Clause Debussy, Julien Tiersot and the Gamelan

Students who take a music history course usually learn that Debussy, at the Paris World Exposition of 1889, marvelled at the interlaced melodies and ethereal, tinkling timbers of the Javanese Gamelan (later, at the Exhibition of 1900, he also heard a Balinese group playing in the lighter, more sprightly style that hallmarks that island's version of the Gamelan). However, few of them ever care to find out what a Gamelan really is. It is a musical genre, where the name “Gamelan” indicates both the genre itself and the instrumental group playing it. The Gamelan is the only type of truly orchestral music to be found in the non-Western world. The fascination of it lies in the sound of, mostly, metallophones, and in the intricate polyphonic texture they produce, with simultaneous variations of a fundamental theme.


But Debussy was not the only musician one to hear and pay attention to that Gamelan, and indeed not the only one to be impressed by the sound of Indonesian music. Maurice Ravel was there, also Camille Saint-Saëns was there, and also Julien Tiersot, music historian and librarian at the Paris Conservatoire.


In 1895 Debussy wrote in a letter to his friend Pierre Louys the following words: "Do you not remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades and which make our tonic and subdominant seem like ghosts?" And later, in 1913, he wrote (in the Revue S.I.M.), "Javanese music is based on a type of counterpoint by comparison with which that of Palestrina is child's play. And if we listen without European prejudice to the charm of their percussion we must confess that our percussion is like primitive noises at a country fair." Indeed it is quite remarkable what Debussy had to say about the Gamelan. Tiersot, however, who was a scholar, was not only equally impressed, but also made transcriptions and published interviews and discussions with the Indonesian musicians he met, as well as the African musicians who were also present at the Exposition of 1889. All this ended up into a publication whose title was Musiques pittoresques - Promenades musicales à l'exposition de Paris (Paris, Fischbacher, 1889), in which all the musical events that took place on that occasion are very carefully annotated and commented upon. It is precisely in this publication that Tiersot compares the sound of the Gamelan to that of a Wagnerian chord. His are the only documents and transcriptions we have, at that time, telling us something about what that Gamelan performances were really like.