Influential People: Claude Debussy

Claude-Achille Debussy, one of the most notable names in Impressionist music, a term he apparently despised. He was born in 1862, and along with Ravel, his fellow countryman and composer, became outstandingly famous for music of incredibly inventive orchestrations, suggestive of imagery and leading to the above term. Wikipedia states:

Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed.[5]

Debussy’s music is noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of nontraditional tonalities.[6] The prominent French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.[7]

Again, for his biography, just read the above-linked article. Long story short, he was the oldest of five children born into an apparently non-musical family, started taking piano lessons at the age of seven after his mother “fled with Claude to his paternal aunt’s home in Cannes to escape the Franco-Prussian War.” It seems Daddy Debussy didn’t go along, but he began his studies in Cannes with a violin teacher, and then a piano teacher who claimed to have been a student of Chopin, but this is apparently doubted, even though young Claude seemed to believe her. Three years later, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he would spend the next more-than-half-of-his-life, eleven years.

Wiki states of his talents:

Debussy was experimental from the outset, favoring dissonances and intervals that were not taught at the Academy. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished.[11] The pieces he played in public at this time included sonatamovements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber, and Chopin’s Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert.

It seems the composer was a bit of a free spirit. He spent some time traveling through Europe with Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck, who gave Piotr one of Debussy’s compositions, which he seemed not to care for. He interestingly began an eight-year affair with a woman whose husband was a civil servant and provided some degree of assistance to the young composer, putting him in circles of important people. Debussy, it seems, was also promiscuous.

He spent some time in Rome, but hated it, and found opera and much of the music there also uninspiring, but took a liking to Franz Liszt, and later, in 1888-9, in Bayreuth, to Wagner.

Wikipedia quotes François Lesure and Roy Howat from “Debussy, Claude” at Grove Music Online, stating:

Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Richard Wagner’s sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies.

While Wikipedia has a large-ish, detailed section on Debussy’s influences, this is where we shall stop with discussion of his influences and growth, for it is likely the largest influence on the composer, or at least the one that most people associate with him. While the article continues to say that “Wagner’s extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy’s way,” Debussy absorbed the influence and adapted it to his voice, incorporating it into his own style. Another influence, a “kindred spirit” for Debussy was one Erik Satie, someone else who was doing interesting, inventive things with quirky piano works and titles.

After many trysts and affairs and relationships, Debussy died of rectal cancer in 1918.

It’s kind of interesting, really, to think of Debussy, no matter how incorrectly or oversimplified it may be, as a strange mix or middle point between Wagner and Satie. Debussy’s music was uncompromisingly French in nature, and many of his piano works are short (relatively speaking) and expressive. I make these comparisons, but even Debussy’s early work, like Deux Arabesques and his Gm string quartet already show the innovation that would mark his later work.

Wikipedia says that “His innovative harmonies were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century,” listing Ravel, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Bartok, Boulez, Dutilleux, and even Reich and Glass as having influence from Debussy, as well as many prominent jazz figures.

In short, the works of Claude Debussy, whether solo piano orchestral, showed a unique inventiveness, a high regard for the traditional baroque classical forms, with a penchant for innovative, modern harmonies and sounds that set him apart as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Tomorrow, we shall finally discuss one of his works as a memorable contribution to the symphonic poem repertoire. See you then.


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