It’s 1918. World War I rages on as French composer Claude Debussy lies on his deathbed. His last few days are but a fever dream, but as the renegade artist waits for the end, one lament remains on his lips: in the face of death, Debussy is sad that he won’t be able to catch the new revival of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 18th century opera, ‘Castor et Pollux,’ at The Paris Opera. Louis Laloy sees Debussy only days before his passing, and as he leaves the room, Debussy has just a few dramatic words for his friend. “Say hello to Monsieur Castor!”
Rameau and Debussy were separated by hundreds of years and composed in vastly different styles, but they’ve been united on pianist—and former Grapevine cover star—Víkingur Ólafsson’s newest album, which presents the two revolutionary composers in dialogue with each other. Now, Víkingur will finally take the album to the Harpa stage as the Reykjvaík Art Festival’s opening concert.
Two controversial Frenchmen
The project began in March last year in the weeks before the birth of Víkingur’s son. “My boy arrived two weeks later than expected, so I had all this time on my hands. I started to play all these pieces of Rameau on the piano and as I played it, I just kept thinking about Debussy, which is weird because they are from completely different periods,” he explains. “It’s like comparing Picasso to Rembrandt.”
But Víkingur saw an undeniable thread between the two—one that only grew stronger with time. “I started to do some research and found out that Rameau was one of Debussy’s favourite composers. He wrote incredibly beautiful reviews about his music and was thinking of him on his deathbed,” he says. “But the deeper I went, the more I understood that they had some similar elements in their lives.”
These similar elements relate to both composer’s relationships with the musical institutions and conventions of their time. “They were both musical outsiders who didn’t really fit in. They challenged the establishment and picked fights with people. Enfants terribles,” he posits. “Today, [their music] all sounds very nice and beautiful but in their day, not so much. They were shocking.”
But while it’s established that Debussy was a Rameau devotée, would Rameau reciprocate? The pianist is understandably hesitant to speak on behalf of a dead man, but still takes a moment to ponder their hypothetical friendship. “Well, we have to remember that these are two Frenchmen and Frenchmen are often totally surprising and unpredictable in their views—and they’re not always nice to each other, especially when they are two giants,” he laughs. “I think we should be careful not to assume that Rameau would have liked Debussy. He certainly hated many of his contemporaries.”
The devil in the details
To be fair, comparing Rameau and Debussy was a rather ‘enfant terrible’ move for Víkingur to make, but unfortunately, the notoriously unpredictable pianist stays mum on what artist—or artists—he’s planning on diving into next. “Every album has to be a surprise,” he explains with a smile. That said, he does reveal a few dream projects he’s been mulling over, such as deconstructing a Beethoven symphony.
“There’s incredible potential in the time dimension of a piece like a Beethoven symphony,” he says. “It won’t sound at all like the original; it’ll become a new piece. I think you can bend time in very interesting ways there.”
Mozart—a fellow enfant terrible—is another area fascination. “I’d be curious to do something with Mozart and maybe five or six composers from his time. Mozart writes during the classical period, when the rules were quite set for how to make music. On the surface, everyone sounds a little more connected and alike, but somehow Mozart still sounds completely different from anyone else always,” he explains. “It’d be interesting to take a period like that [and] show how extremely different Mozart was, how the devil is in the details.”
Víkingur Ólafsson, alone, no words, one instrument
But right now, Víkingur is most excited to get back onstage. “The fact is that I cannot wait for these concerts,” he says, his voice uncharacteristically animated. “Honestly, as much as I like recording and doing TV, somewhere inside I really am an exhibitionist, so I love the spotlight. To be there alone with a piano on a big stage and to have all these people channeling into it, that’s unlike anything else in life.” He pauses. “A solo recital to me is the most interesting form of expression. To be alone with no words and only a single instrument…. Well, nothing equals it for me,” he concludes. And there, perhaps, we’ve found something that both Debussy and Rameau would agree on.
Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.
You can also check out our shop, loaded with books, apparel and other cool merch, that you can buy and have delivered right to your door.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!