Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music from a relatively small group at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle; he finally heard a full ensemble at the 1900 Exposition.
While he generally disapproved of the Orientalism of earlier Romantic-era composers, he found tremendous inspiration in gamelan music—not in its surface exoticism, but in the details of its structure, texture, and modality.
Exposure to Javanese gamelan music was one of the important catalysts in the flowering of Debussy’s mature style, and it left its mark on his work in a much broader and more profound way than is generally supposed.
“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” he wrote, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”
He also wrote of “Javanese rhapsodies, which, instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.”
This according to Echoes from the East: The Javanese gamelan and its influence on the music of Claude Debussy, a 1988 dissertation for the University of Texas, Austin, by Kiyoshi Tamagawa.
Today is Debussy’s 150th birthday! Below, “Sirènes” from his Nocturnes, a piece in which Tamagawa demonstrates extensive influence of gamelan music; this influence is best discerned in the two-piano version presented here.
Related article: Historic Balinese gamelans
Today, on Delius’s 150th birthday, let’s eavesdrop on the reminiscences of his friend Percy Grainger.
“Composer never had truer colleague than I had in Frederick Delius, and when he died I felt that my music had lost its best friend.
“Our outlook on life was very similar, our artistic tastes met at many points. Both of us considered the Icelandic sagas the pinnacle of narrative prose. Both of us knew the Scandinavian languages and admired the culture of Scandinavia as the flower of Europeanism.
“Both of us worshipped Walt Whitman, Wagner, Grieg, and Jens Peter Jacobsen. Both of us detested music of the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven period. ‘If a man tells me he likes Mozart, I know in advance that he is a bad musician’ Delius was fond of saying.
“One year he would ask for Bach; the next year he would say ‘You know, Bach always bores me.’ But Chopin and Grieg he never turned against. He preferred Ravel to Debussy. He had no patience with Richard Strauss, Mahler, or Hindemith.”
This from “About Delius”, reprinted in Grainger on music (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999, pp. 361–368). Above, Grainger and Delius in 1923. Below, Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in spring.
Bach’s use of a musical motive based on his name, B–A–C–H, is well known, and several other composers have used it in tributes to the Baroque master. As connoisseurs of French chamber music also know, Ravel made similar use of the technique of deriving musical material from a composer’s name in his Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure and Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn.
Far less known is the further use of this technique by both Debussy and Ravel in more enigmatically titled pieces. For example, several of their works bearing the words hommage or tombeau include musical material derived from the honoree’s name. Such formerly puzzling titles, which have led the curious on wild-goose chases in their attempts to understand what on earth the music had to do with the named composer, may now be understood as sly references to uses of this technique.
This according to “Widmungsstücke mit Buchstaben-Motto bei Debussy und Ravel” by Paul Mies, an essay included in Festschrift für Erich Schenk (Studien zur Musikwissenschaft: Beihefte der Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, vol. 25 , pp. 363–368); this journal issue dedicated to the Austrian musicologist Erich Schenk (1902–74) on the occasion of his 60th birthday is covered in our recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Below, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, one of the works discussed in the article.