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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
The Claude Debussy Collection
Release Date: 05/01/2012   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 193179   Number of Discs: 18
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Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande / Gilfry, Rey, Welser-Most
Release Date: 11/13/2012   Label: Arthaus Musik  
Catalog: 107285   Number of Discs: 2
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Ravel, Debussy / Pierre Boulez [6-CD Set]
Release Date: 05/08/2012   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 001676802   Number of Discs: 6
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Debussy: Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 / Markl, Orchestra National De Lyon
Release Date: 09/28/2010   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572297   Number of Discs: 1
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Debussy: Complete Orchestral Works / Jun Markl, Orchestre National De Lyon
Release Date: 02/28/2012   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8509002   Number of Discs: 9
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Work: Images for Piano, Set 1

 

About This Work
The first volume of Debussy's Images (this title might also serve as a generic commonplace which could usefully be applied to almost any of Debussy's works) for piano solo was published in 1905. The set comprises of three pieces entitled respectively Read more "Reflets dans l'eau," "Hommage à Rameau," and finally "Mouvement." Of the first piece, wrote the composer, it represented "the most recent discoveries of harmonic chemistry," which was indeed no idly hyperbolic claim. Behind the flashing arpeggios and shimmering chordal progressions the music somehow loses its focus, much as one's eyes seem to dilate after gazing intently at an object for any length of time. It is an ingenious agglomeration of whole-tone progressions and endlessly varied pentatonic and chromatic figurations. While the most sonorous climaxes of "Reflets" mirror the powerful sea music of Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the highly impressionistic nature of the coda, with its pattern of three descending notes (which are also heard at the very beginning of this first Image, giving it an overall cyclic unity, despite its harmonic ambiguity) is one of the most memorable and musically effective the composer ever attained.

Appropriately for a work which honors one of the great French "clavecinistes," the second piece of the set "Hommage à Rameau" takes the form of a slow, purposeful sarabande, albeit one which springs (suggests Dawes) "from a somewhat idealised eighteenth century world ... it is a belated funerary offering to one great composer written entirely in the idiom of another." It was composed at the time when Debussy was engaged in revising Rameau's Les Fêtes de Polymnie, and this study in majestic classical proportions suggests the high regard in which Debussy held Rameau's keyboard music. The listener will be struck particularly by the austerity and economy of the writing which, save for a few passing expressive up-swings, maintains a somber processional tread, based principally on triadic chords, throughout its entire duration.

The final section, "Mouvement," is a toccata-like exercise in physical animation at the keyboard. As Anthony Cross states, "with Debussy rhythm is frequently reduced to continual vibration, to permit the realisation of timbre effects." It is so here, for although the moto perpetuo torrent of notes seems unstoppable, the music is still rooted firmly to a number of immensely long pedal points which create a feeling of static harmony. Some writers have suggested links with the mawkish humor of Stravinsky's Petrushka -- puppets locked in violent dispute -- and perhaps the analogy is a good one, and it conveys powerfully the idea behind the music. It is perhaps suggestive of the frenzied flight of the bee in the honey pot-furious, but locked into an orbit from which there is no escape.

-- Michael Jameson, All Mjusic Guide Read less

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