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The French Impressionist Composer, Claude Debussy's Works and Life

Claude Debussy: Overview

  • Born: August 22, 1862 - Saint Germain-en-Laye, France
  • Died: March 25, 1918 - Paris, France
  • Historical Period: Modern, Impressionist 
  • Musical Media: Orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, choral, ballet, opera, songs.  

French composer, Claude Debussy

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”- Aldous Huxley

Claude Debussy was born in 1862 in a poor family in France. His talent with the piano was evident from a young age, which was typical for most musical greats of their time. A pioneer of Impressionist music, Debussy’s musical journey began with his admittance into the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11. The next milestone came when he received a French scholarship at 22, financing the next two years of his education in Rome. At the onset of the 20th century, Debussy was considered as one of the stalwarts of French and European music. In 1918, during World War I, as Paris was being bombed by Germany, Claude Debussy lost the battle with colon cancer. He was only 55 with a musical career of roughly 25 years. 

Among the most well-known works by him are:

  • Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque (1890) 
  • Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) 
  • the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
  • La Mer (1905)

Claude Debussy: The Man Who Captured Dreams Through Music

Claude Debussy, who was born as Achille-Claude Debussy, was highly influential to his contemporaries and the following generations, for he was ahead of his time. His pieces were mature, unique, and had a modernist touch, which made them extremely sensual and attractive. Considered the founder of Impressionist music, Debussy is famous for his non-traditional scales and tonal structures which broke new ground during his time.

Madame Mauté de Fleurville who knew Frédéric Chopin, the Polish maestro, pushed and encouraged Debussy. And he started his serious music education at Paris Conservatory in 1873, learning composition and piano. He wrote L’Enfant prodigue which is a cantata for which he received a grand scholarship in 1884. 

Debussy, while growing up poor in the dinghy Parisian suburbs, was taken under the wing of Russian businesswoman, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who oversaw his musical development. It was while traveling with his patroness, that the composer fell in love with Blanche Vasnier, a young married lady, who was also a singer. Debussy’s early style of composing was much influenced by this affair and it’s evident in his Clair de lune (1890), which drew its name from a traditional folk song associated with the comic character of Pierrot in the French pantomime. Other notable associations with Pierrot have been in his works such as Images pour orchestre (1912) and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915), also known as Pierrot fâché avec la lune. 

Debussy was sent for three years to Rome’s Villa Medici, after winning the Grand Prix de Rome, to better himself and further his creativity. After only two years, the French composer left for Paris, returning to Blanche Vasnier. Additionally, he has been associated with other women of questionable reputation during this period. 

Between the years 1885-1887, Claude Debussy wrote an incomplete text, inspired by Théodore de Banville’s “Diane au bois”. The piece was derived from the tale of the legendary queen, Diana, but Debussy complained that he was being forced to create new styles of music for it. This would, however, turn into one of his experimentations before he finally composed Pelléas et Mélisande. In 1889, Debussy also had numerous conversations with Ernest Guiraud who was his teacher, regarding Pelléas’s ultimate characterization.

Claude Debussy was significantly influenced by the works of other greats such as Richard Wagner, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin. ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ by Wagner, encouraged Debussy to improve his skills for the emotional side of music and to expand on dream-like scenarios. The result was the symphonic piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). Debussy also demonstrated an influence from Pre-Raphaelite which is a type of painters, poets, critics, and other artists in England in the 1840's. The result of which was La Damoiselle élue (1888). This was also directly inspired by “The Blessed Damozel” (1850), a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Debussy also wrote the Deux arabesques, L. 66, for the piano between 1888 and 1891. These compositions clearly display the development of Debussy's musical style and are among the earliest impressionistic music.

In 1890, the Debussy wrote the Reverie, another piano piece published in 1891 and performed for the first time in 1899. His operatic masterpiece, the Pelléas et Mélisande (1898), is a clear utilization of the Wagner's technique to portray the dreamy part of the opera. 1905's La Mer was clearly adapted from the combined ideas of painters, Joseph Mallord William Turner and Claude Monet. Debussy was always learning, adapting styles and pushing his imaginations to the limit in his drive for musical perfection.

The year 1905 saw the birth of Claude-Emma, Debussy’s daughter with Emma Bardac. In 1904, the composer had divorced his first wife, Lily Texier and married Emma. Debussy nicknamed his baby daughter Chouchou, and wrote Children’s Corner (1908) and dedicated it to her. The six pieces of the suite are as follows:

  • Jimbo's Lullaby
  • Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
  • The Snow is Dancing
  • Serenade of the Doll
  • Golliwogg's Cake-walk 
  • The Little Shepherd

The composer had a rather sensitive artistic side, which brought about spontaneity that helped him develop an insight into children’s minds. Thus, came the Children’s Corner, adapted from The Nursery by Mussorgsky.

Claude Debussy’s incredible skills in his musical niche showed in his other piano works like Jardins sous la pluie which is the 3rd one from Estampes (1903), Reflets dans l’eau (1904) and Poissons d’or from Images (1907), and Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir and Feux d’artifice from the Préludes (1909-1913). 

Debussy’s work in general, is marked by the pursuit of dreams or illusions, in his instrumental compositions. He refused to follow the harmonic patterns that were established during the 19th century, and later studies have proved that there wasn’t any established logic behind the use of such procedures. Debussy formulated a scale that contains 21 notes by himself, although this never became popular as Schoenberg’s 12-note scales. The composer’s radical ideas also questioned the traditional instrumentation in an orchestral performance. 

In 1893, Debussy’s String Quartet shows a fresh new idea of musical aesthetics. Debussy applied a revolutionary touch on the piano keys and his piano mechanism was not in actual eighth notes or quarter notes or the like, but rather illusions of the same. The musician’s last works included the En blanc et noir (1915). 

As Debussy’s musical compositions were quite ahead of his time, his pieces are considered to be a musical counterpart to the artistic movement of Impressionism. The typical harmonic progressions, tunes, and rhythms of the period were deliberately excepted to create an atmosphere rather than the still images in the mind. La Cathédrale engloutie is where Debussy uses parallel chords to eliminate the usual sense of directed motion prevalent in music at that time.



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