Music Without a Destination

Henri Manuel/Getty Images
Claude Debussy, circa 1910

The world of classical music loves an anniversary to celebrate the already-celebrated. The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006 brought performances of all twenty-two of his operas in his hometown of Salzburg, among innumerable other festivities worldwide; the 225th anniversary of his death in 2016 prompted the release of a two-hundred-CD set of his complete works. In advance of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, the German government has declared him a “matter of national importance,” as if he were a precious, rapidly disappearing natural resource. One could be forgiven for wondering exactly why the most-performed composers in history need these promotional blitzes.

The subjects of this year’s two most prominent classical-music anniversaries could hardly be more different from each other. One hundred years ago this past March 25, Achille-Claude Debussy died in Paris. Five months later, in less glamorous Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein was born. For listeners worldwide, each has become a kind of metonym for his time and place: Debussy for the languorous refinement of the French fin de siècle; Bernstein for the brash, brassy extroversion of mid-twentieth-century America. In life, Debussy was an elusive personality, feline and withdrawn; he seems to have been unscrupulous in his love life and not entirely trustworthy in financial matters. His mature music, however, bears the stamp of an unmistakable sensibility: sensual, tender, alternately delicate and lush, it reveals a wizardly gift for draining familiar tonal harmonies of their usual stability and suspending them gorgeously in midair.

As a musician, Bernstein is practically Debussy’s photographic negative. He seems to have made a seismic impression on everyone he so much as shook hands with, and as a conductor he was uniquely, extravagantly gifted: he had a singular ability, through sheer passion and panache, to make classical music exciting, even sexy, to middlebrow American audiences. But Bernstein’s own compositions are a frustrating mélange of defanged American popular idioms—jazz, vaudeville, Broadway—and undercooked rehashings of the music he conducted so brilliantly: Mahler, Copland, Ravel. He was, by his own admission, a compulsively social animal; it wasn’t in his nature to withdraw from society for extended periods to compose. Here Debussy’s reticence was a major advantage: his seeming aimlessness, which kept him in perpetual financial peril, afforded him the time to write La Mer, Pelléas et Mélisande, and an exquisite body of chamber music.

It’s curious, then, that this shared centennial has been heavy on Bernstein and relatively light on Debussy. The “Bernstein at 100” press release on the official Leonard Bernstein website boasts of “more than 4,500 events on six continents,” including multiple productions of extravagant evening-length pieces, like his Mass. It could be argued that much of Debussy’s music is already central to the classical repertoire, while Bernstein’s concert music has been neglected, justly or not, and is thus ripe for revival.…

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