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
Debussy: 3 Sonatas, String Quartet, Syrinx / Grumiaux, Gendron, Quartetto Italiano
Release Date: 01/28/2010   Label: Philips  
Catalog: 442655   Number of Discs: 1
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Debussy: Complete Works for Solo Piano / Paul Crossley
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Catalog: 930732   Number of Discs: 4
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Takemitsu, Debussy, Gubaidulina / Tre Voci
Release Date: 09/30/2014   Label: Ecm  
Catalog: 002167702   Number of Discs: 1
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Debussy: Songs, Vol. 3 / Mcgovern, France, Martineau
Release Date: 10/14/2014   Label: Hyperion  
Catalog: 68016   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Images for Piano, Set 2

 

About This Work
Having completed his first book of three Images for piano solo in 1905, Debussy returned again to this genre two years later, when he produced a series of works which are broadly similar in their expressive remit, but vastly more complex and Read more ambitious from a pianistic standpoint. The first major difference one will note is that, as befits music of significantly greater textural density, these pieces are laid out on three, rather than the more orthodox two staves. Although this might seem to complicate matters when it comes to performing this set, the three-stave format actually helps considerably, allowing the eye to grasp Debussy's exotic, elaborately impressionistic sonorities far more readily than would a hopelessly cluttered two-stave layout.

The titles of the three pieces of Debussy's Images, Book II are these: (I) "Cloches à travers les feuilles," (II) "Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut," and (III) "Poissons d'or." The first is one of the most exquisitely fashioned of all Debussy's piano works, and Edward Lockspeiser has described as "a study in the contrasts of clear and muffled sonorities, designed to convey the slumberous atmosphere of an autumn landscape with an illusion of distant chimes emerging from beyond the screen of rustling leaves." The first section provides a particularly telling illustration of Debussy's unique approach to counterpoint, based on the whole tone scale, with two inner parts in canon. An independent melody is heard in the upper register, while the texture also includes bell-like repeated "A"s.

The title of the second piece is thought to have been inspired by Chinese poetry and added at the suggestion of the dedicatee Louis Laloy. The listener can discern the faint outline of an eastern temple, as slow-moving progressions of intervals of thirds and fourths bring an atmosphere of deep stillness or (says Frank Dawes) "vagueness, even." Of greatest interest, though, is the way Debussy manages to imitate the exotic sounds of Javanese Gamelan music in this gravely intoned chant-like piece. Lockspeiser also suggests that here "Debussy was obviously experimenting with the maximum variety of contrast to be obtained from the softest vibrations of the piano strings."

According to one of Debussy's biographers Léon Vallas, the idea for the title of the last piece came from an oriental lacquer-work vase illustrated with goldfish, though others have suggested the inspiration came from a Japanese print or embroidery. The music depicts the fish in their constantly twisting convolutions amid the confines of their fish bowl; in this regard, this movement is not unlike the last piece in Images, Book I, "Mouvements," in which the idea of frenetic motion within a restricted sphere of physical activity is again brought to the fore. As Dawes puts it, "Fluttering fins and rippling water are suggested by a wealth of trills and tremolos and by the delicious cadenza at the end."

-- Michael Jameson, All Music Guide Read less

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