Pagan Studies

Learn how Classical Music harbors subliminal and not-so subliminal Pagan messages.

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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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Amarfa has been studying the occult, wicca, and paganism for 17 years and counting.  She has been a musician since age 5, studying first guitar, then accordion for 10 years, placing 2nd in her division in the 1995 ATARI/ATAM New England Regional Competition,  and has been studying voice for 9. She has directed small early music ensembles, performed publicly, and starred in local theatre works, particularly the World Premiere of Nightsong, a musical theatre piece with direction and book by Jon Brennan and music by Kari Tieger and Kevin Campbell, as well as composing a musical of her own and writing music in her spare time.


  • Tammye McDuff
    Tammye McDuff Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    I love Debussy, one of my favorite pieces is Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He captures the imagination and transforms his music into pictures. BB Candi!

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Monday, 22 July 2013

    Thanks, Tammye! Afternoon of a Faun was, to me, the greatest Pagan "outburst" of the musical art of the Gilded Age. Have you read the poem by Stephane Mallarme? Even by today's standards, it's quite pornographic!

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Friday, 02 August 2013

    Gee, Candi, if Debussy is a copycat then so is Shakespeare! The Bard borrowed older storylines in practically everything he wrote. As discerning scholars have observed, artistic originality does not lie in coming up with ideas that nobody ever thought of before - that would be impossible, given humanity's long history on this planet; it lies in the new ways the artist finds of expressing and dealing with those ideas. The result is the very opposite of photographic reproduction; it is a brand new work of art. (Did you ever notice, for example, that the main storyline of "The Lion King" comes from "Hamlet"? Yet nobody is accusing Disney of copycatting W.S.)

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