The mystery of the instant and the destiny of a mask

“C’est étonnant comme un jour triste ressemble à un autre jour triste”, Debussy wrote on 31 May 1899 to Lilly Texier. The singer was to become his wife that same year, but Debussy left her five years later for Emma Bardac. Lilly attempted suicide in the Place de la Concorde. She survived, but the bullet remained lodged between her vertebrae. The scandal shook the whole of Paris. Friends, including Ravel, sided with the abandoned wife. Debussy was deeply saddened by the affair, yet another demonstration of human incommunicability. Incommunicability is perhaps the hidden pattern of all Debussy’s music.

“Je ne suis pas heureuse ici”, says Mélisande, roughed up by her husband Golaud, who drags her up and down the stage by her hair. With Debussy, music leaves behind romanticism — the idea that music expresses feelings — and becomes a representation detached from the phantasmagoria of existence. “Music begins where words can no longer speak”, writes Debussy. A sunset in Brittany is truer than Beethoven’s Pastoral. In this way, the composer attributes an individuality to music that distinguishes it from poetry, painting and all the other arts. Not that music becomes detached. Rather, it represents reality with other, exclusive, purely musical tools. The title of each of Debussy’s Préludes is written not at the head of the piece but at the end, in brackets and between suspension points: ( … la Cathedral engloutie … ). There exists an analogy between the arts. Like colours in drawing and painting, sound is the medium of music. Debussy was irritated by the term ‘impressionism’ which was applied to his music. He considered it inaccurate, unsuitable. Better to speak about ‘symbolism’, as in the poetry of Mallarmé. Indeed, Debssy’s music is probably the purest expression of the purely musical since that of Mozart. Music that is music above all else. Music pure and simple. And this gives it an enormous capacity to suggest worlds and feelings, because it does not name them, like poetry, but alludes to them. Nocturnes is a sublime example. These nocturnes have nothing to do with Chopin’s. The much-loved Chopin had an immense influence on Debussy, but it is the Etudes that are dedicated to the Polish composer. With Chopin, harmony becomes timbre and colour loses its narrative and structural function. Nuages, Fêtes, Syrènes: Clouds, Festivals, Sirens. The opening chords of Nuages seem to slide into one another like clouds in the sky. But the analogy ends there. The music offers moments of isolated suspension that come one after the other, elusive and mysterious. And so the festival begins with a jolt of sound, brief rhythms, a general excitement that springs from who knows where, appearing and disappearing. Could these be the sirens of Ulysses, the enchantresses who kill those who yield to their song? A song that has no text. The female voices merely intone the vowel a. An almost animal intonation of seduction. Debussy keeps us rooted in the sphere of sound — of sound alone — as a depiction of both life and death. Time is only perceptible with something with a duration, even if that duration is only an instant. Debussy’s sound is this depiction of pure existence. It encompasses the “mystery of the instant”, writes Jankélévitch. Eliminate the instant, eliminate the sound, and there is death, oblivion. To indicate the moment Mélisande dies, Debussy indicates a crown above the barline. A pause is music, death is silence, the disappearance of sound, nothingness. With the music in suspense, Mélisande dies, and the music restarts immediately after. Clouds, parties, sirens rise above the abyss of silence. The same immobility of the chords that open Nuages is adopted by Stravinsky at the start of the second part of the Sacre du Printemps. And so we come to the second immense composer of this concert.
Debussy completed the Nocturnes in 1899, but the full work was not premiered until 1901 (the first two pieces were performed in 1900). Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex was first performed in concert form at the Théâtre Sarah Bernahrdt in Paris on 30 May 1927, and staged the following year at the Vienna State Opera. Many things happened in Europe and around the world in that quarter of a century, including a revolution that transformed Russia and a catastrophic world war that brought Europe’s global dominance to an end. Deeply, intimately Russian, Stravinsky lived in exile until his death. He gave concerts in Moscow and Leningrad in 1962 and was triumphantly received, but returned to the United States where, in the meantime, he had acquired citizenship. Together with Jean Cocteau, who wrote the libretto based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he decided to call the work an Opera-Oratorio. Stravinsky wanted to write it in a language that was no longer spoken, and Greek was and still is. He therefore asked Jean Danielou to translate the libretto into Latin. Stravinsky believed Latin was a ritual language — at that time, it was still the language of the Catholic Church — and so was comparable with the ancient Slavonic of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. He also wanted the characters to be understood not as individuals, but as masks, types, products of an allusive and symbolic theatre. In 1992, Toshio Matsumoto, the great Japanese director, joined forces with conductor Seiji Ozawa in a production at the Saito Kinen Festival that seemed as close to Stravinsky’s intention as one could possibly imagine (a filmed version was released by Philips). As Stravinsky wanted, the characters remain stationary in the same place on the stage, moving only their arms and hands. The characters wear masks inspired by Cycladic sculpture. The singers and the orchestra look after the rest. The narrator, who summarises the story, is replaced by an actress who evokes the spirit of Nō theatre, the tragedy of human destinies, of which Oedipus is both the model and the sacrificial victim, from the beginning of time. Distancing himself from the audacity of the Sacre du Printemps, the neoclassical Stravinsky would have approved of Matsumoto’s rivers of spilled ink (it is time to stop calling the ballet a Sagra, because it is a Rite: a Sacre, precisely, and the English translate well as The Rite of the Spring, a translation of which Stravinksy himself approved). Rather than properly returning to tonality, Stravinsky uses tonality to alienating effect. The minor third is the dominant interval in this work that opens in a violent-sounding B-flat minor. Tonality for Stravinksy is an autonomous, inexpressive material, much as with popular rhythms and with the dodecaphony of his later years. Instead, the musical discourse is driven by rhythm and certain recurring intervals, especially the minor third. Here lies the modernity, even the contemporaneity, of Stravinsky’s music, including that of his so-called neo-classical period. The interest lies entirely in the elaboration, whatever sound material is adopted. No nostalgia, no longing for an irretrievable past. Not even in the beautiful Basle Concerto, which reiterates the impossibility of a return and condemns nostalgia as an illusion. The beauty of the song is as immobile as a Greek statue, like a melody by Bellini, of which we are offered a cast, an imitation, an impossible commemoration. And here they are, the Greek statues, the masks of our pain. Dated, fixed, frozen, like the pain of life that arrives with the start of sapientes’ adventure on earth. This only makes it more desperate, more inconsolable, as if it could be vented with a cry, with a beautiful melody. The pain of history is an immobile, perennial mask that Destiny has modeled on us.

text by
Dino Villatico