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 ofRead 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 works in Debussy's second book of Préludes (1910-1913) are similar in intent to those of Book I| (1907-1910). Several of them look ahead to Debussy's later style, in which the composer's earlier impressionistic, almost Romantic poetry wasRead more
supplanted by a greater concentration upon technique and neoclassical objectivity. In addition, perhaps because Debussy's style is so prone to mannerism, several of the Préludes in Book II bear strong similarities to those from the earlier set.
1. Brouillards (Mists): Quietly teeming, delicate, and atmospheric, the texture is dominated by sweeping arpeggios that require a high degree of control on the part of the pianist. Harmonically, the work is quite advanced, with a strong suggestion of polytonality.
2. Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves): The main theme of this Prélude is so similar to that of Les sons et les parfums tournement dans l'air du soir (Sounds and Scents Mix in the Evening Air) from Book I, it seems an intentional parody. The overall mood likewise recalls that of the earlier work.
3. La Puerta del Vino (The Gateway of the Alhambra Palace): One of the most effective Préludes of the set, this Spanish-inflected work has the rhythm of a habanera throughout.
4. Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (The Fairies are Exquisite Dancers): The wispy, delicate figuration of this work calls for extraordinary facility and lightness on the part of the pianist.
5. Bruyères (Heaths): Similar in mood and style to La fille aux cheveux de lin from Book I, Bruyères, a depiction of an idyllic English landscape, is also one of the least demanding Préludes from a technical standpoint.
6. Général Lavine -- eccentric: In this Prélude, Debussy portrays the famous American juggler with enormous wit, making ingenious use of incisive rhythms and sudden contrasts. Perhaps reflecting common "showbiz" origins, it is similar in mood and style to Minstrels from Book I.
7. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace of the Audiences of Moonlight): This subtle Prélude is based on a phrase from the French children's song "Au clair de la lune." The many artfully constructed mood changes are difficult to convey and require great sensitivity on the part of the pianist.
8. Ondine: Debussy depicts the legendary water sprite with a subtly changing atmosphere, as in the previous Prélude. Typical "water-like" arpeggiated figuration alternates with scherzando outbursts.
9. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq., P.P.M.P.C. (after Dickens' Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club): The protagonist of Dickens' novel is musically personified by imitations of whistling, echoes of an English music hall, and a quote from God Save the Queen.
10. Canope: This Prélude, similar in style and content to Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fût (And the Moon Descends on the Ruined Temple) from the second set of Images (1907), is a mournful depiction of an Egyptian burial urn.
11. Tièrces alternées (Alternating Thirds): This is a brilliant study in thirds that anticipates the style of the Études (1915). Debussy achieves great effect through a subtle rise and fall of dynamics, using a minimum of musical material.
12. Feux d'artifice (Fireworks): The last of Debussy's Préludes is a musical portrait of a fireworks display over Paris. Brilliant arpeggios, trills, and rapid chord passages characterize this, the most technically challenging of the Préludes. The work comes to an effective close with a distant quote of La Marseillaise sounded over a hushed tremolo.
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