note worthy

How an Indian Sufi teacher left an imprint on Claude Debussy (and western classical music)

The famous French composer's fascination with the Orient deepened after he met the pioneering Hazrat Inayat Khan.

No matter how many times the story of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) is told, it’s always fascinating. He was the great-great-grandson of Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger of Mysore”. He was the father of Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, a British espionage agent and the first female radio operator to be sent into German-occupied France to aid the Resistance. He founded the mystical Sufi Order of the West. He was a trained Northern Indian classical musician. And, unknown to many, he was an influence on western classical music, in particular the music of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Scottish pianist and musicologist Roy Howat has looked closely at the influence of the Orient on the music of Debussy. In his book Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis, and in his essay Debussy and the Orient in the book Recovering the Orient, Howat describes a meeting between Debussy and Inayat Khan in May 1913. The introduction had been made by a mutual friend, the pianist Walter Rummel, while Inayat Khan and his family of musicians were on a performance tour of Europe and America.

In a letter to Rummel, Debussy recounted that the musicians chose a day to play for him at their convenience but the performance’s time was almost predetermined – “around 5 o’clock, which I understand is their usual time”.

Inayat Khan’s youngest brother Musharaff Khan, who was also present there, described the encounter. He remembered Debussy calling it “the evening of emotions”. After hearing their performance, Debussy “sat down at the piano and played, calling out titles that resembled the descriptive names of the ragas” that had been played by Inayat Khan and his musicians. The titles apparently included “rainy season”, “spring” and autumn”.

Could it be that these were Debussy’s “Jardins sous la pluie” (his third Estampe), a piano reduction of “Printemps” (an orchestral work that premiered just a month before), and “Feuilles mortes”, his newly-published prelude?

Use of the Indian palette

Debussy’s fascination with the Orient predated his meeting with Inayat Khan. Among his close friends were ethnomusicologists and Oriental scholars Edmond Bailly and Louis Laloy. Besides, during the Expositions Universelles in 1889 and 1900, which exposed the Parisian public to the cultural treasures of the exotic East, Debussy had famously fallen under the spell of Javanese gamelan music. Perhaps during this time he was also exposed to Indian music.

His love of the visual arts would, surely, have left him impressed by the Indian raga, which in addition to “melody” also means “colour”, “hue”. In a raga, the musician progressively paints an aural canvas using not just a prescribed mode or scale, but a set order in which the notes are introduced for the first time.

In the first movement of Debussy’s 1905 orchestral work La Mer (“De l’aube à midi sur la mer”), there are many references to this: the repeated falling fifth of the bass ostinato line reminds of the Indian tanpura; the fragments of a pentatonic melody played by the woodwinds, with parallel fifths and avoidance of major third intervals, give the work a decidedly Asian mood; and the gradual addition of the “blue” notes is in the manner that an Indian musician would develop a raga.

Perhaps Debussy intentionally chose an Indian palette to colour this movement which charts the progress of the sun from east to west. The title, which translates to “From dawn to noon on the sea”, is unusual for conventional western music in that it specifies a time of day. But for ragas, which are defined by a time of day or night, or mood or mode, the title is commonplace.

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La Mer

It is believed that Inayat and Musharaff Khan helped Debussy through his creative crisis in the years 1913-1915. According to Dutch pianist Hakeem van Lohuizen, who accompanied Musharaff Khan on recordings of Sufi Songs, musical echoes of Inayat Khan’s music can be heard in Debussy’s 1913 ballet for children “La boîte à joujoux” (The Toy Box) and his anti-war offering, Berceuse heroïque (1915). In “La boîte à joujoux”, there is supposedly a quote from a raga, in the form of the “Pas de L’Éléphant”, to which Debussy added a footnote: “Old Hindu chant still used in the training of elephants, constructed on the scale of 5-in-the-morning and obligatorily 5-in-a-bar.”

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Berceuse heroïque

His two-piano suite En blanc et noir (1915) is believed to have the influence of the tanpura as well.

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