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  • 8/23/2003

Achille-Claude Debussy


Debussy is one of the most influential composers who creates a unique and forward-looking style of innovative technical finish and poetic appeal. His works significantly break away from the concepts of traditional form and harmony. He is also considered the most important composer of piano music since Frédéric Chopin.

Debussy was born in August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in a bourgeois family. His father owned a china shop and was also working as a travelling salesman, a printer's assistant, and a clerk. His mother was a seamstress. Debussy's musical talent was discovered by his first piano teacher Mme. Mauté de Fleurville who claimed to have studied piano with Chopin. Mme. Mauté sent Debussy to the Conservatory in Paris, where he studied for ten years, from 1872 to 1884. At first, Debussy wanted to be a virtuoso pianist; later, he gave up the idea of a virtuoso career after two failures in the piano examinations in 1878 and 1879. In 1880 he attended the composition class of Ernest Guiraud. Under his guidance, Debussy won the secondPrix de Rome in 1883 and the coveted first Prix de Rome the following year with his cantataL'enfant prodigue, which enabled him to study music at the Villa de Medici in Rome for three years.

 Debussy visited Bayreuth, home of the great Wagner festivals in 1888 and 1889. At first, Debussy was fascinated by Wagner's music dramas, especiallyParsifal andTristan und Isolde, but later he turned against them and eventually against most other German music. However, some critics find traces of Wagnerian harmonies
in several of Debussy's early works.

In 1892 Debussy began to compose thePrelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which was performed at the Société Nationale on 22 December 1894. In 1893 Debussy attended a performance of the Symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck's playPelléas et Mélisande, and probably started to sketch his opera at once. On 19 October 1899 Debussy married Rosalie (Lily) Texier and in 1901 he became the music critic ofLa revue blance. The whole opera occupied Debussy for over ten years from 1893 to 1902. It was accepted for performance at the Opéra-Comique and the first performance on 30 April 1902 was a great success. Although Debussy's work aroused the opposition of Maeterlinck, his play is remembered today for Debussy's opera.

In 1905 Debussy finished the first set ofImage for piano,L'isle joyeuse, andLa mer. On 30 October 1905, a daughter named Claude-Emma (Chou-Chou) was born and the parents got married on20 January 1908.

Starting from the year 1907 Debussy undertook several journeys to England, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Russia to play the piano and conduct his works. His success in England (1908 and 1909) brought him international fame and he was appointed a member of the advisory board of the Paris Conservatory. In 1909 Debussy's first French biography by Louis Laloy was published and he began to compose the first book of the Preludes for piano. He finished orchestratingJeux in 1913 and was commissioned in 1915 by his publisher Jacques Durand to produce an edition of Chopin's works. As a result of the intensive study of Chopin's music, he wrote the twelveÉtudes for piano.

His last work, the Violin Sonata, was performed in May 1917 with Debussy at the piano. It was the last music that he played in public, at St. Jean-de-Luz in September. Debussy died of rectal cancer on 15 March 1918.

Claude Debussy's Works &Style Summary

Most of Debussy's important works were composed between 1893 and 1913. He is most famous for his innovations in orchestration and in his use of non-functional harmony. In general, his style is lyrical and evocative of mood or atmosphere through the use of both orchestral and harmonic colors. Debussy's stylistic traits are summarized as follows:
Instrumentation and Orchestration: Debussy's orchestral sound is unique in that his orchestra is "more often a single, delicately pulsing totality to which individual instruments contribute momentary gleam of color. One thinks of an impressionist picture, in which small, discrete areas of color, visible close up, merge into indescribable color fields as you stand back and take the painting in as a whole" (Joseph Kerman,Listen). Instruments are often used in unusual registers and combinations with emphasis on solo woodwinds, muted brass, and quiet percussion effects. The orchestral colors are widely spaced.
Form: Debussy usually avoids sharp sectional contrast and the developmental techniques associated with sonata form. He once commented: "Already for Beethoven the art of development consists in repetition, in the incessant restatement of identical themes. . . . And Wagner has exaggerated this procedure to the point of caricature. . . . Do you think that in composition the same emotion can be expressed twice?" (Oscar Thompson,Debussy: Man and Artists).

Texture: Debussy's music is highly homophonic with incidental counterpoint. His piano music is idiomatic, featuring unusual voicings and pedal points.

Tonality and Harmony: In Debussy's music there is usually no clear tonal center established at the beginning. He uses many non-functional harmonies and parallel motion of triads or dominant 9th sonorities. The harmonic vocabulary includes extended tertian chords with added tones (especially the 2nd and the 6th), chords with omitted tones (especially the 5th), quartal, and whole-tone structure.

Melody: Debussy's themes and motives are fragmentary and tentative, and often draw upon church modes, pentatonic, whole-tone, or some other original scales. Many of his works are formed on a single continuous theme which undergoes transformations through the interactions between micro-elements, such as motives or intervals, which function as cells to produce a multiplicity of images, one imperceptibly growing out of and emerging into the other.
Meter and Rhythm: Debussy's music is nonpulsatile, with a vaguely defined metrical feeling.

Taken from:

For more information:

Debussy Works List: http://www.ptloma.edu/music/MUH/composers/Debussy_Works_List/Debussy_Works_List.htm

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