“I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” - Claude Debussy
Today is the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth. Claude Achille Debussy (August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918) was a composer of impressionistic, post-romantic music. He was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines, France. His father was a salesman and kept a china shop. His mother was a seamstress. Some traumatising events in his childhood caused him to become depressed and he never spoke about his early years. Later, he could not compose without having his favourite porcelain frog by his side! Debussy’s piano teacher, Mme. Maute, had been a student of Frédéric Chopin. She sent Debussy to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied from 1872-84 with César Franck, Ernest Guiraud and others. As an 1884 Prix de Rome winner, he went to Rome, Italy (1885–7), though more important impressions came from his visits to Bayreuth to hear Wagner (1888, 1889) and from hearing Javanese gamelan music in Paris (1889).
Debussy became influenced by the impressionist poets and artists in the circle of Stephane Mallarmé. In 1890 he wrote his most famous music collection for piano, “Suite Bergamasque”, containing “Clair de Lune”. His “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1892) continued the most productive 20-year period in his life. He composed the orchestral “Nocturnes”, “La Mer”, “Images” (1899-1909), and the intricate ballet “Jeux” (1912) for the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.
He was fascinated with Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “Pelleas et Melisande”, which inspired him to compose the eponymous symbolist opera which was praised by Paul Dukas and Maurice Ravel. In 1908 Debussy married singer Emma Bardac after they had had a daughter, Claude-Emma. Debussy called her Chou-Chou and composed for her the collection of piano pieces “Children’s Corner Suite” (1909). His piano masterpiece “Preludes” was composed in 1910-1913. The twelve preludes of the first book allude to Frédéric Chopin, although they are peppered with more provocative harmonies, especially the “La Cathedrale Engloutie”. In the second book of twelve preludes Debussy explored the avant-garde, with deliciously dissonant harmonies evoking mysterious images.
The beginning of WW I as well as the onset of cancer depressed Debussy. He left unfinished an opera, ballets and two pieces after stories by Edgar Allan Poe that later were completed by his assistants. Claude Debussy died from rectal cancer in Paris on March 25, 1918 during World War I and a siege by the Prussian army that pounded Paris from the ‘Big Bertha’ gun not far from the capital city. He was interred in Paris in the Cimetière de Passy. Debussy’s death as well as the World War I coincided with the sad end of the Belle Epoque era, which witnessed Paris blooming with sophistication and modernity as never seen before in Europe.
Rudolph Réti points out the features of Debussy’s music which ‘established a new concept of tonality in European music’:
- Frequent use of long pedal points;
- Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of harmony;
- Frequent use of parallel chords which are in essence not harmonies at all, but rather chordal melodies;
- Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords;
- Use of the whole-tone scale;
- Unprepared modulations, without any harmonic bridge.
He concludes that Debussy’s achievement was the synthesis of monophonic-based melodic tonality with harmonies, albeit different from those of harmonic tonality.
Here is his "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"...