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Prelude to Debussy

This documentary by pianist-turned-filmmaker Ophra Yerushalmi invites musicians, singers and authors to describe the impact that composer Claude Debussy has on their art. The filmmaking itself parallels the impressionistic quality of his work. Yerushalmi describes the prelude as a theme throughout the film, saying "preludes are about brevity and abstraction, about time itself."

AIRED: December 16, 2019 | 0:56:29
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TRANSCRIPT

[ "Pagodes" plays ]

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Yerushalmi: After a lifetime with Claude Debussy,

the man and his music remain tantalizing, inspiring.

Preludes, ever present in music,

are about brevity, about man's race with time.

[ "Voiles" plays ]

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Sands: "There is no theory.

You only have to listen.

Pleasure is the law.

I love music passionately, and because I love it,

I try to free it from the barren traditions which stifle it.

Music will begin where words are impotent.

Music is made for the inexpressible.

I would like it to appear that it comes from a shadow,

and from time to time, it will return there."

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I really discovered Debussy's music when I was 11,

and I was absolutely amazed with this music.

To me, it was like magic.

I had been raised, you know, with the classicals,

Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, of course,

and suddenly I discovered a world

of completely new sounds, new textures,

and I immediately fell in love with this music.

There is a light.

Sometimes it's a dark light,

but there is a lot of light in this music.

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[ Waves crashing ]

[ Song ends ]

I first became aware of Claude Debussy

when I saw a production of "Pelléas et Mélisande"

at the English National Opera.

It was an extraordinary experience.

I hadn't come across dramatic music

which was so moving

and powerful and contemporary and fresh,

and yet it was written, you know,

at the beginning of the 20th century,

but it felt so completely contemporary.

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Alfred Cortot was a very well-known French pianist.

When he was very young, Debussy died,

and he went to Debussy's house to pay respects to the family,

and Madame Debussy was there

and also Chouchou, the daughter,

who was 13, I think, at the time,

and so Cortot sat down at Debussy's piano

and played a piece from "Children's Corner,"

which Debussy wrote when Chouchou was 2 or 3 years old,

and she grew up with this,

listening to her father play this piece.

And after he finished playing, he asked her,

"Did your father play this piece something like that?"

And her answer, he said, changed his life, which was,

"No, he listened more." No,il a écouté davantage.

[ "Clair de Lune" plays ]

Yerushalmi: From the very beginning,

Claude Debussy had his own quite different ideas.

Sands: "More and more, I feel that music is about sound and color."

Yerushalmi: Who knows what Debussy heard?

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His music is called Impressionist, of course,

because of the connections with the painting school,

but he hated that word.

He preferred the word "realist,"

and I think, "What does that mean?"

It means the real effect of the sounds.

He was listening to the sounds and listening,

"What does this sound do?"

You know, "What color does it have,

what shape does it have,

what attack does it have,

and how does that make me feel?"

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Sands: "It is much preferable to see a sunrise

than to hear the 'Pastoral Symphony.'

Instead of exact imitation,

there is an emotional interpretation

of what is invisible in nature.

Chiu: His imagination was so strong.

He took one little suggestion,

like a lacquer fish on a lacquer painting,

and just -- phwoom! -- you know, explode

into this wonderful poetry.

[ "Poissons d'or" plays ]

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[ "Poissons d'or" continues ]

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Sands: Copied by hand,

you will notice the patience of a Benedictine monk.

The most minute Japanese print is child's play by comparison.

[ Orchestra plays ]

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We are searching here

to find out what did he do

that turned a page in music,

and for example, "La Mer," that he wrote

and which we are here in Houlgate because of it,

and we came all the way here

to experience what magic spell the sea had on him.

[ "La Mer" continues ]

He chooses a Japanese tsunami print --

"The Big Wave," it's called, by Hokusai,

which means he loves the sea,

but the sea also has the danger,

and he loves the danger,

and he loves to provoke people.

[ Music swells ]

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There is a prelude

called "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest" --

"What the West Wind Saw" --

and actually, it's in one prelude.

Debussy put the whole sea and the storming waves

and the whole crescendos that happen

in one little piece, 6-minute piece --

not even orchestra piece comme "La Mer."

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[ Music stops, waves crashing ]

[ Music resumes ]

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"For Hyacinthus Day, he gave me a pen pipe

made of carefully assembled reeds

joined with a white wax

that is sweet to my lips as honey.

He teaches me to play, seated in his lap,

but I am a little fearful.

He plays it after me, so softly that I can hardly hear him.

We have nothing to say to each other,

so close are we to each other,

but our songs try to answer each other.

And little by little, our mouths join on the flute.

It is late.

There is a song of the green frogs that begins at nightfall.

