Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

(Achille-) Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862March 25, 1918) was a composer of impressionistic European classical music.

Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines, France, Claude Debussy studied with Guiraud and others at the Paris Conservatoire (1872-84) and as an 1884 Prix de Rome winner, went to Rome, Italy (18857), though more important impressions came from his visits to Bayreuth (1888, 1889) and from hearing Javanese gamelan music in Paris (1889).

Wagner's influence is evident in the cantata La damoiselle lue (1888) and the Cinq pomes de Baudelaire (1889) but other songs of the period, notably the settings of Paul Verlaine (Ariettes oublies, Trois mlodies, Ftes galantes, set 1) are in a more capricious style, as are parts of the still somewhat Franckian String Quartet in G minor (1893); in that work he used not only the Phrygian mode but also less standard modes, notably the whole-tone mode, to create the floating harmony he discovered through the work of contemporary writers: Mallarm in the orchestral Prlude L'aprs-midi d'un faune (1894 - in 1912 used as music for the Laprs-midi dun Faune ballet production) and Maeterlinck in the opera Pellas et Mlisande, dating in large part from 1893-5 but not completed until 1902. These works also brought forward a fluidity of rhythm and color quite new to Western music.

Pellas, with its rule of understatement and deceptively simple declamation, also brought an entirely new tone to opera — but an unrepeatable one. Debussy worked on other opera projects and left substantial sketches for two pieces after tales by Edgar Allan Poe (Le diable dans le beffroi and La chute de la maison Usher), but neither was completed. Instead, the main works were orchestral pieces, piano sets, and songs.

Among his major orchestral works are the three Nocturnes (1899), characteristic studies in veiled harmony and texture ('Nuages'), exuberant cross-cutting ('Ftes'), and seductive whole-tone drift ('Sirnes'). La mer (1905) essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement, although the middle movement (Jeux de vagues) proceeds much less directly and with more variety of color. The three Images (1912) are more loosely linked, and the biggest, Ibria is itself a triptych, a medley of Spanish allusions. Finally, the ballet Jeux (1913) contains some of Debussy's strangest harmonies and textures in a form that moves freely over its own field of motivic connection. Other late stage works, including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La bote joujoux (1913) and the mystery play Le martyre de St. Sbastien (1911), were not completely orchestrated by Debussy, though St. Sbastien is remarkable in sustaining an antique modal atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces (eg. the Prludes).

Debussy wrote much piano music. The most important of them, to begin with, are works which, Verlaine fashion, look back at rococo decorousness with modern cynicism and puzzlement (Suite bergamasque, 1890; Pour le piano, 1901). His first volume of Images pour piano 19041905, with phrases suggesting rippling water in the first piece ("Reflets dans l'eau") and a slow, mysterious court dance in the manner of Jean-Philippe Rameau in the second piece (Hommage Rameau), evokes tonality rarely heard in works by his contemporaries. Then, as in his orchestral pieces, Debussy began to associate his music with visual impressions of the Far East, Spain, landscapes, etc., in sets of short pieces. This can be heard in the volume Estampes (1903), which opens with Pagodes, invokes a feel of the Orient and its magnificent pagodas and its imposing turrets. The second piece in Estampes, entitled La soire dans Grenade, vividly recalls a Spanish atmosphere. Even in his famous Children's Corner Suite for piano, which he wrote for his beloved daughter whom he called Chou-chou also suggests influences from the Orient as well as a new wave of jazz influence although Debussy also has a laugh at Richard Wagner in the piece Golliwogg's Cake-walk.

His last volume of tudes (1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by the young Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos, 1915). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois pomes de Mallarm (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915), though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism. The planned set of six sonatas was cut short by the composer's death.

Rudolph Rti points out these features of Debussy's music which "established a new concept of tonality in European music":

  1. Frequent use of long pedal points
  2. Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of harmony
  3. Frequent use of parallel chords which are "in essence not harmonies at all, but rather 'chordal melodies', enriched unisons."
  4. Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords
  5. "Use of the whole-tone scale."
  6. 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". (Reti, 1958)

Claude Debussy died in Paris on March 25, 1918 from rectal cancer, during the bombardment of Paris by airships and long-distance guns during the last German offensive of World War I. This was a time when the military situation of France was considered desperate by many, and these circumstances did not permit his being paid the honor of a public funeral, or ceremonious graveside orations, or festivals of his works. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets as shells from the German guns ripped into his beloved city. It was just eight months before victory was celebrated in France. He was interred there in the Cimetire de Passy, and French culture has ever since celebrated Debussy as one of its most distinguished representatives.

See also: List of compositions by Claude Debussy.


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External links


  • Reti, Rudolph (1958). Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality: A study of some trends in twentieth century music. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313204780.

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