In the western suburbs of Paris 150 years ago today, a boy was born to an unassuming couple, proprietors of a china shop who had no great taste for music. But that little boy felt otherwise, and grew up to write music of bold color, timbre and harmonic daring.
Claude Debussy ignored the old rules about how to write music and in the process created a brave new world of sonic possibilities.
To mark the Debussy sesquicentennial, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard stopped by to spin a few of his favorite Debussy recordings. The 54-year-old pianist knows a few things about adventurous music himself. At age 19, Pierre Boulez chose him as the first solo pianist in the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a group devoted to avant-garde music. A year later, Aimard performed the demanding solo part in Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These days, his repertoire ranges widely from contemporary music back to J.S. Bach.
Some of Aimard's very first musical memories are of being "overwhelmed" at hearing Debussy's music. For Aimard, Debussy is still radical and his veiled, complex music has "a troubling dimension."
"We don't always know exactly what it is about," Amaird says, "because things are mixed, and they are not also completely clearly said. They remain hidden."
Aimard has made a case for Debussy in this anniversary year by playing a lot of the composer's music. His new recording of Debussy's Preludes will be released in October; in November Aimard plays them at Carnegie Hall.