Debussy’s “Martyr”: A Poisoned Arrow

On last week’s VoiceBox, composer and blogger Brian Rosen and I explored the theme of “badness” in vocal music. You can read Brian’s accompanying blog post on the broadcast here.

Towards the end of the show, we talked about songs that possess many of the qualities shared by sub-par efforts and yet somehow transcend things like inane lyrics, wavering intonation, a dirge-like melody and inept musical instrument mastery to enter the rarified realm of the “so bad it’s good.” Brian presented a compelling case for The Shaggs in this regard.

I was thinking about this transcendent category of bad music while attending a performance by the San Francisco Symphony over the weekend of Le Martyr de Saint Sebastien, a lavish musical spectacle created by Claude Debussy based on poetry by Gabriele d’Annunzio.

The piece is a misfire on a massive scale. Even the program notes allude openly to its “perfumed” writing and overall sense of “kitsch.” Program annotator Michael Steinberg even goes as far as to quote the impresario who produced the premiere, Gabriel Astruc, as saying: “I don’t understand it at all. I have brought together the greatest musician, the greatest poet, the greatest designer, the greatest choreographer–and it’s bad!”

Michael Tilson Thomas, who led the orchestra in the concerts which drew on the forces of a massive orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and a coterie of soloists helmed by the great vocalist Frederica von Stade in the spoken role of The Narrator (Sebastian himself), obviously thought that the work was worth resuscitating.

I’m afraid I disagree. Even Frederica von Stade with her beautiful French accent couldn’t bring life to d’Annunzio heavy-handed and stilted prosody. The video projections featuring a lightly-clad male dancer cavorting and a big supine lily, and the soloists billowing gospel-singer-like robes added a layer of camp silliness to the proceedings. Debussy’s music has something going for it, at least. There are spine-tingling spectral moments and ardently lush choral episodes. The orchestra and chorus acquitted themselves well. But with all the stage business going on, it was hard to really home in on whatever musical merits the work possesses.

I’m grateful that the Symphony played Janacek’s silvery Sinfonietta in the first half of the program. It’s one of the greatest pieces ever written for an orchestra and it created a sharp contrast with the much more highly-hyped puff piece that made up the second half.

The fact that Debussy composed the music for Le Martyre in the same year that San Francisco Symphony was founded (1911) is not a good enough reason to resurrect the work for the orchestra’s 100th anniversary season.

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  1. says

    Bad is such an interesting word because it can conflate mediocrity with evilness, the inadequate with disobedience, the dissatisfactory with raunchiness. The pop music industry quickly learned it could make a lot of money associating music for young people with the evil, disobedient, and raunchy. One-dimensional, grody rebellion became a fine product. Mark Anthony Turnage and Nico Muhly are a couple classical musicians who have also played that game. I wish I had been able to master the bad boy routine. For one thing, it would have vastly improved my sex life.

    The brassy, simplistic bombast of Janacek’s Sinfonietta has always bothered me. I also dislike his excessive use of ostinatos. Stravinsky uses them to such fine effect, but with Janacek they so often sounds like little more than wiggling five fingers in a repetitive, scalar pattern on a keyboard. The music doesn’t say much. Badness creates aesthetic poverty.

    Perhaps part of the problem with Le Martyre is that it was heavily invested in symbolist aesthetics, a movement that was never really successful. Poe and Baudelaire created a Byronic romanticism become gothic, a kind of existentialism of horror that was very valuable, but by the time Debussy got to the ideas they were more associated with decadence – perhaps assisted with more than a little absinth. Ah, and there we are, back to badness and all of its sinful, self-absorbed sensuality. Tristan worked much better than Le Martyre. We’re all bad, so what we label as such is merely a comparative matter. The true art of badness has been achieved by very few.

    • Tom Whittaker says

      Mr. Osborne,

      I think the reason that you find Janacek’s music bad in comparison with Stravinsky’s, is due to the fact that Janacek had learned compositional discipline, whereas Stravinsky knew very little of it. Thus, to minds less organized and capable of grasping structures, Janacek’s music is less inviting than than the works of Stravinsky, whose compositions have all the fascination of exploring a junk yard in search of rare treasures.

