Claude Debussy

Biography

Born: 1862   Died: 1918   Country: France   Period: Romantic
Claude Debussy (born Achille-Claude Debussy) was among the most influential composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His mature compositions, distinctive and appealing, combined modernism and sensuality so successfully that their sheer beauty often obscures their technical innovation. Debussy is considered the founder and leading exponent of musical Impressionism (although he resisted the label), and his adoption of Read more non-traditional scales and tonal structures was paradigmatic for many composers who followed.

The son of a shopkeeper and a seamstress, Debussy began piano studies at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11. While a student there, he encountered the wealthy Nadezhda von Meck (most famous as Tchaikovsky's patroness), who employed him as a music teacher to her children; through travel, concerts and acquaintances, she provided him with a wealth of musical experience. Most importantly, she exposed the young Debussy to the works of Russian composers, such as Borodin and Mussorgsky, who would remain important influences on his music.

Debussy began composition studies in 1880, and in 1884 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata L'enfant prodigue. This prize financed two years of further study in Rome -- years that proved to be creatively frustrating. However, the period immediately following was fertile for the young composer; trips to Bayreuth and the Paris World Exhibition (1889) established, respectively, his determination to move away from the influence of Richard Wagner, and his interest in the music of Eastern cultures.

After a relatively bohemian period, during which Debussy formed friendships with many leading Parisian writers and musicians (not least of which were Mallarmé, Satie, and Chausson), the year 1894 saw the enormously successful premiere of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) -- a truly revolutionary work that brought his mature compositional voice into focus. His seminal opera Pelléas et Mélisande, completed the next year, would become a sensation at its first performance in 1902. The impact of those two works earned Debussy widespread recognition (as well as frequent attacks from critics, who failed to appreciate his forward-looking style), and over the first decade of the twentieth century he established himself as the leading figure in French music -- so much so that the term "Debussysme" ("Debussyism"), used both positively and pejoratively, became fashionable in Paris. Debussy spent his remaining healthy years immersed in French musical society, writing as a critic, composing, and performing his own works internationally. He succumbed to colon cancer in 1918, having also suffered a deep depression brought on by the onset of World War I.

Debussy's personal life was punctuated by unfortunate incidents, most famously the attempted suicide of his first wife, Lilly Texier, whom he abandoned for the singer Emma Bardac. However, his subsequent marriage to Bardac, and their daughter Claude-Emma, whom they called "Chouchou" and who became the dedicatee of the composer's Children's Corner piano suite, provided the middle-aged Debussy with great personal joys.

Debussy wrote successfully in most every genre, adapting his distinctive compositional language to the demands of each. His orchestral works, of which Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and La mer (The Sea, 1905) are most familiar, established him as a master of instrumental color and texture. It is this attention to tone color -- his layering of sound upon sound so that they blend to form a greater, evocative whole -- that linked Debussy in the public mind to the Impressionist painters.

His works for solo piano, particularly his collections of Préludes and Etudes, which have remained staples of the repertoire since their composition, bring into relief his assimilation of elements from both Eastern cultures and antiquity -- especially pentatonicism (the use of five-note scales), modality (the use of scales from ancient Greece and the medieval church), parallelism (the parallel movement of chords and lines), and the whole-tone scale (formed by dividing the octave into six equal intervals).

Pelléas et Mélisande and his collections of songs for solo voice establish the strength of his connection to French literature and poetry, especially the symbolist writers, and stand as some of the most understatedly expressive works in the repertory. The writings of Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Baudelaire, and his childhood friend Paul Verlaine appear prominently among his chosen texts and joined symbiotically with the composer's own unique moods and forms of expression. Read less

Ravel, Debussy & Massenet / Bavouzet, Tortelier, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 11/16/2010   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5084   Number of Discs: 1
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Debussy: Pelleas Et Melisande / Elder, Dean, Hannon, Tomlinson, Walker
Release Date: 01/31/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 3177   Number of Discs: 3
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Debussy: String Quartet, Piano Trio, Deux Danses / Brodsky Quartet
Release Date: 04/24/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10717   Number of Discs: 1
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Debussy: Orchestral Works / Deneve, Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Release Date: 05/29/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5102   Number of Discs: 2
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Debussy: Complete Works for Piano / Bavouzet
Release Date: 10/30/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10743   Number of Discs: 5
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Work: Children's Corner

 

About This Work
Children's Corner was written for Debussy's three-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (nicknamed "Chou-Chou"), and bears the following dedication: "to my dear Chou-Chou, with the tender apologies of her father for what is to follow." Read more The composer's sentiments were presumably an acknowledgement of the inevitable loss of innocence that comes with growing up, but his words take on a darker, more prophetic, hue in hindsight -- Claude-Emma died from diphtheria only a year after Debussy's own death from cancer in 1918.

Though ostensibly children's pieces, the miniatures that make up Children's Corner are not meant for children to play; rather they are meant to evoke the mood and essence of childhood, and the fantasies of youth. The titles, all of them in English, reflect not only the rampant anglophilia in Paris at the time of composition (and Debussy's own affection for England), but also Chou-Chou's relationship with her English nanny, who helped to choose them. The set, as a whole, captures the particular charm of Debussy's piano music, in spirit if not in style. It possesses great humor and lightness, real beauty, and deceptive technical difficulties.

The first movement, "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum," is a light-hearted reference to Muzio Clementi's well-known piano exercises, Gradus ad Parnassum, published in 1817. It parodies a child performing these exercises, initially tearing through the bright, fast passages and eventually becoming distracted, bored, and finally slamming down the final cadence with relief. This movement looks forward to Debussy's later Études, in which he lampoons the five-finger exercises of Carl Czerny. The second movement is about a toy elephant, and is called "Jimbo's Lullaby"; the ponderous gait of the elephant and the lightness of its stuffing are illustrated in whole-tone harmony. The third movement "Serenade for the Doll" is a quick, dance-like song for a little girl's favorite toy, while "Snow is Dancing" gives us a picture of falling ice crystals.

"The Little Shepherd" tells a story of a young shepherd, playing his pipe, dancing around the meadow, resting by a tree, and finally falling asleep. The last movement, "Golliwogg's Cake Walk," was inspired by American ragtime music, which, considered plebeian in its native country, had taken Europe by storm. Debussy also managed a tweak at Wagner, by quoting the famous Tristan & Isolde theme, and following it with a pianistic chuckle. It's title comes from Golliwogg, a doll that was popular in Chou-Chou's day, and a popular children's game associated with the doll. The game involved walking to the music (the steps required are specific, and seeing kids perform them is adorable) and whoever looked most enthused about getting cake received a slice.

The Children's Corner suite is certainly not characteristic of Debussy's ephemeral style -- which by now had fully developed impressionistic qualities -- however, it is a delightful work, and it showcases Debussy's ability to create unique tonal colors.

-- All Music Guide Read less

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