To give an idea of how music can look both forward and backward in time simultaneously, I have placed four of Debussy’s Etudes between works by composers who have had special relevance to me ever since I discovered Debussy and Elliott Carter.
Piano studies, or etudes, are usually given to youngsters in order to develop technical skill at the keyboard. The first etude, For Five Fingers, best illustrates Debussy’s purpose. Beginning with a staid exercise (in C, d’après M. Czerny), he starts including “wrong” notes, whereupon a lively gigue ensues. Rapid groups of five notes build to the climactic return of the original pattern, played four times as fast. An even more rapid final scale begins in the “wrong” key, but lands firmly on a C-major chord.
Ross Bauer’s Dirge Elegy evokes the ghost of Debussy. Its main theme seems
to float above quiet quintuplets in the left hand. This leads to a recitative which introduces the work by its dedicatee, Arlene Zallman, whose Variations on “Alma, che fai?” by Luca Marenzio begins shockingly on a C-major chord, leading the 16th- century theme through all manner of 20th-century harmonization. When it returns in its original form at the end, we hear it in a new light, more radiant than ever.
The parallel fourths in Debussy’s Etude for fourths look back both to the music before Bach and forward to the harmonies that Schoenberg employed as he moved away from tonality a few years earlier. Like Debussy, Roger Sessions’ From My Diary builds harmonies on fourth chords, while maintaining a key signature. Is the music “really” tonal? The final cadence leaves us in suspense. I inserted Brian Fennelly’s Babbittelle (ohne Tonart) because it contains one of the chords from Sessions’ piece, as well as an extremely impressionistic first page, showing that you can play all twelve tones in one pedal to beautiful effect.
Stravinsky called Debussy’s Etudes the greatest work of 20th-century piano music he knew. In the Etude for Ornaments, you can hear the same kind of ornamentation that Stravinsky uses in the Rite of Spring. In a similar manner, Milton Babbitt ornaments the melodic line taken from the opening of Sessions’ From My Diary (which was dedicated to him). Babbitt’s My Complements to Roger embellishes the line with accompanying figures that must be played lightly and quickly—like grace notes— if they are to be heard as “complementary.”
The Debussy Etude in thirds, with its steady stream of double notes, mediates between the fluid continuity of Robert Helps’ Nocturne and the intermittent melodic fragments of Carter, who uses silence and overtone resonances in ways the Debussy certainly would have appreciated. All three are studies in pacing and each reaches a shattering climax through different means. The Carter Intermittences, written when he was in his 97th year, is based on a passage from Proust, describing his memory of his grandmother lacing his shoes, written during the first decade of Carter’s life and the last of Debussy’s. And so I recall, a half century ago, playing for Carter his piano sonata from 1946, and his confiding, “But I am writing very different music now.”