      • says

        It’s absurd to say that Stravinsky had no musical education. His father was a bass singer at the Marinksy Theater. Igor started piano lessons at an early age. By 14 he had mastered major works for the instrument. By 15 he was making piano arrangements of other composers’ works. In 1905, he planned to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but at the advice of Rimsky-Korsakov, did not enter and took lessons twice weekly with him for the next three years. Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the world’s leading composers at the time and this education was incomparable in value. It rooted Stravinsky in the Russian folk music that became a central part of his earlier work, and it gave him the incomparable orchestration skills for which he is especially known.

        We might also remember that the neo-classical works of Stravinsky clearly show him as one of the greatest musical structuralists in history.

        • Tom Whittaker says

          Mr. Osborne,

          It appears that you understand sarcasm as well as you understand the music of Janacek.

          Fortunately, I appreciate the music of both Janacek and Stravinsky equally.

          My best regards, etc….

          • says

            We see demonstrated here some additional concepts of badness in music. Classical music of is often related to forms of wisdom, transcendence and morality, while bad music is correlated with just the opposite: ignorance, short-sightedness, and vulgarity. We thus draw correlations between music and issues such as character, intelligence, and status.. If a person has different musical tastes, they are seen as having undesirable personal qualities.

            This seems especially important these days, because many of the attacks on classical music categorize it as elitist. It is thus vaguely associated moral issues such as classism, snobbery, selfishness, social injustice, etc. What is it about music that leads to these sorts of associations more than most other art forms?

  2. says

    While I think that the text of Martyr is not very good – and would be unbearable at its original five-hour length – I think the music is absolutely gorgeous, not at all bad. I’d suggest getting a good recording of the music and listening to it divorced from the presentation.

    I myself found the whole thing transporting and the presentation appropriate (and mostly quite beautiful). The perfumed music that’s a negative for you, Chloe, is a positive for me. But if you don’t connect at all with the ecstasy and eroticism – the medieval Catholicism of the whole thing – I see how it could look bad. (That’s from an atheist Jew, by the way. I have some weird sympathies.)

    As for the Sinfonietta, a great, great piece. Trying to figure out what makes ostinato “excessive” with no conclusion, but it’s not a problem the Sinfonietta has.

  3. says

    It’s interesting that even Stravinsky claimed his early works made excessive use of ostinato, though I wouldn’t agree. And in this age of minimalism the standards have changed. In the case of Janacek, excessive isn’t the best word, but rather that his ostinatos often aren’t very good. Why? It’s difficult to define, but in my view, they usually aren’t interesting enough to sustain the length of time for which they are used – hence the word excessive. He often uses short, running, repeated scalar patterns that have little rhythmic or pitch variation. He also doesn’t usually give them any sort of orchestrational development. Stravinsky by contrast, wrote ostinatos that were rhythmically complex and highly varied, especially due to the way they would often phase patterns against the time signature or against normal scalar or triadic patterns. He also developed them with orchestrational techniques so that they evolved timbreally as they moved through the orchestra. In this and many other ways, we see why Stravinsky is generally thought of as a much more significant composer. But there’s no arguing taste. One reason I might not prefer the Sinfonietta is that I was a brass player and heard that sort of fanfare type of music to the point that it seemed clichéd. If people have no problems with Janacek, more power too them. For me, the most interesting aspect of Janacek’s music are his theories of setting texts.

  4. Tom Whittaker says

    Mr. Osborne,

    I could not agree more with your statement that “If a person has different musical tastes, they are seen as having undesirable personal qualities. This seems especially important these days, because many of the attacks on classical music categorize it as elitist. It is thus vaguely associated moral issues such as classism, snobbery, selfishness, social injustice, etc.”

    When you write such sagacious words, why is it, then, that you can let the following verbal maladroitness escape from your keyboard?

    “The brassy, simplistic bombast of Janacek’s Sinfonietta has always bothered me. I also dislike his excessive use of ostinatos. Stravinsky uses them to such fine effect, but with Janacek they so often sounds like little more than wiggling five fingers in a repetitive, scalar pattern on a keyboard. The music doesn’t say much. Badness creates aesthetic poverty.”

    I find this a rather humorous example of a pot calling itself a black kettle. “The brassy, simplistic bombast of Janacek’s etc. etc…” is one of the best examples of subjective musical snobbishness that I have come across in a long time.

    One thing is to say “I do not particularly like the music of composer X.” We are all entitled to differences in musical taste, and there is also nothing wrong with adding a qualifier as to why one doesn’t particularly like the music of composer X, such as “to me the music of composer X lacks melodic qualities (or something else, etc.).”

