Debussy for beginners: the best Debussy recordings to introduce to classical music newcomers
Pianist George Lepauw guides us through the Debussy works he thinks any non-classical music fan would enjoy
Claude Debussy was not only a genius composer, but also had a truly independent spirit, something he was remarked for from his earliest days at the Paris Conservatoire. Even in class, he would break the rules and be reprimanded by his teachers, although some of them admired his novel musical ideas.
A great improviser and sight-reader, Debussy spent years absorbing all types of music, accompanying singers, playing chamber music and performing piano reductions of operas for friends and patrons. At first, he composed music for the salon world, but he soon struck out on his own and fashioned his own unique musical language.
Although he inspired other composers, Debussy never built a school around his ideas. He was an orchestrator of genius. Even when composing for the piano, his expanded the palette of pianistic sounds, as can notably be heard in his remarkable two sets of twelve Préludes, which I recorded and released on Orchid Classics. Debussy moves from beautiful, more traditional melodic song-like works (like The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) to near-abstract modernist works (like Fireworks).
To enter the world of Debussy requires focused listening. You may find yourself preferring his earlier, more descriptive works like the world-famous Clair de lune, or you may find yourself absorbed by his more mystical inspirations. Instead of giving you a chronological list, I chose to mix things up!
- BBC Music Magazine named Debussy one of the top five greatest composers ever
Préludes: Feux d’artifice (1913)
George Lepauw (piano)
Debussy’s final prelude is named Fireworks, a worthy title for this virtuosic and drama-filled piece that seems to predict the cataclysm of the coming Great War. It is also interesting to note that this was composed the year of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which Debussy attended)!
Stream or buy George Lepauw's recording here.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is the first great Debussy orchestral masterpiece, bringing the composer out from the salon and into the grand concert hall. It's just as enthralling to listen to today. Leonard Bernstein, born the year of Debussy’s death in 1918, was a sensitive conductor with an ear to the subtleties of and strength in Debussy’s music. The joy Bernstein felt conducting this music is contagious and a pleasure to watch and listen to.
Violin Sonata (1917)
Tai Murray (violin) and Angel Sanzo (piano)
This was to be Debussy’s last important composition, and its premiere with the composer at the piano was the last time he performed publicly before his death a few months later. Indeed, this is really Debussy’s swan song, and is no less creative or powerful than anything he had written before.
It's concise yet complete, and what I like about this performance is the warmth and honesty of its interpretation. There are no extra fireworks or effort to impress, just a clear focus on the depth of the musical material.
Chansons de Bilitis: II. La chevelure (1897)
Véronique Gens (soprano) and Roger Vignoles (piano)
Debussy loved the voice and spent years accompanying singers at the piano. This song was inspired by one of the erotic poems written by his friend Pierre Louÿs.
La Mer (1905)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Münch
In this version by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by the legendary Charles Münch, we have a great mid-century version that easily stands the test of time. While it's hard to avoid noticing the predominantly white male orchestra, the music is rich and the historical value of this version – both well recorded and filmed – was interpreted by a master of the French repertoire close to Debussy’s time period.
Suite Bergamasque: Clair de lune (1890-1905)
Pascal Rogé (piano)
Like Beethoven’s Für Elise, this is one of those pieces that makes a composer famous even to non-classical music listeners. It's a truly magical piece, which most do not realise is the third movement of a four-movement suite inspired by Verlaine’s famous poem, Clair de Lune...
Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Pelléas et Mélisande is a revolution in opera, and unless you have two and a half hours to dedicate to a deep dive, it’s hard to capture its beauty on the fly. In this short animation produced by the Aix-en-Provence festival, you at least get a sense of the drama and the music that unfolds.
If yo'd like to go for that deep dive afterward, I would suggest the following version conducted by Pierre Boulez, who was a great conductor of Debussy’s music. Even if you don't have time for more than a few minutes, do listen to the opening bars of this extraordinary work. Right from the beginning, it's unique in its harmonic and melodic structure.
Debussy, at first obsessed with Wagner to the point of twice attending the Bayreuth festival in his youth, later turned against the style of the German composer. In Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy shows another path for opera, more naturalistic, and perhaps opening the path for film scoring, in part due to Debussy’s close attention to our ability to hear the diction of the voice
“Mes longs cheveux” from Act III Scene 1 from Pelléas et Mélisande
Mary Garden (soprano) and Claude Debussy (piano)
This is gorgeous version of a segment from this opera, with Debussy himself accompanying Mary Garden at the piano. Garden was Debussy’s chosen Mélisande for the world premiere of his opera, and we can immediately notice the absolute warmth in her voice which Debussy adored.
Estampes: Soirée dans Grenade (1903)
Claude Debussy (piano)
It's quite extraordinary to hear the composer’s own interpretation, and the ability to hear his tempo, voicing and overall feeling for the work. Estampes was inspired by Debussy’s love of Japanese prints, even though this particular work is musically inspired by Spain…
Nocturnes: Sirènes (1899)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Lush and beautiful, this version is clearly close to the composer’s vision of warmth and languorous sounds. Monteux, born the same year as Ravel, was a very active musician and conductor in Paris at the turn of the century. He conducted the premiere of Debussy’s Jeux and led the viola section in the world premiere of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.
String Quartet: 1st movement (1893)
In this recent performance by the Quatuor Zaïde, the energy and warmth and love for this music is evident. This is a very strong and personal interpretation of one of Debussy’s few chamber works.
Images: Reflets dans l’eau (1905)
Walter Gieseking (piano)
Walter Gieseking was famous for his interpretations of Debussy. There is so much magic in this luminous interpretation of this piece. Perhaps Debussy’s most impressionistic work, these 'Reflections in Water' are a staple of the piano repertoire. This kind of playing is just not heard anymore.
Cello Sonata: II. Serenade (1915)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) and Benjamin Britten (piano)
This performance of Mstislav Rostropovich and composer pianist Benjamin Britten is so free and vocal! This sonata was one of Debussy’s last major works, and is an important piece for all cellists.
Étude pour les notes répétées (1915)
Kit Armstrong (piano)
In this video by the young Kit Armstrong – who introduces and explains Debussy’s concept before showing his performance of this late work of Debussy – you get a sense of the road travelled by Debussy who went from salon composer to near atonalist. A superb piece brilliantly performed.
Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien (1911)
La Scala (with choreography by Maurice Béjart)
Debussy composed this incidental music for this theatrical dance piece, which was mired in scandal. Commissioned by the Ida Rubinstein on a text by Garbiele d’Annunzio, the work is not frequently performed, but I think its music is quite beautiful and worthy of our attention.
Ariettes oubliées: Extase langoureuse (1887)
Suzanne Danco and Guido Agosti
Another example of one of Debussy's early salon works, this is recorded beautifully here in 1951, complete with French diction as it would probably have been heard by Debussy himself.
Jean-Pierre Rampal (flute)
A rare, short solo flute work, filled with mystery and dreams, which remains a staple of the flute repertoire today.
Préludes, Book I: La Fille aux cheveux de lin (1909)
George Lepauw (piano)
This is my recently released version of this sweet work, 'The Girl with the Flaxen Hair'. Inspired by a poem by Leconte de Lisle, Debussy had written a song on this poem in his youth. Here, in his mature years, he returns to the idea of sweet innocence for this piano solo interpretation of the same idea.
Stream or buy George Lepauw's recording here.
You can read our reviews of the latest Debussy recordings here.