Matthew Aucoin is a composer and conductor. He is the Artist in Residence at Los Angeles Opera, a Co–Artistic Director of the American Modern Opera Company, and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. (December 2018)
No matter the form his music takes—from sparkling, quicksilver piano pieces to grand orchestral essays—there is across Debussy’s entire oeuvre an extraordinary unity of texture. Its essential quality is a spacious beauty, a lushness without thickness, which his biographer Stephen Walsh intelligently ascribes in part to Debussy’s preference for whole tones. Music whose basic interval is the whole tone—an interval of two half-steps, that is, two piano keys—is inherently spacious; there is more room for light to filter through. In Walsh’s words, “whole-tone harmony…lacks that onward push that we associate with tonal music.” This is another essential quality of Debussy’s music: late-Romantic harmonies that tend, in Wagner’s hands, to strain sweatily toward a climax are transformed through Debussy’s alchemy into mysterious floating oases, worth luxuriating in for their own sake.