Personalities | Claude Debussy | Modern Era | Classical

(Klod De’-bu-se) 1862–1918
French composer

Debussy was one of the father figures of twentieth-century music, often associated with the Impressionist movement. He was not only influential on subsequent French composers such as Ravel and Messiaen, but also on other major European figures, including Stravinsky and Bartók.

His early songs experimented with an intimate kind of word-setting, while his piano music developed a style more dependent on static washes of sound than on clearly defined melodies. In such pieces as La mer (‘The Sea’, 1903–05), he drew novel sounds from the orchestra and organized them in unpredictable ways. It was partly his use of evocative titles that caused him to be dubbed an ‘Impressionist’, while his songs and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1893–1902) allied him to the poetic and artistic movement known as Symbolism. Some of his pieces, such as ‘Clair de lune’ (‘Moonlight’, c. 1890), have become popular classics, while others are elusive and highly subtle, liberating sound itself from the shackles of conventional form, harmony and melody. Towards the end of his life, aware of the developments of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, he abandoned his fanciful titles and returned to the very form he had despised in his youth, namely the sonata.

Rebellious Youth

While his mother taught him to read and write, his father ‘intended him for the sea’. Someone (Debussy never remembered who) convinced him of his son’s musical talents and one Madame Mauté brought his piano-playing up to the entry standard for the Paris Conservatoire, where he was accepted at the age of 10 – his first formal education. Sometimes he ‘almost charged at the piano’, recalled a fellow student, while at other times he produced soft effects of considerable beauty. He reacted against formal training in composition, constantly challenging established principles. Delighting in playing ‘forbidden’ harmonies, he proclaimed that the only rule was ‘mon plaisir’ – ‘my own pleasure’.

The Prix de Rome

Debussy’s first surviving works date from when he was 16. Two years later, accompanying pupils for a singing teacher, he met a cultured soprano 14 years his senior, Marie-Blanche Vasnier. They became lovers and he wrote over 20 songs for her, setting the leading avant-garde poets of the day, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in particular. His break came with the cantata L’enfant prodigue (‘The Prodigal Son’), which won the Prix de Rome in 1884, giving him a year to compose at his leisure and fraternize with fellow musicians as well as with artists and literary people. These latter – more avant-garde in their attitudes than his musical colleagues – nurtured his preference for the half-stated and left an imprint on his compositions of the 1890s, which were mostly indebted to literature or the visual arts.

Towards the New Century

Debussy had spent his year in Rome searching for the ideal text which, he claimed, would leave him space ‘to graft his dream onto his poet’s’. ‘I don’t think I shall ever...

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