Only the Son of a Sailor
Can write about the Sea


Achille Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

French composer, whose harmonic innovations helped pave the way for the musical upheavals of the 20th century. Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye on August 22, 1862, and educated at the Paris Conservatoire, which he entered at the age of 10. He traveled to Florence, Venice, Vienna, and Moscow in 1879 as private musician to Nadejda von Meck, the patron of Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. While in Russia Debussy became acquainted with the music of such Russian composers as Tchaikovsky, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, and Modest Mussorgsky and with Russian folk and gypsy music. Debussy won the much coveted Grand Prix de Rome in 1884 for his cantata L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son). He then studied in Rome for two years, according to the terms of the award, and submitted new compositions regularly but unsuccessfully to the Grand Prix committee. Among these were the symphonic suite Printemps and a cantata, La demoiselle élue, based on a poem, “The Blessed Damozel,” by the British writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Early Works

During the 1890s Debussy's works were performed with increasing frequency, and despite their then-controversial nature, he began to gain some recognition as a composer. Outstanding are the String Quartet in G Minor (1893), which some critics regard as his best work; and the famed Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1894), his first mature orchestral work. The latter was based on a poem by the French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé.

Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play of the same name by the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck, was produced in 1902. It earned Debussy widespread fame as a musician of outstanding significance. The extent to which his score retained and enhanced the abstract, dreamlike quality of Maeterlinck's play was extraordinary, as was his treatment of melody; in his hands, the latter became virtually an extension, or duplication, of the rhythm of natural speech. Regarded by some critics as a perfectly wedded fusion of music and drama, it has had frequent revivals.

From 1902 to 1910 Debussy wrote chiefly for the piano. Among the most important works of this period were Estampes (Engravings, 1903), L'île joyeuse (The Isle of Mirth, 1904), Images (two series, 1905 and 1907), and many preludes. He rejected the traditionally percussive approach to the piano, instead emphasizing the instrument's capabilities for delicate expressiveness. In 1909 Debussy learned that he was afflicted with cancer, from which he died on March 25, 1918. Most of the works he produced during his last years were for chamber ensembles.

Forerunner of Modern Style

The music of Debussy's fully mature style was the forerunner of much modern music and made him one of the most important late 19th- and early 20th-century composers. His innovations were chiefly harmonic. Although he did not devise the whole-tone scale, he was the first composer to exploit it successfully. His treatment of chords was radical in its time; he arranged chord progressions in such a way as to weaken, rather than support, the illusion of any specified key. The lack of fixed tonality produced a vague, dreamy character that some contemporary critics termed musical impressionism, after the resemblance they saw between it and the pictorial effect achieved by painters of the impressionist school; the term is still used in describing his music. Debussy himself did not create a new school of composition, but he liberated music from the limitations of traditional harmony; moreover, the high quality of his own works proved to subsequent composers the validity of experimenting with new ideas and techniques. Among Debussy's numerous other important works are the ballet score Jeux (Frolics, 1912), the orchestral poem La mer (The Sea, 1905), and the songs Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (Five poems of Baudelaire, 1889).

"Debussy, (Achille) Claude," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.

"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."

- Claude Debussy in a letter of March, 1908

Rain, Steam, and Speed. Joseph Turner.

Drawing from his exposure to Impressionism in painting, Debussy attempted to recreate the subtle, nuances in shading, light which made this new type of artform unique. Starting with l'Apres-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) impressionistic imagery and style becomes characteristic of Debussy's works. This type of imagery can also be found in the symbolist movement of the time in literature which was also among the major influences upon Debussy.

Perhaps the greatest symphonic impressionist work of all time is Debussy's La Mer, called by some critics the "best symphony ever written by a Frenchman." La Mer is great for its unity in form, with all important structural elements of a symphonic work (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) In La Mer, all of the greatest influences of Debussy's life are manifested. As a child, the son of a sailor, he was told wondrous stories of his father's expeditions. Later on, Turner's sea pictures would also inspire Debussy, with their powers of suggestion. Debussy most likely saw Turner's pictures in Paris or at London's National Gallery in his travels of 1902 and 1903, around the time when he began composing La Mer. The resulting symphonic work is one of Debussy's greatest, a landmark work. It manages to be suggestive, yet with technical precision and clarity, a true masterpiece. The three movements are entitled "De l'aube a midi sur la mer" (From dawn to midday at sea), "Jeu de vagues" (Play of the waves), and "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the wind and the sea).

The indelible mark of impressionism upon Debussy is evident in this remark which he made concerning his life away from the sea. "But I have an endless store of memories, and to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought."

The whole story can be found at Impressionist Influences in the Music of Claude Debussy