Louis De Froment – His Works For Orchestra (Complete); Vol. II – 3LP box set
  • Debussy*, Peter Frankl – Complete Piano Music Volume 1 & 2 – Volume 1 is 1LP, Vol 2 is 3LPs
  • Claude Debussy – Jörg Demus – Complete Piano Music – 8 single-LP volumes issued by the Musical Heritage Society

My interest was primarily in Debussy’s solo piano works, so my ideal choice of these vinyl editions appeared to be Claude Debussy, Werner Haas – Complete Works For Piano Solo • Das Klavierwerk • Œuvres Pour Piano Seul which was only issued in the Netherlands and in Spain.

When I researched the production history of that particular release further, I discovered that some of those  recordings were issued on two CDs in 2007 by Philips Classics, though reviewers on Amazon make note of the noticeably quiet mastering and subtle hiss present on the CDs.

Listener on Amazon had this to say:

Debussy’s music is not meant to be performed with exaggerations, as many other pianists do in their recordings of his music. Haas offers what is on the page and does it beautifully. The playing is also, from a technical aspect, absolutely perfect. I cant find any “Teutonic” qualities as the other reviewer said. Instead I found much tenderness and subtlety as there should be. There only bad quality I could find is with the recording. Since it is old, from the late sixties, there is a noticeable hiss, especially in the quieter passages. It is, as with the case of all Philips CDs, slightly expensive for the amount of music, but nonetheless still a great purchase. This is a must buy. I only lament that this, along with his equally great recording of Ravel’s works, is all there really is from Mr. Haas. 

This vinyl box set includes an 8-page LP-size booklet with musicological notes in English, German and French. There are a few differences between the Netherlands and Spanish editions, most noticeably the language of the cover text. The Spanish edition also includes a sixth LP, featuring the works for two pianos or piano 4-hands, but I opted for the English packaging to facilitate interpretation of the track listing.

I’ve been performing similar research for the music of Erik Satie and have selected a vinyl box set of his complete piano works but it is an exceedingly rare import so I’ll have to postpone that project for the time being. Still, Haas’ Complete Works For Piano Solo is a wonderful beginning for this journey.

The Challenge of Articulating Abstract Music

Luigi Russolo - Music (1911)-1.jpg

I’ve read a number of texts on experimental and ambient musics, whether academic, philosophical, or critical, and have always admired when the author finds creative and insightful phrasings to discuss soundscapes where very little is happening on a superficial level. Sparse, minimal drone works are characteristically challenging to describe, so I take note when a journalist does an exceptional job at painting a conceptual, impressionistic image of a recording for those who might be curious to explore it, inspiring new listenership.

Kyle Gann published a fascinating mathematical examination of early minimalist music in his essay, Thankless Attempts at a Definition of Minimalism which provided many of the descriptors I incorporated in my personal response to the oft-posed question, “what kind of music do you like?” My general reply:

I particularly enjoy minimalist music – compositions which employ static harmony, quasi-geometric transformational linearity and repetition, gradual additive or permutational processes, phase-shifting, and static instrumentation. I am captivated by the metamusical properties which are revealed as a result of strictly carried-out processes. Many of these recordings explore non-Western concepts like pure tuning, (e.g. pure frequency ratios and resonant intervals outside the 12-pitch piano scale), unmetered melodies like those of Carnatic ragas, and drones.

As Roland Barthes describes, “…it is each sound one after the next that I listen to, not in syntagmatic extension, but in it’s raw and as though vertical signifying: by deconstructing itself, listening is externalized, it compels the subject to renounce his ‘inwardness.’” (Listening 259)

I’ll provide below a few examples of music criticism which exemplify this particular talent. Each inspired me to revisit the classic work they describe and rekindled my appreciation for the music. The first is an excerpt from Philip Sherburne’s recently contributed article published by Pitchfork on May 5th of this year celebrating Aphex Twin’s epic, Selected Ambient Works Volume II from 1994.

Then, as now, the first thing you become aware of with Selected Ambient Works Volume II is its purity, its starkness, its emptiness. There have been quieter records, more minimal records, more difficult records. But few have done so much with so little; few have shown less interest in being any more forthcoming than they are, in meeting the listener anywhere near halfway, in making the slightest attempt at articulating their own ambiguous emotional terrain. SAW II can be warm and it can be chilly; it can be sentimental and it can be forbidding, but it would be hard to call it expressive, exactly. A little like those samples of Mars’ terrain thought to contain evidence of amino acids but which turned out to be merely tainted with the sweat of some careless lab tech who didn’t pull his gloves on tight enough, Aphex Twin’s creation frequently seems only accidentally contaminated by human emotion. Whatever you feel when listening to it—well, that’s on you.

