One of the five great pillars of musical Modernism, Achille-Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862 - March 25, 1918) was born in an outlying northwest Parisian commune. His father had joined one of the many uprisings of Paris workers and as a result had gotten thrown in jail. On his early release, the government deprived him of all civil rights, which meant that Claude was denied a public education. The family got around this by sending the boy to live with relatives, since they recognized a very lively intelligence as well as musical talent in the child. Accordingly, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten and in fact never attended regular school. He began as a pianist but failed to win a first in piano and so transferred his studies to theory and composition. At 18, he became part of the musical household of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's great patron, but he hadn't the strong ties to her that the Russian did (even if only in correspondence). He studied composition with the expatriate New Orleanian Ernest Guiraud, a quintessential French academic composer who had provided recitatives for Bizet's Carmen. Debussy, like Berlioz before him, competed unsucessfully for the Prix de Rome and won in 1884 for the cantata L'enfant prodigue, which sounds nothing like the Debussy we think about. However, his compositions required by the prize, the tone poem Printemps and the cantata La damoiselle élue, represent an incredible advance on L'enfant prodigue and still live in the repertory.
On his return to Paris from Rome, Debussy fell in with Symbolist circles, particularly poets and painters. Under their influence, he briefly fell under Wagner's spell, although he never was a part of the French petite Bayreuth. He quickly reacted against most of Wagner, although one can argue that the basis of his mature style can be found in something like Wagner's Waldrauschen. At any rate, he used his time among the Symbolists to make up for his lack of a normal education by reading voraciously and looking at pictures. Indeed, he once remarked that he would rather have been a painter than a musician, although he might have said it for effect. He freed himself from Wagner by discovering a number of alternatives: the music of Grieg, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, and Javanese and Annamite music, among them. In addition to some songs and the Fantasie for piano and orchestra, he completed his only string quartet and began to take on more ambitious projects, some of which would have great consequences on his career.
Among these were an orchestral Prélude based on Mallarmé's poem L'après-midi d'un faune (premiered 1894) and three orchestral pieces which became the Nocturnes (completed 1899, premiered 1901). Opera attracted him, and he worked on Rodrigue et Chimène, a version of the Spanish epic El Cid. An interest in Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande grew, however, and he abandoned the earlier opera to complete the new one. He finished a first draft in 1895 and made at least two major revisions before the premiere at the Opéra-Comique in 1902. All of these projects took years, for all of them revolutionized music. There hadn't been music like any of these pieces before. Debussy, like Beethoven before him, redefined what one could consider music. The Prélude stirred up Parisian intellectuals, but Debussy broke through to the general public with Pellés, which earned him the recognition as the great French composer of his time. Pellés enjoyed a European and an American success. Around this time, he also began writing music criticsm, first under the name "Monsieur Croche" and later under his own. Filled with witty humor, his criticism is regarded as some of the best ever produced.
Of what did Debussy's revolution consist? Many writers focus on his innovations in harmony and orchestral texture, but he changed much more. Simply put, Debussy invented music of a new, freer kind. You can trace some of his ideas to other composers, like Chopin, Wagner, and Franck, but none of these men reshaped music so comprehensively. To a large extent, Debussy "untethered" the basic elements of music: particularly harmony, phrase, and rhythm. Although Liszt and Wagner before him had come up with unusual harmonies, the progress from one chord to another was what the technicians call "functional." That is, the chord change somehow related to the key you were in. Debussy undermined this every which way, from his use of the old modes to his experiments with the whole-tone and octatonic scales. Debussy seemed to throw in whatever succession of chords he wanted, governed by his ear and his taste. He could even be in (or at least imply) more than one key at a time. In his harmonic and rhythmic daring, he resembles Berlioz, although Berlioz's music was barely known in France at the time. Debussy aimed to produce a kind of free music. He avoided to a large extent phrases based on collections of two or four bars or beats. The music should sound not made, but simply there. This preference probably comes from his early acquaintance with Chopin (he edited Chopin's piano works), particularly scores like the Ballades, Scherzi, and Nocturnes. Nevertheless, although Debussy's music may sound free on its surface, a strong classical architecture usually provides a bedrock. For example, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune may come across as a langorous rhapsody, but its structure is that of a classical rondo. Furthermore, Debussy was drawn to strong dance rhythms, which give tension to his work. Typically, he uses dance to inject strength and excitement and then suddenly lets the air out. The music deflates to near-stasis so that he can build again.
The early 1900s saw the rise of Debussy's reputation as well as personal crisis. In 1903, he abandoned his wife of four years, Lili, to live with Emma Bardac, an amateur singer already married to a banker. Lili tried to commit suicide. Debussy's treatment of his wife led to several friends, including Ravel, breaking with him. The legal problems took years to sort out (at one point, Debussy and Emma fled to England), but in 1908 Emma and Debussy were married. During this period, Debussy wrote his long orchestral work La Mer and the Images for piano and for orchestra. He also began to think about two more operas, both based on tales by Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry. He barely got beyond the point of sketching ideas.
In 1909, Debussy exhibited the first signs of the cancer that killed him nine years later, and the illness gradually dominated his life. World War I and his illness to some extent depressed him to the point where he suffered creative blocks. Nevertheless, he completed several masterpieces: 3 ballades de Villon, Le martyre de St.-Sébastien, sonatas for cello, for violin, and for flute, viola, and harp, the song cycle 3 poèmes de Mallarmé, the Préludes and Etudes for piano, and for two pianos (or piano 4-hands) the 6 épigraphes antiques and En blanc et noir. The sonatas and En blanc et noir touch on his experience of the war.
Even during Debussy's lifetime, critics compared his music to the Impressionist painters and indeed applied the term Impressionism to his music. Debussy himself often compared his music to painting, but unfortunately rarely to the Impressionists, much of whose work he didn't even like. To me, the expressive goals of Debussy and those of the Impressionists converge at some points and diverge at others. Both aim for a rapture in the presence of nature, sensual as opposed to transcendental, and Debussy's orchestration in "points of color" rather than in the Germanic tradition of functional orchestration based ultimately on organ registration certainly has analogies to Impressionist brushwork. However, Debussy does not reproduce "impressions," but physical realities. Something like "Poissons d'or" gives a detailed account of the flash of fishtails, the sudden darting change of course of goldfish, rather than some vague impression. Nevertheless, we're probably stuck with the term Impressionism for some time to come. ~ Steve Schwartz