Debussy: the French master of mood and atmosphere
Who was Debussy?
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French composer active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Debussy's style, which tended to prioritise instrumental colour and mood creation over structural rigour, has often resulted in him being labelled the first Impressionist composer. However, Debussy himself wasn't happy with the label.
Impressionist or no, Debussy joins the likes of Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók as one of the era's most innovative and influential composers.
When was Debussy born?
Debussy was born on 22 August 1862, in the small town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the outskirts of Paris.
The composer was the eldest of five children born to Manuel-Achille Debussy, who ran a china shop, and Victorine, a seamstress. When the shop closed in 1864 the Debussy family decamped to Paris, where Manuel found work in a printing factory.
Where did Debussy grow up?
The family remained in Paris throughout the young Debussy's childhood, except for a year spent in the town of Cannes, on the French Riviera, when Claude was seven.
Who was Debussy's teacher?
The young Claude Debussy was taught piano by one Madame Maute, who herself had studied with Chopin. She recommended Debussy to the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent 11 years learning under teachers including César Franck and Ernest Guiraud. Guiraud is best known best known for writing the traditional orchestral recitatives that feature in Bizet's opera Carmen and for Offenbach's opera Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann).
Is Debussy Classical or Romantic?
Debussy can be labelled a late Romantic composer with strong links to Impressionism, Modernism and some of the other musical movements that took hold at the beginning of the 20th century. This period saw classical music take an increased interest in texture, with Classicism's more rigid forms being largely cast off (apart from the Neoclassical composers) in favour of drama, colour, storytelling, even abstraction at times. Many of Debussy's works are wonderful instances of musical scene-painting - La Mer, which we'll discuss in a moment, is an obvious example.
What are Debussy's most famous pieces?
On the orchestral side, La Mer (1905) is Debussy's most popular and widely performed concert work. A triptych of orchestral 'symphonic sketches', La Mer is a perfect encapsulation of Debussy's gift for scene-painting. The effects of light shimmering on the water, for example, are stunningly rendered in sound. Listening to La Mer is a uniquely, well, immersive experience.
Then, for a complete contrast in terms of instrumentation, you've got Clair de Lune, one of Debussy's best loved piano miniatures.
And we mustn't forget the epoch-making Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ('Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun'), an Impressionist masterpiece with its evocation of nature and the languor of a drowsy afternoon in the forest. The French conductor Pierre Boulez thought this was more or less the start of modern music, observing that "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.
How does Nadezhda von Meck link Debussy and Tchaikovsky?
The Russian businesswoman Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894) lent her support to many musicians of the time. She's best known for her long-standing connection to her compatriot Tchaikovsky: she gave the composer financial support for 13 years, allowing him to concentrate on his work. Tchaikovsky dedicated his Symphony No. 4 in F minor to her (but never met his generous benefactor).
Debussy also benefited from von Meck's generosity. Early in 1880 he landed a job as pianist in her household. He travelled with von Meck for the next three summers, holidaying around France, Switzerland and Italy, and at her home in Moscow. He composed his Piano Trio in G major for von Meck's ensemble.
Did Debussy marry?
Yes, Debussy married twice. In October 1899 he married Marie-Rosalie Texier, known as 'Lilly'. He had threatened to kill himself if she did not marry him. Lilly was in many ways a good match, and was popular with Debussy's friends, but the composer grew tired of her lack of musical understanding and the marriage ended just a little over five years later.
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Then, in 1904, Debussy met Emma Nardac, the mother of one of his pupils.Emma was more sophisticated than Lilly, and a fairly accomplished singer. She was also married, but untroubled about fidelity: indeed, she had been Gabriel Fauré's mistress a few years previously.
Who are the best Debussy interpreters?
Many pianists have recorded and performed Debussy's fascinating, beautiful and atmospheric piano repertoire. The very best Debussy interpreters are those pianists who have been alive to the music's unique atmosphere - pianists with a strong feeliong for poetry in music, such as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Steven Osborne and Claudio Arrau. Similarly, we shouldn't be surprised that French pianists such as Anne Queffélec, Phillipe Entremont, Pascal Rogé and Pierre-Laurent Aimard make great Debussy performers as they perhaps have that extra sliver of Gallic Impressionism.
On the orchestral side, a number of conductors have made wonderful recordings of La Mer and Debussy's other pieces for larger forces. Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Bernard Haitink with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra produced two of the finest versions.
How did Debussy become the modern face of French opera?
Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 as a 10-year-old and left it in 1884, when he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant prodigue. He was therefore among the most thoroughly trained Western European composers of all time, and any revolutionary attitudes he espoused (and there were many) sprang from a full knowledge of what he was rejecting, or at least attempting to reject. He seems to have had little sympathy with the grand operas of Meyerbeer and Halévy and none whatever with those of the Italian verismo school. But Wagner was a more complicated matter.
Debussy went to Bayreuth in 1888 to see Parsifal and Die Meistersinger, and again the following year to see Tristan und Isolde. Not much of Die Meistersinger found its way into his own music, but the other two operas had a lasting influence, for all that Debussy railed against Wagner’s pernicious effect on French music and included a spoof on the opening bars of Tristan in the central section of the ‘Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk’.
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During his stay in Rome from 1885 to 1887 Debussy was required to complete a number of envois – compositions to reassure the authorities back in Paris that he was making profitable use of his sojourn in the Eternal City. One of these was a setting, never completed, of a text based on Théodore de Banville’s play Diane au bois, on the legend of Diana, ‘queen and huntress, chaste and fair’.
