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Five things you didn’t know about Debussy

By Elliot Antokoletz

To mark the anniversary of Debussy’s birth today in 1862, a list of little known facts about the composer.

(1) It was Debussy who blazed the way to modern music in the United States in the early twentieth century, as evidenced by the many commentaries of American music critics. While Debussy’s highly original harmonic language and style brought mixed reactions at the first performances of his opera in Paris, his modernistic musical language and symbolist ideals soon evoked great enthusiasm in the United States. His orchestral music was championed more than that of any other contemporary composer in the early decades of the century by the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, and New York. Debussy himself appreciated the responsiveness to his music in America.

(2) Much of Debussy’s music is pervaded by the imprint of late nineteenth-century Russian music, including that of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and others. This may be attributed generally to the increasing cross-cultural flow during the period of the Franco-Russian alliance in the late nineteenth century, the sonic influence of Tchaikovsky shifting to the Mighty Five by the time of the Paris Exposition universelle of 1889. But Russian music was already evident in France since the 1870s as it drew the attention of Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and a larger generation of musicians.


(3) The vault scene of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, his first and only completed opera, and the entire fabric of The Fall of the House of Usher, his last and unfinished opera, are directly influenced by the macabre world of American poet Edgar Allan Poe. His obsession with Poe was to become increasingly evident after 1908, when he abandoned other compositions for work on Usher. Although he dwelled on the gruesome world of Poe for most of the last decade of his life, it is striking that he could not complete the opera by the time of his death in 1918 for reasons apparently related to personal, practical, and musico-dramatic issues.

(4) Although Debussy was a central figure associated with Impressionist music, he himself vehemently rejected the term as applied to his own compositions, saying: “I am trying to do ‘something different’ — in a way realities — what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics.” Although he was contemptuous of those who applied the term to his music, he himself invoked it at a later date.

(5) Debussy was plagued by a lack of money, a recurrent theme throughout his correspondence that raises questions regarding the reception and recompense for his compositions. It is certain, however, that when he had opportunities for official positions other than composing, such as conducting or teaching, he turned them down.

Elliott Antokoletz, Professor of Musicology at the University of Texas at Austin, has held two Endowed Professorships. Elliott Antokoletz and Marianne Wheeldon are the editors of Rethinking Debussy.

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Image credit: Claude Debussy au piano l’été 1893 dans la maison de Luzancy (chez son ami Ernest Chausson). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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