Intensive Impressions

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Intensive Impressions


Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times


Intensive impressions The art of French piano music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier Roy Howat Yale University Press (New Haven & London, 2009); xvi, 400pp; £30. ISBN 978 0 300 14547 2.

FROM THIS OUTSTANDING and intensive study of the French piano repertoire, copiously illustrated, the scholar and performer Roy Howat emerges as something of a Charles Rosen. In lesser hands, this ambitious enterprise would be in grave danger of drowning in an ocean of detail, a fate avoided by the clarity of the writing and organisation. His own insights and huge input, characterised by a lively personal response to music which clearly means so much to him, are generously augmented by extensive research and the wisdom of famous pianists in the field. Yet, for all the powers of scholarship and analysis modestly displayed, the perspective is that of a supremely intelligent player. Above all, the music's tactile dimension is of the essence, together with a keen appreciation of its visual aspects, corresponding to the optical discoveries of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting. In the first of the book's four parts, which I found particularly compelling, Howat explores the idea of painting in sound and structure, not restricting himself to the piano repertoire: 'Equivalent sonorous explorations emerge from Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, whose opening flute arabesque [...] then returns twice at the same pitch, "illuminated" by different harmonies each time. This matches Monet's varied portrayals of a subject in different lighting - Rouen Cathedral, a haystack, or trees reflected in the Seine.' Moreover, One of the main colouristic distinctions between Debussy and Ravel is their contrasting preference for respectively whole-tone and semitonal dissonances.'

A particular indication of the quality of his musical thought are the links made with the wider modernist movement, avoiding the narrow inwardlooking approach all too characteristic of much French scholarship:

Effectively Debussy [in 'Des pas sur la neige'] has led us through the whole tonal or chromatic cycle without modulating, and there's characteristic irony in his having done this in the most static, ostinato-ridden of all his preludes. We might wonder how closely Schoenberg looked at this piece of proto-dodecaphony, albeit a completely tonal one. Seen from the other direction, it also puts in a kind of nutshell the rising fifths key cycle of Chopin's op.2,8 Preludes - perhaps one reason why Debussy's Preludes avoid imitating Chopin's key sequence more overtly.

Moreover, Howat observes how its modal fan sequences were subsequently adopted by Bartok in the fugai fifth structures of Music for strings, percussion and celesta (1936). The strongly forward looking aspect of Ravel is duly emphasised, manifest in Gaspard de la nuit; a complex slowly failing harmonic sequence in 'Le gibet' - 'the slowest-paced French music before Messiaen' - reappears both in Debussy's Six épigraphes antigües (1914) and in Alban Berg's macabre 'Warm die Lufte' from his op.2 Lieder (1910). Whereas Ravel's C/F5 triadic mix in the early Jeux d'eaux actually anticipates Petrushka, Stravinsky's meteoric rise, by contrast, seems to have created a crisis of confidence in Debussy - not dissimilar, I think, to the impact of the radical young Boulez on Messiaen. Howart detects the shadow of Petruskka in the left hand mouth organ motive and combined C/F? triads of 'Broullards' from Préludes Book II, while 'Les tierces alternées' from Etudes actually quotes a prominent motive from Le sacre du printemps.

But for all his vivid appreciation of the importance of sound and colour, Howat is rightly at pains to refute die rhydimically sloppy style of performance brought about by die widespread and wrongheaded conception of French music as essentially 'formless', unfortunately encouraged by the nebulous culture of Impressionism. To this, d'lndy's controversial promotion of post-Franckian symphonic structures was certainly intended as a counteraction, which may have impelled Ravel to complain that, by contrast with Faune, Debussy's forms in La mer were over-intellectualised, drawing attention to themselves. …

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