Have been browsing through one of Ned Rorem’s collections, Other Entertainment. This is from a very brief piece on Ravel and Debussy:
Ravel and Debussy, the mother and father of modern French music, were so alike in esthetic and vocabulary that it’s become fashionable to claim how different they were. In fact, the differences are superficial: like Comedy and Tragedy they are two sides of the Impressionist mask. Good musicians of the same generation often come in pairs wherein both speak one language, but with divergent accents – of optimism and pessimism, for instance, or of concert hall versus opera stage. Witness Mozart and Haydn, Mahler and Strauss, Copland and Thomson, Britten and Tippett, Poulenc and Honegger.
In formal matters everyone agrees that Ravel was a classicist, Debussy a free versifier. Yet the orchestral masterpiece of each one proves the reverse. Ravel’s Daphnis is a loose rhapsody, Debussy’s La Mer a tight symphony. Melodically Debussy was short of breath, like Beethoven, while Ravel spun out tunes that were minutes long, like Puccini. Contrapuntally they were, like all the French, unconcerned. Rhythmically they were, like all the French (because of the unstressed national speech from which their music springs), generally amorphous. Harmonically they dealt in the same material of secondary sevenths, except for the whole-tone scale, which Ravel avoided. And coloristically they both excelled, making rainbows from a lean palette. Their game could be called Sound, sound taking precedence over shape, over language.