The album opens with a subtle tension: soft synth pads, the most basic, three-chord progression imaginable, cycling uneventfully round and round, while a breathy syllable—a voice, or something remarkably like one—bobs overhead, like a loosed balloon rapidly fading from view. Lilting harp accents turn to steel drums and back. The voice is detuned by just a few nearly imperceptible cents; the delay lags almost unnoticeably behind the beat. It’s a child’s lullaby turned queasy, a music box with a whiff of attic mold.

That tension—between disturbing and reassuring, trouble and calm, mutation and stasis—is the album’s defining characteristic. Across its 23 (or 24, 25, or 26, depending upon the format and edition) mostly untitled tracks, the balance tends to tip from one extreme to the other, like someone nervously shifting body weight from foot to foot. Some tracks, like #3 (known by fans as “Rhubarb”) are soft and consonant, welcoming as a well-kept lawn; others, like #4 (“Hankie”), with its bowed metal and whale-song laments, are deeply unsettling. The lilting chimes of #7 (“Curtains”) suggest a fairground populated only by tumbleweeds; the slow-motion grind and whirr of #22 (“Spots”) might be a chopped-and-screwed edit of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. #23 (“Tassels”), recorded on an EMS Synthi, one of the first synths the young artist ever bought, might come closest to James’ description of the album, in an interview with David Toop, as being like “standing in a power station on acid”: “Power stations are wicked. If you just stand in the middle of a really massive one … you get a really weird presence and you’ve got the hum. You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dream-like for me.”

The four tracks that open CD2 (both the US and UK editions; tracks #13-16 of the digital release) make for a particularly compelling stretch. “Blue Calx”—the only song to bear an official title, it originally appeared on the 1992 compilation The Philosophy of Sound and Machine, credited to Blue Calx—is surprisingly pretty, placid, dreamlike. #14 (“Parallel Stripes”) delicately balances the album’s most tactile tones—I imagine metal shavings dancing across a magnetic field—with a meandering hint of melody. The shuddering, clanging “#15 (“Shiny Metal Rods”) is a tumultuous counterbalance to the album’s gentlest passages, the closest James comes here to the jagged techno of his earlier singles. And #16 (“Grey Stripe”) is pure filtered white noise; it might be the dying breath of a distant star.

The other example is taken from David Stubbs’ 2018 examination of the history of electronic music titled, Mars By 1980:

Certainly, as a young man, I played my vinyl copy of Kontakte to friends as a sort of test, which I rather hoped they’d fail, enjoying a hollow and slightly pyrrhic feeling of superiority when they did. Even fellow music journalists regarded the music as a sub-Clangers farrago of sonic nonsense, cerebral snake oil perpetrated by mad Germans on po-faced, pseudo-intellectual dupes.

Some of them, though, have since come around, not least because the ubiquity of electronica and ambient has sophisticated the collective sound palate; or because of the undiminished capacity of the piece to astonish and impact. I’m playing it now as I type. In its deep background, a vastness murmurs; then, a sudden asteroid splash of concrète makes a crater in the cerebellum. Recessions, a nervous tinkle of percussion, a distant pulse like a receding spacecraft that, in a trompe l’oreille, is actually closing in. Pianistic anxiety. Serrated fragments of metal, ancient drones, sudden fresh, cold waves. Whiplash intensity, particles illuminated by explosive flashes. Rumbles and signals from alien sources, unpredictable and irregular, but which seem premeditated, operating on a higher plane of thought. Long-extinct stars flickering obscurely. Diagonal bursts of radiation. Sudden catastrophes whose immolation leaves no afterburn, just a void. Single piano notes, isolated and disconnected from their original keyboard context, lost in space. Growling electric currents like approaching waterborne reptiles, changing course at the last second. Decelerations, then another crash-landing, sidelights whirling. Moons spinning off their axes. Cosmic birdsong. Oscillations, impossible droplets, curlicues, sparks.

Coiling sine waves, slowing and rearing like aliens right up in your face, probing and examining you as you try to remain stock still. A more regular broadside of events, constructions of stone and metal floating at speed from all angles, against a backdrop whose indifference and omnipresence is represented by a wispy perma-drone. Sabre squabbles, multiple collisions, scorched aftermath; a laser bolt between the eyes, the scatter of cerebral matter. Untranslatable alien exclamations writ large in carbon tags. Fresh Big Bangs, new universes. Inconsequential clatter, like spinning coins coming to rest. A dance of percussion and piano, brief echoes of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître. Then, radioactive glitter in the eyes. An aluminium chorus, glass waves, siren calls, revolutions of light, varispeed. An ending, without resolution or arrival, whose fadeout merely indicates that we’ve been staring through the window at processes that are both permanent and infinite. (Stubbs 108-110)

These examples actively engage the reader and inspire listeners old and new to explore or to revisit the works they describe. I aspire to do the same with my journaling and to find novel and effective phrasings to articulate the beauty of the music I share. If just one listener develops an appreciation for a work because of something I’ve written, then all my efforts are worthwhile.

Russolo, Luigi, 1885-1947; Music
Luigi Russolo, Music, 1911