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Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy


When challenged by the registrar of the Paris Conservatory as to what rule he followed when composing, Debussy replied disarmingly, ‘Mon plaisir!’ For Debussy, music developed organically from many varieties of rhythms, harmonies, textures and colours. He was not a didactic revolutionary in the mould of Stravinsky or Schoenberg. His works create the impression of having been conceived in a flash of inspiration, though many pieces he sent for publication took months or even years to complete. Debussy’s later music was perceived as sharing certain characteristics with the Impressionist painters, Monet, especially. The composer did not approve of the comparison, yet it is hard to avoid noticing the striking correspondences between the Impressionists' tendency towards softening structural outlines and their fascination with light and colour, and the musical brushwork of Debussy’s Préludes for piano, and his orchestral pieces Images and La mer. Debussy’s struggles with orthodoxy were evident from the beginning. Born the son of a shopkeeper and a seamstress, he did not begin serious musical training until he was seven. But within three years his piano playing had reached such an advanced level that he was awarded a place at the Paris Conservatoire. He was never very happy in the long, dark corridors of tradition, however. A spell in Russia at the home of Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck brought little relief, especially when Tchaikovsky said that he found little of merit in one of his early piano miniatures. Things appeared to be looking up when in 1884 Debussy, now 22, won the Conservatoire’s prestigious Prix de Rome, which entitled the winner to study in the Italian capital. Yet for Debussy it felt more like a prison sentence. At that time, Italy was obsessed with opera to the virtual exclusion of other genres, the ‘tune-and-accompaniment’ style of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi considered the ultimate form of musical expression. No wonder Debussy returned to Paris feeling he had learned ‘absolutely nothing!’ Debussy’s first visit to Bayreuth in 1888 finally brought him into contact with Wagner’s epic operas. The impact of the German composer’s many passages of quiet introspection are evident in the radiant textures of Debussy’s La demoiselle élue, for women’s voices (solo and choral) and orchestra, completed that same year. Debussy also discovered a kindred creative spirit in the renegade composer Erik Satie. A new world of expressive possibilities opened up before him following his immersion in the music of the Far East at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. His mind swimming with ‘ambiguous chords’ and ‘floating intervals’, Debussy pushed forward. The delicate enchantments of the Arabesques for piano (1888–1891) and Petite Suite (1889) were exchanged for a sublime dissolving of the traditional rules of musical composition. This is initially hinted at in ‘Clair de lune’ from his 1890 Suite bergamasque and, with greater sophistication, in the slow movement of his 1893 String Quartet. However, Debussy set the bar at an entirely new level with one of his first indisputable masterpieces, the orchestral Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). So overwhelming were the musical implications of the Prélude, in which tonal colour had become a vital part of the music’s conception, that over the following decade Debussy completed only a handful of major works. These included the three orchestral Nocturnes of 1899; his Wagner-influenced opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902); the three Chansons de Bilitis; and two suites for piano, Pour le piano (1901) and the Estampes (1903). The importance of these works is now beyond question. But at the time Debussy made so little money from composing that he was still reliant on friends and benefactors to keep him financially afloat. He even began writing music criticism for a variety of publications under the humorous pseudonym ‘Monsieur Croche’ (Mr Quaver). Meanwhile, his relationships with women had gone from bad to worse. Following a series of affairs, he married an unstable young model, Rosalie ‘Lilly’ Texier. The union was a disaster, and when Debussy subsequently became passionately involved with Emma Bardac (Gabriel Fauré's ex-mistress), Texier tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide in public by shooting herself in the chest while standing in the Place de la Concorde. The ensuing scandal resulted in Debussy and Bardac becoming social pariahs. The pair escaped to Eastbourne on the south coast of England. It was here that Debussy composed La mer (1905), three ‘symphonic sketches’ that capture the vast world of the sea with almost cinematic flair and precision. He refined this genius for the pictorial over the following decade with the three orchestral Images (completed 1912); the ballet Jeux  (1913); and an exquisite series of piano miniatures. These include two sets of three Images (1905–1907), the suite Children’s Corner (1908) and two books of twelve Préludes (1910–1913). In 1914, at the height of his creative powers, Debussy discovered that he had cancer. He was left so debilitated by an operation that he composed little for nearly a year. Staring death in the face, he amazed everyone with what at the time looked like a creative volte face: a series of three (out of a planned six) chamber sonatas: one for flute, viola and harp (1915), one for cello (1915) and one for violin (1917). Debussy appeared to be on the verge of another creative breakthrough with a form of neo-Classicism that would help nourish the next generation of French composers when he died peacefully in his sleep during the evening of 25 March 1918.

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