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.
- 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
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
- Claude Debussy in a letter
of March, 1908
Rain, Steam, and Speed.
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
The whole story can be found at Impressionist
Influences in the Music of Claude Debussy