My mother will never believe that I stayed so long

just looking for my lost sash."

[ "La Flûte de Pan" plays ]

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♪ Pour le jour des Hyacinthies ♪

♪ Il m'a donné une syrinx faite de roseaux bien taillés ♪

♪ Unis avec la blanche cire qui est douce à mes lèvres ♪

♪ Comme le miel

♪ Il m'apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux ♪

♪ Mais je suis un peu tremblante ♪

♪ Il en joue après moi ♪

♪ Si doucement que je l'entends à peine ♪

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♪ Nous n'avons rien à nous dire ♪

♪ Tant nous sommes près l'un de l'autre ♪

♪ Mais nos chansons veulent se répondre ♪

♪ Et tour à tour nos bouches s'unissent sur la flûte ♪

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♪ Il est tard

♪ Voici le chant des grenouilles vertes ♪

♪ Qui commence avec la nuit

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♪ Ma mère ne croira jamais ♪

♪ Que je suis restée si longtemps à chercher ma ceinture perdue ♪

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Sands: Mary Garden was a Scottish soprano

who auditioned to play Mélisande,

and she describes the experience.

"One day, Monsieur Carré let us all know

about this new opera,

and after he'd finished talking

about 'Pelléas and Mélisande' and its composer,

he began assigning roles to each of us.

Then one afternoon,

we were all invited to Monsiuer Messager's home.

We were only there a short while

when the door opened and in came Debussy.

We were all presented to him,

and he spoke the usual words of greeting.

Without another word, he sat at the piano

and played and sang the whole thing

from beginning to end.

There we sat in the drawing room,

Monsieur Carré and Monsiuer and Madame Messager,

and the whole cast, each of us with a score,

heads bowed as if we were all at prayer.

While Debussy played,

I had the most extraordinary emotions

I have ever experienced in my life.

Listening to that music, I seemed to become someone else,

someone inside of me

whose language and soul were akin to mine.

When Debussy got to the fourth act,

I could no longer look at my score for the tears.

It was all very strange and unbearable.

I closed my book, and I just listened to him.

And as he played the death of Mélisande,

I burst into the most awful sobbing,

and Madam Messager began to sob along with me,

and both of us fled into the next room.

I shall never forget it.

There we were, crying

as if we had just lost our best friend,

crying as if nothing would console us again.

Madam Messager and I returned to the drawing room

just as Debussy stopped.

Before anyone could say or do anything,

he faced us all and said,

'Mesdames et messieurs,

that is my "Pelléas et Mélisande."

Everyone must forget that he is a singer

before he can sing the music of Debussy.'

Then he murmured a quick au revoir,

and without another word, he was gone."

I mean, fantastic.

What an effect, and what a thing to say,

that, "Everyone must forget that he is a singer

before he can sing the music of Debussy,"

which is stripping away all the artifice and the structure

and all the technical filters

which often come between the performer

and the material and the experience.

It's a direction

given by people in the theater

about to do Shakespeare.

"Forget you're doing Shakespeare.

Play just as it's written.

This is language between people."

But what a contemporary idea.

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♪Votre âme est un paysage choisi ♪

♪Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques ♪

♪Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi ♪

♪Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques ♪

♪Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur ♪

♪L'amour vainqueur ♪

♪Et la vie opportune ♪

♪Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur ♪

♪Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune ♪

♪Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune ♪

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Sands: "The choice of poetic themes that Monsieur Debussy adopts

is a pretext for his musical fantasy,

whether he collaborates with Baudelaire,

Verlaine, or Mallarmé,

the composer shows above all his constant concern

to avoid what might be called

the direct translation of feelings.

What attracts him in the poets we have just mentioned

is precisely the art of transposing everything

into symbolic pictures,

of making multiple resonances vibrate under one world.

Most of his compositions are the symbols of symbols,

but often much more intelligible

than that of the poems of which they comment."

Paul Dukas.

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♪ Les donneurs de sérénades

♪ Et les belles écouteuses

♪ Echangent des propos fades

♪Sous les ramures chanteuses ♪

♪ C'est Tircis et c'est Aminte ♪

♪ Et c'est l'éternel Clitandre ♪

♪ Et c'est Damis qui pour mainte ♪

♪ Cruelle fait maint vers tendre ♪

♪ Leurs courtes vestes de soie ♪

♪ Leurs longues robes à queues ♪

♪ Leur élégance, leur joie

♪ Et leurs molles ombres bleues ♪

♪ Tourbillonent dans l'extase

♪ D'une lune rose et grise

♪ Et la mandoline jase

♪ Parmi les frissons de brise

♪ La, la

♪ La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la, la ♪

♪ La, la-la, la-la, la-la

♪ La

♪ La, la-la, la-la, la-la

♪ La

♪ La, la

♪ La

[ Song ends ]

[ Flute plays ]

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Chiu: I think that Debussy, first of all,

was trying to find something very specifically different

from Beethoven

and very specifically different from Chopin.

