Classical Music Guide Forums - Monday, July 23, 2012 - Written by Donald Isler

David Dubal Program on Claude Debussy

Usually, David Dubal spends one evening each year at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival giving a lecture about a composer whose 200th birth anniversary is being observed. However, this year he devoted the program to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy. And, as usual, his program included music, both live performances and historical recordings.

Mr. Dubal has written numerous books on the piano and its literature, and has hosted radio programs for many years. His current program, The Piano Matters, is heard on many stations in this country, including WWFM ( in New Jersey and WFMT ( in Chicago. His lectures, which often include a great deal of humor, as well as comments meant to be taken not more than half seriously, are always based on a lot of reading and knowledge. As well as a great love for the subject.

In this case, he was dealing with a particularly unlovable man (based on his record of treating women!) who, however, happened to be one of the most original of composers, and was, in Mr. Dubal’s opinion, the greatest composer France has ever produced.

Claude Debussy, as Mr. Dubal put it, was someone who gave us a new way of hearing, someone who painted in tone. Debussy himself wrote that music speaks not in form but in “colors and rhythmicized time.” Claudio Arrau described Debussy’s music as being from another planet. Confident and determined already at a young age, Debussy argued with Cesar Franck, one of his professors at the Conservatoire in Paris, when told to add a modulation to one of his exercises. “Why” asked Debussy, “should I modulate when I’m perfectly happy in this key?!”

Debussy, according to Mr. Dubal, loved Chopin and Rameau, but didn’t particularly like Bach (quite unusual for a composer!) and hated Wagner. He did enjoy, and learned from Russian works, and composers. He was also an Anglophile, who loved Shakespeare.

Many pianists played for him, and his music, in a radically new idiom, became popular, perhaps, because it was considered modern but not “ugly.” The composer, Alfredo Casella, said that Debussy’s music seemed to be played with strings but without hammers and keys, resulting in pure poetry.

Many biographical details about the composer were given, from his birth, in 1862, to a poor and unmusical family, to his death in 1918, during World War I. He had cancer from 1909 on, and money problems, which led him to do projects he might not otherwise have done, such as editing all the works of Chopin for Durand. Already ill when the First World War began, he was jealous of Ravel and Satie, who were active in the war effort. Excerpts from the memoirs of the soprano, Mary Garden, were read, in which she described how she rebuffed Debussy’s romantic interest in her, and how she consoled one of the several wives he left.

The recorded performances that were heard included an impressive Feux d’artifice, with Krystian Zimerman, a biting, threatening version of What the West Wind Saw by Cortot, an incredibly sensuous reading of La Puerta del Vino by Gieseking, and a hugely dramatic Reflets dans l’eau by Michelangeli.

Three pianists played during the program.

Joseph Smith, who always seems to have something ready to play by any composer, gave a performance of The Snow Is Dancing, from the Children’s Corner Suite, that was notable for its clarity and delicacy.

The Engulfed Cathedral, as played by Jarred Dunn, was evocative and mystical, and both the buildup, as the cathedral rose out of the sea, and the descent, as it went back into the water, were impressively done.

Aviva Aronovich gave a powerful performance of the fiendishly difficult Etude for Eight Fingers and the Etude for Chromatic Steps. When, at the end of the program, Mr. Dubal said he hesitated to end on a depressing note, having just told the story of Debussy’s daughter’s tragic death, a mere sixteen months after her father’s passing, he called on Ms. Aronovich to come back and play the Etude for Eight Fingers again. A rather surprised Ms. Aronovich returned to the stage and played it again. Again, very well!

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