Learn how Classical Music harbors subliminal and not-so subliminal Pagan messages.
Debussy: A Return
In response to Joseph Bloch's call for a July Blogfest on Cultural Appropriation, I once again present Claude Debussy.
Debussy should be wildly important to modern Pagans, primarily as a French composer in Paris at the end of the 19th, turn of the 20th centuries who was admittedly Pagan, participated in some occult activities, (Societe de la Rose Croix that we know of) and is fully part of the Classical music paradigm. (Paris and Vienna both were hotbeds of occult and new-age spiritual activity, especially due to the opening of new trade routes and better shipping and overseas travel.)
Debussy attended the 1889 Paris Exposition, and was particularly moved by the display of the gamelan ensemble from Java. A gamelan is an ensemble of mostly metallophones (musical instruments made of metal), and drums. The tuning used by the ensemble, slendro, is roughly equivalent to our Phrygian mode. Needless to say, Debussy, as a French wunderkind of music, became strangely obsessed with the sound of the gamelan and tried to incorporate its sound into his music.
Debussy didn't exactly copy the gamelan or the Phrygian mode. The songs and pieces he wrote that were inspired by the Exposition come from the whole-tone scale and his use of quartal harmony. probably the closest approximation to the "otherness" of the slendro tuning. The best example of Debussy in that style is "La Cathedrale Engloutie," "The Sunken Cathedral."
In this work, Debussy takes the gamelan sound and peels away a lot of the rhythmic intertwining and replaces it with block chords that create melody, while at the same time, synchronistically enough, the sheet music also shows the notes in the chords rising and falling as though a church were making a visual cameo in the score. Technically, the harmonic structure is referred to as quartal or quintal, as opposed to the tertian harmony we recognize in both Contemporary and Classical music. (Axis of Awesome did an amazing performance demonstrating why a lot of Pop and Alternative music sounds the same, and it's all based on tertian harmony):
(Sorry, embedding has been disabled for this video.)
There's already been a great deal of open study on Debussy's interaction with the gamelan sound. Lectures, papers, all of it, have been written about the "intercultural" encounter, and I have to say this about Debussy: He didn't try to copy the gamelan exactly. It was the form and function of the pitches and rhythms that he imitated, and because of his skillful approximation, Debussy is credited with having begun the dissolution of what we know as 'tonal harmony,' into what we know as 'atonal' music.
In terms of cultural appropriation, Debussy took what belonged to another culture's music, and adapted it for use in Western culture's music. Are any of us sad about it? No. Does anyone really care about classical music anyway? Not really. Are any of us surprised that a white guy from France decided that Asian music was cool and so he borrowed it? I'm not. Especially since "orientalism" was one of the many trends of the time, and it was OK to take what wasn't yours, because there were no copyright laws back then.
What I want to know is: Did anyone think, at the time, that what Debussy did may have been wrong? Does anyone now think that what Debussy did may have been wrong, especially in the Music community? No, of course not, he was a pioneer.
I wonder if the music community should think again-taken in another light, Debussy the genius becomes Debussy the copycat; no more original than a photograph. I don't know if I subscribe to that-I really do want to think of Debussy as this great hero of composing, especially with how close he comes to the Paganism exhibited during his life. Though, perhaps Debussy never tried to be a genius; maybe he only wanted to be a 'photographer,' of sorts.
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