    However, to rubber stamp the entire oeuvre of Janacek in a sweepeing general statement and terms such as “bombastic,” “repetitive,” “bad,” aesthetically impoverished” and implicitly lacking in its ability to communicate with an audience, seems to me the height of snobbishness and badness. The latter not as a characteristic which pertains to the music of Janacek specifically, but rather to the critic’s perceptive abilities.

    Thus you very correctly write “We see demonstrated here some additional concepts of badness in music.” I think that in addition to this, the following quote would be complementary to the wisdom of your words. Whether it reminds you of Roosevelt or Nixon, I leave entirely up to you:

    It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

    – Theodore Roosevelt, speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris, France on April 23, 1910 (aka “Citizenship in a Republic”)

  5. says

    I don’t find Janacek’s use of ostinato excessive at all, nor do I find the Sinfonietta at all bombastic.

    Most brass players seem to love the piece!

    • says

      It’s true, Lisa, most brass players love the brassiness of the Sinfonietta, which probably helps explain why I quit being a brass player… Why is it that we can see certain kinds of brassiness as an appeal to baseness, while others see something glorious and exhilarating? Sometimes we even feel both extremes at the same time — sort of like the way we can revel in Puccini still knowing it’s over-done. How does music capture those impulses, and why do the reactions vary so extremely? And to my knowledge, Janacek’s curious use of ostinatos has not been examined by theorists, which seems like ignoring the elephant in the room to me.

      It is amazing how little we can objectively say about music beyond relatively general observations about harmony, structure, and counterpoint. Even something as “simple” as a Bach chorale has never been accurately described. Countless books have been written about the theories of tonal harmony, and most of them use Bach’s chorales as their basic model, but even the most thorough study of those texts would still not lead to an accurate reproduction of his chorales. The very nature of art is its emphemerality, so theory is always hopelessly reductive. Music is a language whose grammar will never be codified.

      This all relates back to Chloe’s earlier blog about why critics are so coy about criticizing classical music. Due to its associations with transcendence, it’s a little like criticizing people’s religion. The effort is quickly seen as gauche, chauvinistic, and relatively pointless. Those who raise a critical voice are excommunicated, and cast from the heavenly host. Criticism of classical music is thus a little like Facebook where there is only a thumb up, but no thumb down.
      Sometimes classical music reaches into areas that are objectively moral, like the Vienna Philharmonic’s exclusion of women and non-Caucasians. Even here, criticisms of the orchestra can cause harsh reactions, because established classical music icons are often not only placed above aesthetic evaluations, but concrete moral ones. Mr. Kosman suggests that this moral complacency is harmful to classical music, because it creates a social exemption that reduces art’s capacity for human engagement:
      “There is something unsettling and sad about this sort of glib aestheticism – the view that anything can be justified in the name of art – because the truth is precisely the opposite. To exempt music, and art in general, from moral considerations is not to protect it at all, but to marginalize it and rob it of any ability to engage on a human level.”
      And as Chloe has been discussing, the established repertoire has even been placed above aesthetic judgments, which also reduces its ability to engage on a human level.

      • says

        There are so many assumptions in that comment, William that I hardly know where to start.

        – You mean “I” most of the time when you say “we.”

        – I don’t consider some brassiness bad and some good.

        – As a reviewer, I certainly don’t hesitate to say a piece is uninteresting, poorly constructed or balanced, or doesn’t work.

        – To your knowledge Janacek’s ostinatos have not been discussed in the theoretical literature. How extensive a literature search have you made? In what languages? Your knowledge evidently didn’t extend to a Google Scholar search. Here’s a URL at which you’ll find a few discussions of Janacek and ostinato:

        – “Accurately described:” Look, analysis and composition aren’t the same enterprise and aren’t intended to be the same. You want an “accurate description,” get the score. Analysis is to shed some light, in words, on the whys and hows of a work.

        – How do you KNOW that it’s “associations with transcendence” that keep people from criticizing classical music? Well, see, you don’t. I’m now wondering if you’ve read “A Lexicon of Musical Invective,” too.

        Getting back to a discussion we had elsewhere on the internet a few years back, I realized I could have told you one thing about Google’s computing capacity, because it’s self-evident to anyone willing to look around a bit, as you were not: Google’s computing capacity far exceeds that of the University of Michigan.

        That is all. I will not respond further.

