Debussy, Claude


Claude Debussy is sometimes seen as the first Impressionist composer. He was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Born to a family of modest means and little cultural involvement, Debussy showed enough musical talent to be admitted at the age of ten to France's leading music college, the Conservatoire de Paris. While the years in Conservatoire his mastery was developing very rapidly, the boy demonstrated continual achievements. He was winning prize after prize, and at the early age, he showed distinct individuality. Severely criticized, he received praise and prizes. He seemed to have been unaffected by adverse criticism. This may have been due to his vision and high romantic ideals.

He disregarded the established forms of musical composition used by the Classicists and early Romanticists. Possessing striking individuality, he avoided the usual harmonic arrangements that were generally accepted in those years. He employed higher primary tones and created innovative musical style.

Debussy’s conception of musical composition differed from that of the contemporary composers. Vague and indefinable phenomena attracted his attention and his music reflected it.

Debussy was very fond of Russian music. He was captured by the brilliance of timbres and fine figurativeness, the picturesqueness of music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the freshness of harmonies by Alexander Borodin. Modest Mussorgsky was his favorite composer.

Debussy was be fascinated by the society of Symbolist poets headed by Stéphane Mallarmé. The musicality of symbolist poetry, the search for mysterious connections between the soul existence and the world of nature, their mutual dissolution - all this attracted Debussy and in many ways shaped his aesthetics.

The composer early works - the romances to the words of Paul Verlaine, Paul Bourget, Pierre Louÿs, and Charles Baudelairel. Some of them (“Wonderful Evening”, “Mandolin”) were created when he was studying at the Conservatory. They were perfect and most original. The images of the Symbolist poetry inspired his first mature orchestral work - the prelude “The Afternoon of a Faun” (1894). In this musical illustration of the eclogue by Mallarmé, a peculiar, subtly nuanced orchestral Debussy style was developed.

The influence of symbolism was most fully reflected in the only opera by Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (1892-1902), written to the text of the drama by Maurice Maeterlinck. The love story where, according to the composer, the characters "do not reason, but undergo their life and fate".

In his musical compositions, Debussy neglected the established forms used by the Classics and early Romantics. With a striking personality, he avoided using the usual harmonious arrangements and created innovative organization of his musical ideas. He used higher primary tones and created his own style.

The composer's favorite genre was the program suite (orchestral and piano), as it were, a series of diverse paintings, where the landscape statics were set off by fast-moving, often danceable rhythms. Such were the suites for the Nocturnes orchestra (1899), The Sea (1905) and The Images (1912). He created piano compositions –“Prints”, two notebooks of "Images" and "Children's Corner" dedicated to his daughter. In "Prints" the composer for the first time tried interconnect the musical worlds of various cultures and peoples: they colorfully shade each other, the sound image of the East ("Pagodas"), Spain ("Evening in Grenada") and a landscape full of movement, light and shadow with the French folk a song ("Gardens in the Rain").

In two notebooks of preludes (1910, 1913) the completely figurative world of the composer was revealed. The transparent watercolor tones of the plays “Girl with Flaxen Hair” and “Heather” are contrasted by the richness of the sound palette in “Terrace Visited by Moonlight” in the prelude “Fragrances and Sounds Roar in the Evening Air”. An old legend comes to life in the epic sound of The Sunken Cathedral (this is where the influence of Mussorgsky and Borodin especially noticeable).

It is impossible to imagine Debussy without piano music. The composer himself was a talented pianist (as well as a conductor); “He played almost always in halftones”, without any sharpness, but with such fullness and density of sound as Chopin played,” recalled the French pianist M. Long.

Debussy music is not only “music”. It is the sound of wind and sea; the rustling of trees, the agitation of water; the atmosphere of a June day. This is nature without discord. Trying to analyze Debussy means destroying his very essence. This is the music that lived in us before we were born, and is our liberation.

Ref.: (K. Zenkin), “Duo-Art Piano Music”.
A Classified Catalog of Interpretations of the World’s Best Music Recorded by More Than Two Hundred and Fifty Pianists for the Duo-Art Reproducing Piano. The Aeolian Company. Aeolian Hall, New York. Copyright, 1927 by The Aeolian Company, New York