He complained that in writing this work he had ‘no precedent to go on, and I find myself compelled to invent new forms. I could always turn to Wagner, but I don’t need to tell you how ridiculous it would be even to try. The only thing of his I would want to copy is the running of one scene into another.’ Here we find a plain statement of Debussy’s penchant for blurring boundaries.
Diane au bois anticipates Pelléas's attempts to encapsulate a whole character – the ‘beautiful but cold’ look of Diane – in what he calls ‘an idea’ – a single phrase or motif. The other most direct clue as to what Pelléas would turn out to be comes from records of conversations Debussy had with his teacher Ernest Guiraud in 1889. His ideal librettist would be someone ‘who only implies things and who would allow me to graft my dream on to his, who would invent characters belonging to no particular time or place’.
Going against the current of the times, he declared that ‘in opera there is too much singing: every musical development not called for by the words is an error’. His emphasis on the ‘dream’, on lightness, brevity, subtlety, mobility, variety and ambiguity, will surprise no pianist who has played either the early Arabesques or, more ambitiously, the late Études.
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These qualities also inform the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune of 1894, together with the String Quartet of the preceding year. In the spring of 1893 he also went to see Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris and seems to have realised instantly that this was the story he had been looking for.
Yet the progress of his opera over the next nine years was dogged by self-doubt, apathy in official quarters, and the attentions of at least two well-meaning friends (one of them the violinist Ysaÿe) who thought Debussy should make a suite of excerpts from his opera, to be offered as a ‘taster’ of the real thing.
Essentially, the first version of the vocal score was complete by August 1895. From here on, the work lived a kind of secret life and existed only in private performances by Debussy, playing the orchestral part on the piano, and singing all the vocal parts in a dreadful baritone.
Pelléas seems to have owed its emergence into the limelight to the disastrous fire at the Opéra-Comique that had killed 80 people in 1887. When the current building in the Place Boïeldieu was inaugurated in 1898, the new chief conductor, André Messager, turned to Pelléas to get the new house off to a good start. After a highly excitable reception for the dress rehearsal and the first night, the rest of the 14 performances of the first run in 1902 were greeted with increasing respect and interest.
From 1902 to 1914, Pelléas was performed at the Opéra-Comique in every season but two. Indeed, from the time of the 1940 Opéra-Comique production, conducted by Desormière, and the subsequent recording, it would become a cornerstone of the operatic repertory.
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• Podcast: First Listen – France-Espagne
What, then, of the work’s impact on Debussy’s later output and on 20th-century opera in general? His unparalleled skill in capturing effects of light and water in his orchestration of Pelléas probably fed through into piano works such as ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ from Estampes, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ and ‘Poissons d’or’ from Images, and ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ and ‘Feux d’artifice’ from the Préludes, and more obviously into other orchestral works such as the Nocturnes and La mer.
The sense of flow in Pelléas also persists in Debussy’s music right through to the ballet Jeux of 1913 and the late sonatas of 1915-17. In setting the text of Pelléas, too, Debussy paid special attention to the weighting and colouring of chords, that Stravinsky, among others, would learn so much from.
As for its overall influence on 20th-century opera, crucially Pelléas demands that we hear and understand every word of its text. Whereas conventional 19th-century opera librettos had taken account of the probability that not every single word would be heard, in Pelléas there is no libretto as such – the text is simply that of Maeterlinck’s play with cuts and a very few changes, set largely as a musical conversation. It is the earliest operatic masterpiece in which there are no big, lyrical tunes, even if there are a few big moments. In short, no one goes to Pelléas just for a night out. It is an opera that demands close attention, engaging our intelligence like almost no other.
Were Debussy and Ravel friends?
It may come as no surprise, given their shared musical sensibilities, to learn that Debussy and Ravel were mutually supportive. For example, the musical brotherhood Les Apaches (The Apaches), led by Ravel, were very supportive of Pelléas et Mélisande while the more conservative Conservatoire tried to stop its students from seeing the bold new opera. Ravel attended all 14 performances during the opera's first run.
However, the two composers were not close friends. In fact, things became more difficult between them when Ravel contributed to a fund to help Lilly, Debussy's first wife.
Were Debussy and Saint-Saëns friends?
Decidedly not. The two composers were fiercely opposed in their musical styles: Saint-Saëns was generally a more conservative composer, whose melodic and essentially classical music looks back to the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn. In a letter to Fauré, Saint-Saëns laid into Debussy's two-piano suite En blanc et noir: "It's incredible, and the door of the Institut [de France] must at all costs be barred against a man capable of such atrocities".
A far more establishment figure, Saint-Saëns was already a long-serving Institut member: Debussy was never admitted.
Did Debussy have health problems?
In 1915, at the age of 52, Debussy underwent one of the very first colostomy operations. This helped somewhat, but he was still in discomfort, noting that 'there are mornings when the effort of dressing seems like one of the twelve labours of Hercules').
The composer's health deteriorated over the next two to three years. His final concert, a premiere of his Violin Sonata, took place on 14 September 1917. Early the following year, Debussy took to his bed.
When did Debussy die?
Debussy died on 25 March 1918 at his home in Paris. In this final year of World War I, Paris was under constant German bombardment, meaning that large public funerals were not permitted. Instead, Debussy's funeral procession snaked through Paris's deserted streets to a temporary grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Where is Debussy buried?
In 1919, with the war over, Debussy's body was moved to the small cemetery at Passy, in Paris's western suburbs. This was a realisation of his wish to rest 'among the trees and the birds'. The composer's wife and daughter are buried with him.
- We named Debussy one of our 25 greatest French composers of all time.
Roger Nichols and Steve Wright
Listen to our Best of Debussy playlist: