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Claude Debussy


Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, about 20 miles outside of Paris, the son of shopkeepers. (He eventually would drop the Achille.) The family soon moved to Clichy, closer to Paris. Young Claude thought of being a painter, while his father initially hoped his son would enter the navy. It was the pianist Antoinette Maute, a student of Chopin, who discovered his musical talent and prepared him for entrance to the Paris Conservatory at age 11. The boy began as a pianist, but switched to composition. His abilities were obvious, as were yearnings to break free from the composition restraints taught at the Conservatory. Traveling intensified those yearnings. A trip to Russia exposed him to the exotic harmony of composers like Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Later he would discover the nativism of Mussorgsky. Winning the Prix de Rome sent him to Rome for study in 1884, though he did not enjoy his stay there and returned to Paris before the end of his term. A trip to Bayreuth in 1888 helped make him a devotee of Wagner; a visit a year later began his retreat. That same year he was captivated by the free melodies and rhythms of the Javanese music he heard at the Universal Expedition in Paris (as was the younger Ravel). In the 1890s he encountered the French Symbolist movement and joined the circle of its leader, Stephane Mallarmé, who neatly summed up its attractions this way: "To name an object is to sacrifice ¾ of that enjoyment…that comes from the guessing bit by bit." Symbolism led him to the Impressionism of painters like Claude Monet, and that helped lead him to applying Impressionist techniques to music.

Debussy's first significant works appeared in the 1890s. Two were based on Symbolist writings: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Mallarmé) and Fêtes Galantes, a song cycle with texts by Verlaine. The String Quartet appeared in 1893, and his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1895. Other significant works followed. Nocturnes (1890s), La Mer (1905), the piano Images (1905 & 1907), and in 1912, the three-movement orchestral Images (the two Images are different works). In 1909 the cancer that would eventually kill him made its first appearance, but Debussy continued to work. Several major piano works appeared in the following years (Préludes, Études, En Blanc et Noir, and others), a major orchestral work (Jeux), and three instrumental sonatas, including his last work, the Violin Sonata in 1917.

Debussy was often described as catlike in his physical manner. He was in fact a lover of cats, a hedonist who was quite the Bohemian and café-goer. He was not terribly active except when composing. His means were limited, and he was often in debt. He had a few scandalous affairs (his first wife and one paramour attempted suicide), two wives and one daughter. His later years were marred by the pain of the cancer that would keep him housebound and eventually kill him.

Debussy was a dreamer whose music dreamed with him. His work tended toward the amorphous and liquid, with delicate changes in color, and soft, indefinite cadences. His rhythm wasn't terribly free at first, but by La Mer he was defying the bar-line and combining several complex rhythms at once. He adopted the Impressionist technique of using color and light to suggest rather than define scenes and objects, but he was too concerned with form to be definitively classified as an "Impressionist." He was often more interested in instrument timbres than the melody they produced, and his orchestration was precisely and subtly drawn. He also understood the dramatic value of silence. Perhaps most important was his extension of Western harmony and tonality beyond where Wagner had taken it. Rather than limiting himself to major and minor keys, standard rules of chord building, and Wagner's chromaticism, he extended his harmony with the Eastern-sounding whole tone scale, medieval modes, chords built from the harmonics and overtones of instruments, and pure imagination. Debussy did not spawn disciples, as Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, et al., did. He was more of a quiet revolutionary, but as a pivotal, transitional figure between the late Romantics and the 20th century, his influence on 20th century music was just as strong.

Copyright © 2008 by Roger Hecht.