Claude Debussy at 150
One hundred and fifty years ago today, one of the titans of the musical world was born. Claude Debussy’s innovative compositions influenced generations of composers and helped defined 19th century music. We’re celebrating his birth with an extract from the Claude Debussy entry by Robert Orledge (2002) in The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham.
Debussy, (Achille-)Claude (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer.
The Early Years
Debussy’s early life was unsettled because of his father’s numerous occupations and his imprisonment after the Commune of 1871, and he received no formal education until he entered the Paris Conservatoire the following year. Piano lessons with Mme Mauté, who claimed to be Chopin’s pupil, led to early hopes of a virtuoso career, but Debussy decided in favour of composition with Ernest Guiraud in 1880 and won the Prix de Rome in 1884 with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue. The most promising work to emerge from this early period was a setting of part of Act II of Banville’s Diane au bois (1883–6), which anticipated the forest dream world of the Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’ (1894), his first great success.
The year 1893 proved a turning-point for Debussy: La Damoiselle élue at the Société Nationale on 8 April brought his music to public attention, and on 17 May he saw the premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande (1892). In the shadowy, suggestive, and apparently simple world of Pelléas, Debussy realized he had found his ideal opera libretto, and he set the play directly, in prose (with only four scenes cut), between August 1893 and 17 August 1895. After Albert Carré finally agreed to produce Pelléas at the Opéra-Comique in May 1901, Debussy completed its orchestration, adding extra interludes at the last moment to facilitate the complex scene changes. Like Wagner, Debussy gave the orchestra a substantial commentatorial role and used recurring themes. But the latter were subtly adapted to the characters’ changing states of mind and feelings rather than being mere ‘visiting-cards’ announcing their entry.
Otherwise, Debussy’s theatrical career was one of ‘compulsive inachievement’ (Holloway). He never again found an ideal source, and his one-act Edgar Allen Poe operas Le Diable dans le beffroi (1902–?12) and La Chute de la maison Usher (1908–17) remain unfinished, as does his music for Le Roi Lear (1904) and No-ja-li (1913–14). Other dramatic projects were accepted for financial reasons and often required outside assistance to complete their orchestration.
The performance of Pelléas et Mélisande forms a watershed in Debussy’s career. While his songs are evenly spread before and after in terms of quality, his best piano music dates from after he left his first wife Rosalie (Lilly) Texier for Emma Bardac in June 1904. Their daughter Claude-Emma (Chouchou) was born on 30 October 1905. The piano pieces inspired by their ‘honeymoon’ in Jersey and Dieppe in the summer of 1904 included Masques and the unusually extrovert L’Isle joyeuse. Chouchou’s infant world inspired the Children’s Corner suite (1906–8) with its celebrated Tristan parody in Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk, but Debussy is best known for his two books of Préludes (1909–10, 1911–13), which evoke a series of widely varied natural subjects from the antics of Christy ‘minstrels’ at Eastbourne in 1905 to dead leaves and the sounds and scents of the evening air. They are wrongly termed impressionistic, for Debussy’s inspiration owed far more to the painter J. M. W. Turner and to the literary symbolist movement. But in his orchestral Images (Gigues, 1909–12; Ibéria, 1905–8; and Rondes de printemps, 1905–9), Debussy told his publisher Jacques Durand that he was ‘attempting something different — in a sense, realities’, and he delightedly described to Caplet in 1910 how natural the join between the last two parts of Ibéria sounded, almost as if it were improvised, though such moments of complete artistic optimism were sadly rare.
‘Music is made up of colours and barred rhythms’, Debussy told Durand in 1907, and in his experiments with timbre and his efforts to free music from formal convention he tried many different solutions — from proportional structures based on the Golden Section (La Mer; L’Isle joyeuse) to the cinematographic form of Jeux, with its constant motivic renewal in which undulating fragments gradually evolve into a scalar theme which is itself broken off at its violent climax. As elsewhere in Debussy’s works, this climax is approached by a series of lesser ones and is placed as near to the end as he dared. Debussy’s earlier orchestral music includes the Nocturnes (1897–9), with their exceptionally varied textures ranging from the Musorgskian start of Nuages, to the wordless female chorus in Sirènes, whose study of ‘sea-textures’ is a kind of preparation for La Mer (1903–5). Here, the ever-changing moods of the sea are fully explored and the three ‘symphonic sketches’ together make up a giant sonata-form movement with its own Franckian cyclic theme.
After La Mer, the woodwind increasingly carried the main thematic burden, and the percussion gradually gained in importance via Ibéria to the subtleties of Jeux. Here, Debussy attempted to find an orchestra ‘without feet … lit from behind’ as in Wagner’s Parsifal. In spite of its radical nature, Jeux was overshadowed in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes season (15 May 1913) by the succès de scandale of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring a fortnight later. The cordial relations between the two composers deteriorated after this, though Stravinsky’s rising genius had earlier influenced Debussy. His career as a songwriter culminated in the sensitive and witty Trois ballades de François Villon (1910) and in the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913). Two of the latter (Soupir and Placet futile) were also set by Ravel in the same year (to Debussy’s annoyance).
Debussy’s career in chamber music had had an auspicious beginning with his cyclic String Quartet (1893), the influential scherzo of which, with its cross-rhythms and flying pizzicatos, recalled the gamelan sonorities he had heard at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. But apart from the Première rapsodie for clarinet and piano (1909–10), written for the Paris Conservatoire, it was not until his final years that Debussy reverted to the medium. Ever concerned with the necessity for French music to be true to itself, he planned a series of six chamber sonatas in a nationalistic spirit looking back to Rameau. Before finally succumbing to rectal cancer, he completed three of them: the Cello Sonata (1915,), the Sonata for flute, viola, and harp (1915), and the Violin Sonata (1916–17). All three sonatas anticipated neo-classicism in their simplicity, clarity, and stylistic restraint.
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