        • says

          Lisa, sorry to get you in such a huff, but your bulleted set of complaints doesn’t add up to much. A general google search of “Janacek, ostinato” (or whatever you used) inevitably receives hits, but the links you list do not make much more than passing references to his use of them. I do not see any listing for an in-depth study of the subject.

          When I used the term “accurately described” it was clearly in the context of theoretical analysis. (I consider scores to be the music, not its description, though I suppose that could be debated.) As for classical music and conceptions of transcendence see my article “Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets: Cultural Isomorphism and Allocation of Power In Music” published by the M.I.T. Press. You can read it on-line here, though I suspect it will upset you even more:

          • Tom Whittaker says

            Mr. Osborne,

            You say “Even something as “simple” as a Bach chorale has never been accurately described..” and “I consider scores to be the music, not its description.”

            Where did you learn to play the brass instrument that you gave up, and now seemingly use to drive your hate of brass section passages in symphonic music? You parents’ garage?

            Any intelligent, professional musician, who has gone through a conservatory education, and who has paid attention in their theory classes, has most likely been required to write chorales in the style of Bach. I certainly was. As a result, I believe that most musicians, who aren’t interested in academic pseudo-intellectualism – a condition which exists mainly in a vacuum of colleges and universities and the minds of some of their faculties – can “describe” a Bach chorale quite well.

            If you are able to read a score, why do you not pick up such items of Janacek’s works in a library nearby and figure out how his “ostinatos” work for yourself? Or are you merely critiziing without having the ability to to research the source of your sour grapes yourself, relying on what you merely hear or imagine?

            You write “He often uses short, running, repeated scalar patterns that have little rhythmic or pitch variation. He also doesn’t usually give them any sort of orchestrational development.” By your standards, Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa from his 9th book of madrigals is a piece of thorough hack work. On that basis, we might as well throw most of the music written up to the 1670s on the rubbish heap as not “enough to sustain the length of time for which they are used – hence the word excessive.” Oh, and let’s not forget to throw quite a few pieces by Buxtehude and Bach onto the same heap while we’re at it.

            Throughout this discussion, I rather get the impression that you don’t even know what the word “ostinato” means, and how it is used in music analysis. I suppose you find Mozart’s and Haydn’s works tedious because of their excessive use of “ostinato” in the bass parts, which often consist of repeated eights for extended periods of time. I can just see you at a concert listening to Mozart and rolling your eyes while thinking “oh here comes that boring and unvaried bass ostinato in the cellos and basses again…SO cliche.”

            I take no offense because you dislike Janacek’s music – I’m sure many other people do as well. For various reasonsof personal taste, I happen to not like his operas particularly much. However, what I DO take offense at, are the rather mindless and stereotypical statements about the construction of his music that you snobbishly attempt to pass as definitive judgements. Perhaps the brass section you played in was one of those that had the typical issue with playing anything quieter than fortissimo. Hence you missed out on hearing what other sections in the orchestra were playing, which now skews your perception of certain compositions.

            There is no elephant in this room, Mr. Osborne – just an intellectual gnat.

  6. says

    We are seeing excellent illustrations that answer Chloe’s question about why critics are so coy about criticizing classical music. It creates vehement, righteous indignation and ad hominine attacks ensue – in part due to the reasons I describe above. Tom, I have a masters in composition from the Manhattan School of Music where upon I received a doctoral fellowship to Columbia University (full tuition plus a monthly stipend with no work requirements,) though I rejected it since I also received a full scholarship to the National Music Academy of Italy in Rome, (L’Accademia di Santa Cecilia.) In the same year I was named alternate for the American Rome Prize. I have lived in Europe for the 33 years where I work as a professional composer. My works have been performed in over 155 cities in Europe and America. Suffice to say that my opinions about Janacek are relatively informed, even if subjective, and even if not all would agree. To learn more about me, check out my website.

    An analysis of Janacek’s use of ostinatos would be a difficult undertaking and require a lot of specialized work that wouldn’t interest me. But to answer briefly, one reason Janacek’s use of ostinatos (to speak very generally) is different from those of the other composers you mention, is that they are often more harmonically static. The composers you mention also usually use them in a rather subdued accompanimental role, but in Janacek, as in Stravinsky, they are more central to the compositional material. And that is where my main concern lies. I feel they often don’t carry enough musical interest to serve such a function. This is perhaps one of several reasons why Janacek is in the second ring of composers, though some of his work is quite remarkable. I think these considerations might also explain why most of his work is seldom performed.