Beethoven being this kind of architecture of music,

music has to have a structure.

It has to have lines and direction,

and Chopin, music is supposed to sing and have a line,

and so you have this block, kind of architecture approach

and this line approach, and then what was Debussy do?

He comes in and does splatter paint and Jackson Pollock

and all sorts of crazy things

that completely defies architecture

and also completely defies line.

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I have a funny quote from Debussy.

"I prefer to see sunrise

than to hear the 'Pastoral Symphony.'"

You know that statement. Yes.

And I laughed. I said, "Ah, he's mischievous."

He's very mischievous.

But so what do you think -- just mischievous?

He also has a point.

Debussy didn't like Beethoven very much,

so he was not --

You know, he was very critical of Beethoven

and the Beethovenian tradition,

but he also finds his roots

in some of the great composers of the past.

Yerushalmi: César Franck, professor at the Conservatoire,

asks a 12-year-old Debussy,

"But really, Monsiuer Debussy, can you hear?"

"Yes, monsieur. I can hear my harmony, not yours."

[ "Ondine" continues ]

Gooley: One of the reasons

Debussy felt so out of sync with the Conservatory in Paris

was he felt that they were too conservative,

that they weren't moving forward,

that they were recycling classical formulas,

and he knew that the literary life of his time

was not doing that,

that it was actually leading Europe.

You know, the Symbolist movement

was having an international influence,

and I think Debussy felt that lower status of music

and wanted to elevate music to the prestige of literature,

and one way he did so was by leaving behind

all classical principals

that were taught at the Conservatory

and trying to create a music

that was more purely like poetry.

And in his seminal piece,

the "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,"

he actually wrote this as a prelude to a poem

by Stéphane Mallarmé.

The poem was called "The Afternoon of a Faun,"

and he wanted to create a prelude to it,

and that prelude has no words.

It is simply music.

[ "Faune" plays on flute ]

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Yerushalmi: Eight years after the premiere,

Nijinsky made a tremendous splash in Paris

dancing the faun.

Debussy would walk out of the performance,

declaring it too explicit.

The success of the work was both a blessing and a curse.

Debussy knew then

that his music will not be understood for a long time.

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Gooley: The faun, at the beginning of the poem,

is erotically aroused.

He is anticipating a day of fawning,

and somehow that feeling of anticipation

keeps being repeated over the course of the poem,

as if the reward never quite comes but is always anticipated.

Debussy's preludes are a little bit like that, too.

You know, they present fragments of melody

but rarely deliver an entire melody

or a full-fledged melody.

They also have fragments in them.

Yerushalmi: Ruins. Ruins, perhaps.

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Chopin is very, very important for Debussy,

and Debussy had a great love for Chopin's music.

Gooley: Well, it's interesting that Debussy

should write two cycles of preludes

because in France,

there were not too many composers

who were writing preludes after Chopin.

Alkan did that, but not too many others.

But Chopin was interested in the prelude,

in the beforeness of the prelude,

because for Chopin,

a prelude was still conceivable

as a preface to another piece.

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So, what is it,

prelude to prelude to preludes,

23 times preludes?

Well, there's two things really.

One is, in Chopin's day, you normally played

mostly improvised a prelude before a piece,

so you didn't start a piece,

but you would start with a little prelude of your own

to get the audience into the mood or to set the key.

According to Czerny,

Beethoven's pupil and Liszt's teacher,

the simplest prelude was just a single chord,

so you could go...

[ Major chord plays ]

...and that would be your prelude.

It also shows how the prelude can expand eventually.

The bigger of the Chopin preludes

turn into the Debussy preludes

because they cease to be short, improvisatory pieces

before another piece,

but they become pieces in their own right.

And of course, the "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"

is the ultimate in that regard

because it's not only not an improvised piece.

It's for an orchestra.

It could hardly be improvised,

and it's effectively a full symphonic poem, is what it is.

Yeah.

It's an ironic prelude, shall we say?

It's the least prelude-like prelude you can imagine.

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Gooley: He put the titles at the end and after three ellipses points

and in parentheses,

so he wanted to demote language

or demote the title to a secondary status.

For him, poetry was an epiphenomenon of music.

Music was the main thing.

It was the plenitude of meaning that language couldn't capture.

So for Debussy, a prelude was really a prelude to language.

It was a more meaningful thing than language.

[ "Des pas sur la neige" plays ]

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Sands: An artist is by definition a man who is used to dreams

and who dwells among ghosts.

