Debussy represents the beginning of the modern era, and not just in the classical sphere - he also profoundly influenced 20th-century popular music and jazz. He abandoned traditional theory and made ‘pleasure’ his only law, looking to poetry and painting for inspiration. By putting familiar chords in unfamiliar sequences, favoring ancient and exotic scales, and focusing on texture and color, he created sounds that appear to be happening by magic rather than being written down.
Clair de Lune
With its ethereal mood and sense of mystery, Clair de Lune beautifully evokes Verlaine’s lines about “the sad and lovely moonlight that sets the birds dreaming in the trees”.
Unlike nearly everything else written for the Parisian salons of the 1880s, this music still has the power to gently lure you into an addictive dream world.
The first Arabesque, with its flowing, decorative lines, fuses salon music with the Baroque, which according to Debussy mirrored the movements and patterns of nature itself, following the “laws of beauty”.
La fille aux cheveux de lin
Here Debussy depicts a sweet, innocent — possibly slightly sad — girl, using some of his harmonic trademarks, like 9th and 11th chords, pentatonic scales, and parallel voice leading.
La cathédrale engloutie
The Breton legend about a sunken cathedral mysteriously rising out of the ocean, inspired Debussy to compose this Prelude, featuring the distant sounds of submerged bells, organ pipes, and chanting priests.
Although he himself wished to reserve the term for the visual arts, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) has often been considered the founder of musical Impressionism. Indeed he added a quite new range of timbre and colour to western classical music. When graduating from the Paris Conservatory he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which financed two years of further study in the Italian capital, where he had the opportunity to meet Franz Liszt. He also made two trips to Wagner’s Bayreuth. Back in Paris he became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist gatherings and formed friendships with many leading Parisian writers, musicians and artists.
At the Universal Exposition of 1889 he became fascinated by the music of eastern cultures, especially the Javanese gamelan, a discovery that made him want to get away from Wagner’s influence. The year 1894 saw the sensational premiere of his Prélude à l´après-midi d´un faune, immediately launching Debussy into the spotlight as one of the leading composers of the era. The opera Pelléas et Mélisande made a similar impact, and caused a lasting division among Paris audiences between the forward-looking believers in "Debussyism" and those who failed to appreciate his style.
Debussy cohabited in Paris with Gabrielle Dupont for nine years before marrying her friend Rosalie Texier, a fashion model, in 1899. Increasingly irritated by Texier’s lack of intellectual and musical interest, Debussy left her for Emma Bardac, the wife of a Parisian banker and an accomplished singer. Texier, like Dupont before her, attempted suicide. The scandal obliged Debussy and Bardac (already carrying his child) to flee to England until the hysteria subsided. The couple were eventually married in 1908.
Debussy spent his remaining years immersed in French musical society, writing as a critic, composing, and performing as pianist and conductor. The war depressed Debussy into a state of creative sterility, but the summer of 1915 marked the start of a new productive era: in quick succession he composed the Cello Sonata, En blanc et noir, the Etudes, and the Sonata for flute, viola and harp. Unfortunately, at the end of the year he had to undergo a debilitating colostomy for rectal cancer, one of the very first such operations. Many of his planned projects remained unrealized, but he managed to complete the Violin Sonata in 1917. He died in Paris during the bombardment of Paris in the last German offensive of World War I.
Quotes by Debussy
“There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”
“We should be constantly reminding ourselves that the beauty of a work of art is something that will always remain mysterious; that is to say one can never find out exactly ‘how it is done’. At all costs let us preserve this element of magic peculiar to music. By its very nature music is more likely to contain something of the magical than any other art.”
"Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art."
“Music begins where words are powerless to express. Music is made for the inexpressible. I want music to seem to rise from the shadows and indeed sometimes to return to them.”
“The sound of the sea, the curve of a horizon, wind in leaves, the cry of a bird leave manifold impression in us. And suddenly, without our wishing it at all, one of these memories spills from us and finds expression in musical language… I want to sing my interior landscape with the simple artlessness of a child.”
Quotes about Debussy
“The Sea of Debussy does not call for many words of comment. The three parts of which it is composed are entitled From Dawn till Noon, Play of the Waves and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, but as far as any pictorial suggestiveness is concerned, they might as well have been entitled On the Flatiron Building, Slumming in the Bowery and A Glimpse of Chinatown During a Raid. Debussy's music is the dreariest kind of rubbish.” (New York Post, 22 March 1907)
“Among all our musical masters, l should say, Claude Debussy was the least weighed upon by the dead hand of formula. Yet neither was he an improviser… Like any Frenchman building a bridge or cooking a meal, painting a picture or laying out a garden, he felt, he imagined, he reasoned, he constructed — and in that order.” (Virgil Thompson)