Debussy’s unique uncertainty

Earlier, I discussed El Albaicín from Iberia, Book III and the influence of Albéniz on Debussy’s La sérénade interrompue from the first book of preludes. Ever since, the differences between these two great works have been occupying me as much as the many obvious similarities. Of course, there are some obvious differences: Albéniz was writing quintessentially late-Romantic music, and Debussy was breaking out from the constraints of the Romantic idiom and writing in a new and pre-modernist style. Indeed, not too many composers other than Debussy can be thought of as having been influenced by Iberia, but Debussy, not unlike Beethoven or Wagner, was a figure whose legacy couldn’t be avoided by almost any composer who came after him, whether Bartók, Stravinsky, or Messiaen. When one compares the scores of the two, they couldn’t be any more different: Albéniz was unscrupulous, often almost erratic in his splattering of extreme markings, whereas Debussy was didactic and fastidiously accurate in his markings. A pianissimo can’t possibly be anything other than what it is, and one can almost feel the composer’s deliberations going into every marking and expressive gesture in the score. 

But besides these glaring differences and the recurring similarities, there is between El Albaicín and La sérénade interrompue an essential difference in character that is hard to pinpoint in words. 

I think that to get to the heart of this difference, we should look at the positioning of La sérénade interrompue in the first volume. Whereas El Albaicín is an opening movement, bringing by way of its mystery a sense of openness and curiosity, La sérénade interrompue is the last of a “batch” of three preludes (preceded by Ce qua vu le vent d’Ouest and The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) centered around the tone G-flat or F-sharp. These three constitute an episode, just like the first three do, being centered around B-flat (followed by a prelude in A major and a prelude in B major, giving the beginning of the book an overarching chromatic tonal structure). Whereas the first three preludes are, each in their own way, gentle; the preludes of the F-sharp/G-flat triptych are all drastically different from one another. Ce qua vu le vent d’Ouest is carnal and wild, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair is noble and has an essentially classical aesthetic. La sérénade interrompue, the last one of the three, places a dilemma of character to the composer, and rather than trying to solve this dilemma, Debussy seems to have simply embraced it.  Paradoxically, this brings us right back to the meandering character of El Albaicín and to the many similarities between the two. Debussy is constantly in a process of winding down and eventually disappears surreptitiously, unlike Albéniz who eagerly indulges in the adventurous character of the movement. One could say that Debussy observes the music happen, but Albéniz experiences it. This particular difference manifests itself most fascinatingly in the ending, where the spontaneousness of Albéniz is utterly contrasted by the calculatedness of Debussy. While El Albaicín fades away slowly before taking the audience by surprise with a final outburst, La sérénade interrompue disappears before we notice it disappearing, leaving the audience surprised by the silence that follows the last figure.

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