How could this very man possibly behave in everyday life

in the strict observance of traditions, law,

and other barriers set by a coward and hypocrite world?

In short, I live between memory and regret.

Those are two sad companions.

They are faithful, though, more than joy and happiness.

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"Des Pas Sur la Neige" is one of his most incredible pieces.

It has such depth, as you said,

and it's very difficult to convey it because it's so bare.

You know, there's really very few notes actually,

and every one of them is so important.

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These notes are going down slowly

to the lower part of the keyboard,

and this last chord,

which sounds with such desolation,

and you really feel such an almost metaphysical loneliness

when you hear it.

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Sands: "I am in a detestable mood, rebellious to any sort of joy.

It destroys me little by little every day.

This is the reason you have not seen me.

I am, without excuse,

disagreeable and empty of thought.

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[ Music fades ]

[ Music resumes ]

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I think that it's perhaps the most nuanced music for piano

because not only is the attack important,

holding it is important,

and also the release is very important,

and for the pedal, too.

It's not just on or off.

It's all these different

hundreds and hundreds of gradations of pedal,

and every instrument is different,

and every pedal has to be different, as well.

You have to adjust that, and all of that comes from listening.

Ecouté davantage.

You listen more to really hear the instrument

and what kind of sounds the instrument is producing,

and even if there's some accidental thing that happens

where there's a buzz in the instrument,

I was like, "Wow."

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Beautiful at the end. Beautiful at the end.

What do you do about this diminuendo?

Do you have a special way of dealing with that?

I kind of heard it.

What do you think he meant? I mean, how would you...

If you orchestrated, you would have [Vocalizes]

You have them going away.

Do you do anything special, or just let the sound go

or subtly let the sound go?

I just let it resonate, let the piano do it for me.

[ Chuckles ] But it doesn't. That's the only thing.

What the piano will do for -- [ Laughs ]

But, you know, you can influence it more.

I think you can --

[ Vocalizes ]

If you move it --

If you release the pedal

and hold...

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That is a lot like the theme of Ellington's "Reflections."

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Yeah, and here's the Debussy.

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So the blue note has a revival in the Debussy preludes

and from there moves

into Ellington's "Reflections in D."

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John Cage was influenced by Debussy.

I think this whole synthesizer, electronic music

was very much influenced by Debussy,

certainly not by Debussy the man,

but by Debussy the philosophy,

the approach to music in general.

Boulez is a great, great admirer of Debussy.

Messiaen was a great admirer of Debussy,

and Boulez studied with Messiaen,

and then for Boulez,

Debussy is definitely one of the major composers.

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Man: Can you remember the time when you --

How long did you take from the first to the --

Oh, it take me maybe one week, simply that.

It was very quickly composed.

I was very spontaneous at this stuff.

[ Laughs ]

I was still 20.

I composed that in '45, at the end of '45.

Did you have material before?

Did you have sketches? No, no.

No.

No, I have simply a 12-tone.

And what was the impulse for the composition?

To make fun of the 12-tone [Laughs] because every piece --

There are 12 pieces, every piece was 12 bars long,

and each time the tone will begin with a number one,

and one, two, three, five, and so on,

two, three, four, five, six,

three, four...

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Sands: We have come to rediscover Debussy.

Why is he not as celebrated as he should be?

Some of his works are never heard for the orchestra

or for the pianist or for any instrument,

so take a piece that they haven't heard of him,

and to rehearse it, it's not in their --

It's not in their intellectual values.

But the prelude

for the "A l'après-midi d'un faune,"

that is in the international dance repertoire, I think.

Oh, it's everywhere.

It's in films and it's in ambiance,

in atmospheric moments of any scene,

but that's the one piece that is known.

There are so many books written about Debussy,

and he's so respected,

but 100 years later,

I think some people still have difficulties with his music.

Ravel, in a way, is more classical.

A lot of people don't feel so...

[ Speaking French ]

It's too complex, and it makes people shy and stay away,

but it started with the first reviews.

Let's say, "La Mer."

They said, "Where is the sea? Where is the sea?

Where are the waves? Where is the sea?"

And so his friend, Paul Dukas, the composer, said,

"Some don't see the music, some don't see the sea,

but sea or forest, this is Debussyist music,"

so that's what we can say about the music of Debussy.

It's Debussyist.

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Yerushalmi: Where do we come from?

What are we, and where are we going?

♪ Pour le jour des Hyacinthies ♪

♪ Il m'a donné une syrinx faite de roseaux bien taillés ♪

♪ Unis avec la blanche cire qui est douce à mes lèvres ♪

♪ Comme le miel

[ "Golliwog's Cakewalk" plays ]

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