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: 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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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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Work: Préludes, Book 1

 

About This Work
Each of Debussy's Préludes, Book I (1907-1910) is a short but substantial work that conveys a particular mood or impression suggested by its title. Still, as musicologist Rollo Myers notes, "the pictorial element [is not] unduly stressed Read more if stressed at all; these Préludes are pure music." In accordance with the composer's practice of assigning a title only after the completion of a work, the titles of the Préludes are placed at the foot of each, rather than at the head. The Préludes represent the pinnacle of Debussy's keyboard art; each may be rightly regarded as a miniature masterpiece.

1. Danseuses de Delphes (Delphic Dancers): This is a slow, hypnotic, stately sarabande that utilizes multiple layers of parallel chords in unusual five-bar groupings.

2. Voiles (Sails): Whole-tone scales and pentatonic harmonies provide the musical substance of this mysterious and evocative tone poem. The spirit and character of this work recall "Jeux de vagues" (Play of waves), the second movement of La mer (1903-1905).

3. Le vent dans la plaine (Wind on the Plain): Rapid figuration depicts the whirling winds, twice interrupted by sudden chordal outbursts. Much of the work's impact derives from the extreme, effective economy of its material.

4. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and Scents Mix in the Evening Air): The title of this Prélude was taken from Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, the inspiration for this slow, waltz-like nocturne. The work makes active use of three themes, all in the same key, demanding the utmost sensitivity and imagination from the pianist.

5. Les collines d'Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri): This is a lively scherzo in tarantella rhythm, with a slower central section in imitation of Italian folk song. The piano writing is particularly colorful and brilliantly effective.

6. Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow): Debussy depicts a barren winter snowscape with a plaintive, harmonically static dirge. The slow, sustained legato underpins the powerfully hypnotic atmosphere.

7. Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (What the West Wind Saw): Rapid, sweeping arpeggios, fast alternating chord passages, and thundering tremolos characterize this brilliant, virtuosic showpiece. It is virtually an etude, fiercely aggressive and calling upon the full resources of the pianist.

8. La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with Flaxen Hair): The title of this, one of the most familiar of the Préludes, comes from Leconte de Lisle's Scottish Song. Debussy's use of modality lends an archaic air to this charming, delicate work.

9. La sérénade interrompue (The Interrupted Serenade): A Spaniard wooing his sweetheart with the sounds of his voice and his guitar is thwarted by several noisy interruptions. Debussy effectively recreates a Spanish-inflected guitar sound on the keyboard, treating the interruptions with wry humor.

10. La cathédral engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral): Debussy effects a striking musical depiction of the mythical submerged cathedral of Ys with "archaicisms" like modality and parallel harmonies. The work's rhythmic stasis, combined with its massive sonorities, creates an overwhelming sense of awe and grandeur.

11. La danse de Puck (The Dance of Puck): Shakespeare's Puck is depicted here as a witty and capricious elf. Light, rapid figurations and sudden shifts of register and dynamics require an exceptional degree of pianistic control.

12. Minstrels (Minstrels): The last of the Préludes from Book I is a sardonic parody of the music heard in turn-of-the-century music halls. Crisp rhythms and "popular" harmonies punctuated by sharp dissonance anticipate elements in the music of Stravinsky and Poulenc.

-- Steven Coburn, All Music Guide Read less

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