    Sadly, I don’t think this explanation will help you understand my views. Another reason that critics are coy about criticizing classical music is that it is very difficult to substantiate views in objective terms. There might be a consensus that Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, and Shostakovich are better composers than Janacek, Elgar, Busoni, or Delius, but it is almost impossible to say why. We seem to create informal rankings of composers based on how often they are programmed, and how many of their works are programmed. “We” also seem to rely on a general and vague consensus of opinion from presumed experts in the field, even though their perspectives are almost entirely subjective. It leads me to wonder how the whole process actually works.

  7. Tom Whittaker says

    You have an Interesting background – I have three masters degrees in music (all with full tuition and living expenses paid) from 3 countries. and have lived in Europe for 30 years myself. I am not a composer, true, but I can read and analyze most scores, though I admit some contemporary scores, which bear a certain resemblance to paintings by Jackson Pollock, defy my comprehension and interest. I am surprised that even though I am a musician, I have never come across your name in concert programs or news articles in Europe. But you may well be a latter-day Bach in that respect.

    However, let’s end the micturition contest here. It hasn’t been all that seriously meant from my side anyway. As an European, I just like a good, sarcastic debate – in the spirit of Wilde or Shaw – for the sheer mirth of it. I will look up your website and listen to your music so I can further my knowledge of music. I agree that when it comes to discussing the particulars of a great composer’s style, verbalization can be difficult, if not impossible. As good ol’ Corno di Bassetto wote, “A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” We have been polemicizing about our personal tastes and opinions, and those, at least in the case of music, should not be excessively denigrated even if disagreement exists.

    You have my respect for your spirited repartee, Mr. Osborne. In boca al lupo to you!

  8. Graham Christian says

    I think what we are talking about is not an inherent goodness or badness per se, but kitsch. Kitsch is especially a danger in religious art, which frequently freezes authentic responses from artists. D’Annunzio’s work is frequently accused of kitsch, and when he engages with a legendary saint–well, let’s say that asking forward-looking modern artists (not just Debussy & D’Annunzio, but also Fokine, Bakst, Ida Rubinstein) to play at medievalism in bad faith (I don’t speak to their personal religious faith, but suggest merely that the meanings of Saint Sebastian have probably been turned on their heads somewhere between the rise of his legend and 1911), you have to expect kitsch. Kitsch frequently has, or includes, work of genuine quality–it’s not the same as incompetence or cynical mass-production. It would be easy to believe that the first production of 1911 showed the best efforts of all these artists, and that the result was in bad taste. I find it possible, too, that Debussy’s contribution, executed at the height of his powers, might, for some, still carry the whiff of the original project’s kitschiness.

    • says

      Just when I was beginning to think of the Internet as a waste of time, along comes your very interesting post. The relationships between transcendence and kitsch in the modern world are interesting. Few modern artists have solved this problem. The symbolists even embraced a form of kitsch as transcendence.

      Even some medieval authors such as Dante realized the inherent dangers of trying to represent transcendent experience. The first Cantos of the Paridiso are essentially a discussion of this problem. How do your represent what is by nature ineffible? The ironies are inherent.

      One of the most successful combinations of kitsch and transcendence in modern times is Wagner’s Parsifal. I wonder if Debussy, who admired Wagner and emulated elements of his music, had this in mind when writing “Martyr.” There’s an interesting discussion of the kitsch and transcendence in Parsifal here:

      Mahler’s work is also laden with the ironies of trascendent aspirations. The Second Symphony and Das Lied are good examples, and also help explain why some sense elements of kitsch in his work. Verdi’s Requiem also has that same sense of irony in it at times – at least to my ears. George Crumb, who deeply admires both Mahler and Debussy, also plays with these ironies in his work. In the modern world, it is almost impossible to represent transcendental experience without creating hints of the bad faith of which you speak. Some artists play with these ironies, and some simply let them stand. Both unavoidably create kitsch.

      Perhaps Gorecki comes close in a few of his works toward representing non-ironic forms of transcendence because he couches it in what seems like a response to the horrors of the 20th century. Britten did the same with his War Requiem. Rimbaud, Poe, and Baudelaire also couched transcendence in a context of horror which also seemed to ameliorate elements of kitsch that might have otherwise existed in their work. I wonder if one could go so far as to say we live in a time where the only believable context for transcendence has been horror.