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Claude Debussy: The 100 most inspiring musicians of all time

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Claude Debussy: The 100 most inspiring musicians of all time

The works of French composer Claude Debussy (Achille-Claude Debussy) (b. Aug. 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France—d. March 25, 1918, Paris) have been a seminal force in the music of the 20th century. Debussy developed a highly original system of harmony and musical structure that expressed in many respects the ideals to which the impressionist and symbolist painters and writers of his time aspired.

Early Period

Debussy showed a gift as a pianist by the age of nine. He was encouraged by Madame Mauté de Fleurville, who was associated with the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, and in 1873 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied the piano and composition, eventually winning in 1884 the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child ).

While living with his parents in a poverty-stricken suburb of Paris, he unexpectedly came under the patronage of a Russian millionairess, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who engaged him to play duets with her and her children. He traveled with her to her palatial residences throughout Europe during the long summer vacations at the Conservatory. In Paris during this time he fell in love with a singer, Blanche Vasnier, the beautiful young wife of an architect; she inspired many of his early works.

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This early style is well illustrated in one of Debussy’s best-known compositions, Clair de Lune. The title refers to a folk song that was the conventional accompaniment of scenes of the love-sick Pierrot in the French pantomime; and indeed the many Pierrot-like associations in Debussy’s later music, notably in the orchestral work Images (1912) and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915; originally titled Pierrot fâché avec la lune [“Pierrot Vexed by the Moon”]), show his connections with the circus spirit that also appeared in works by other composers.

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Middle Period

As a holder of the Grand Prix de Rome, Debussy was given a three-year stay at the Villa Medici, in Rome, where, under what were supposed to be ideal conditions, he was to pursue his creative work. Debussy eventually fled from the Villa Medici after two years and returned to Blanche Vasnier in Paris. At this time Debussy lived a life of extreme indulgence. Once one of his mistresses, Gabrielle (“Gaby”) Dupont, threatened suicide. His first wife, Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier, a dressmaker, whom he married in 1899, did in fact shoot herself, though not fatally, and, Debussy himself was haunted by thoughts of suicide.

The main musical influences on Debussy were the works of Richard Wagner and the Russian composers Aleksandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. Wagner fulfi lled the sensuous ambitions not only of composers but also of the symbolist poets and the impressionist painters.
Wagner’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) encouraged artists to refi ne upon their emotional responses and to exteriorize their hidden dream states, often in a shadowy, incomplete form; hence the more tenuous nature of the work of Wagner’s French disciples.

It was in this spirit that Debussy wrote the symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). Other early works by Debussy show his affinity with the English Pre-Raphaelite painters; the most notable of these works is La Damoiselle élue (1888), based on The Blessed Damozel (1850), a poem by the English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In the course of his career, however, which covered only 25 years, Debussy was constantly breaking new ground. His single completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed in 1902) demonstrates how the Wagnerian technique could be adapted to portray subjects like the dreamy nightmarish figures of this opera who were doomed to self-destruction.

Debussy and his librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck, declared that they were haunted in this work by the terrifying nightmare tale of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. The style of Pelléas was to be replaced by a bolder, more highly coloured manner. In his seascape La Mer (1905) he was inspired by the ideas of the English painter J. M.W. Turner and the French painter Claude Monet. In his work, as in his personal life, he was eager to gather experience from every region that the imaginative mind could explore.

Late Period

In 1905 Debussy’s illegitimate daughter, Claude-Emma, was born. He had divorced Lily Texier in 1904 and subsequently married his daughter’s mother, Emma Bardac. For his daughter he wrote the piano suite Children’s Corner (1908).

Debussy’s spontaneity and the sensitive nature of his perception facilitated his acute insight into the child mind, an insight noticeable particularly in Children’s Corner; in the Douze Préludes, two books (1910, 1913; “Twelve Preludes”), for piano; and in the ballet La Boîte à joujoux (1st perf. 1919;
The Box of Toys). In his later years, it is the pursuit of illusion that marks Debussy’s instrumental writing, especially the strange, otherworldly Cello Sonata. This noble bass instrument takes on, in chameleon fashion, the character of a violin, a flute, and even a mandolin.

Evolution of His Work

Debussy’s music marks the first of a series of attacks on the traditional language of the 19th century. He did not believe in the stereotyped harmonic procedures of the 19th century, and indeed it becomes clear from a study of mid-20th-century music that the earlier harmonic methods were being followed in an arbitrary, academic manner.

Debussy’s inquiring mind similarly challenged the traditional orchestral usage of instruments. He rejected the traditional dictum that string instruments should be predominantly lyrical. The pizzicato scherzo from his String Quartet (1893) and the symbolic writing for the violins in La Mer, conveying the rising storm waves, show a new conception of string colour. Similarly, he saw that woodwinds need not be employed for fireworks displays; they provide, like the human voice, wide varieties of colour.

Debussy also used the brass in original colour transformations. In fact, in his music, the conventional orchestral construction, with its rigid woodwind, brass, and string departments, finds itself undermined or split up in the manner of the Impressionist painters. Ultimately, each instrument
becomes almost a soloist, as in a vast chamber-music ensemble. Finally, Debussy applied an exploratory approach to the piano, the evocative instrument par excellence.

In his last works, the piano pieces En blanc et noir (1915; In Black and White) and in the Douze Études (1915; “Twelve Études”), Debussy had branched out into modes of composition later to be developed in the styles of Stravinsky and the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. It is certain that he would have taken part in the leading movements in composition of the years following World War I. His life, however, was tragically cut short by cancer.

The Best of Debussy

Pianist: Pascal Rogé

Track List:

(0:00) Rêverie (4:54) Pour le piano: Sarabande (11:29) Suite bergamasque: Clair de lune (17:21) Estampes: Jardins sous la pluie (20:49) Deux Arabesques: Andantino con moto (24:45) Images Book 1 – Reflets dans l’eau (29:45) Childrens Corner: Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (32:43) Preludes: Cathedrale engloutie (39:13) Danses sacree et danse profane (49:20) Printemps: Modere (55:29) Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1:05:20) Sonata for Cello & Piano: I Prologue (1:10:32) Violin Sonata: Intermède- fantasque et léger. II (1:14:39) Nocturnes: Fetes (1:21:17) Images for orchestra – 2a. Iberia- Par Les Rues (1:28:27) La Mer – 1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer. Très lent (1:37:02) La Mer – 2. Jeux de vagues. Allegro (1:43:15) String Quartet No. 1, Op 10. Assez vif et bien rythmé