1862 — 1918
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Claude Debussy was a late 19th and early 20th century composer whose harmonic innovations had a profound effect on generations of musicians and composers. He was a great innovator with strikingly original new aesthetics that emerged over the course of his career. He created new genres and a new personal style with regard to tone colour and timbre.
Claude Debussy was born in 1862 in St. Germain-en-Laye and lived for a while in Cannes while his family was in exile during the Franco-Prussian war. In 1871 he began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire at age ten, having never attended an ordinary school.
The 1880s were a time of financial struggle for Debussy but nevertheless he frequented the literary cafés of Paris where he met composers, artists, writers and philosophers. Along with the painter Cézanne and the poet Mallarmé, Debussy became known as one of the three greats in French modernism.
He travelled to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889 at a time when he was largely inspired byWagner, but he soon realised it was in his best interest to free himself from Wagner’s influence. One early work that is clearly marked by an admiration of Wagner’s style is theCinq Poems de Baudelaire. These songs, in contrast to other Debussy songs, show inflections of Wagner in terms of their length, their chromatic harmonies and their broad intervals. In 1890 he met the poet Mallarmé and set his poem to music inPrelude L’aprés-midi d’un faune, his first instrumental masterpiece, which was a colossal success, performed 40 times in Germany between 1903 and 1914. Debussy’s only opera,Pelleas et Mélisande premiered in 1902 after 10 years of work. It was based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. The opera did not bring Debussy immediate success due to a cold reaction from the press, but over time it caught on and influenced younger French composers of the time, such as Ravel.
It was around this time that Debussy gave permission for his works to be published by Durand, making his work circulate easily and thereby bringing the term‘debussysme’ into vogue. Much like other ‘’isms’’ it was used both as a compliment and in a derogatory way. Much to Debussy’s annoyance, it was in 1887 that he had first been called an ‘Impressionist’, by members of the Institute de France, referring to hisPrintemps and which caught on even stronger after La Mer. In 1908, Debussy wrote to his publisher ‘I’m attempting “something different’’,realities in some sense – what imbeciles call impressionism, just about the least appropriate term possible’.
Debussy made his conducting debut in 1908, directing La Mer. In 1909 he became a member of the advisory board of the Paris Conservatoire, for which he composed examination pieces for Conservatoire students such as his Premiere Rhapsody for clarinet and piano, which has since entered the standard clarinet and piano repertoire. Soon after, he started work on his first book of Preludes for piano.Iberia and Rondes de Printemps received their premieres in 1910 and three years later the complete work ofImages for orchestra were performed together.
Due to his love of poetry, his songs were fluid and full of the vocal inflections of the French language and much more tonally adventurous than his instrumental music. He was also influenced by the French symbolist movement with its esoteric perception and its rejection of naturalism and realism.
Debussy’s innovation is seen equally in his harmony, rhythm, texture and form. His harmony combines modality together with tonality. French music has its roots in modes and Debussy revives them, bringing new life to their tonal potential. He also delves deeply into modal language of Javanese gamelan. Debussy famously declared that music is neither major nor minor. Echoes of this statement can be perceived in many of his works, for instance Debussy’s most remote tonal outreaches in the second book ofImages and Preludes. In Et la Lune Descends, the E minor tonality is masked by added 4ths. After the 1900 world exhibition, in which he was exposed to Javanese gamelan, Debussy explores new possibilities of gamelan-related elements in his piano works, making use of the gong-like sonorities.