Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Piano as Paintbrush

The wondrous colors of Debussy.
Debussy once said that if he had not been a musician he would have been a painter. His favorite painter was not an Impressionist, a term he abhorred, but J.M.W. Turner, whom he thought the greatest of all colorists. And it is as a colorist that Debussy is the most wondrous tone-painter of music, exploring unknown regions of sonority and timbres. In 1905 he completed "La Mer," one of the miracles of orchestral music. To perform it well, the composition needs musicians who are painters. "There should be only sirens in the sea," Debussy said.

The piano was his most important paintbrush, always close at hand. His body of piano music is the most original since Franz Liszt's. His biographer Edward Lockspeiser wrote of "Debussy's mysterious conception of tactile properties." He was a man of the widest culture. But above all he was a nature worshipper, and nearly half of his art was inspired by the natural world, which he best reflected in his piano music. A pupil, the pianist E. Robert Schmitz, speaks of "Clouds, moonlight, passing breezes—sunken churches, the wind at sea or in the plains, sunrise on a golden roof, shimmering gold fish inspired by a Japanese lacquer," and so much else. (Read entire post.)

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