Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
When I was a boy, playing the piano Arabesques and La cathédrale engloutie were life-changing experiences – they transported me to different worlds from the arid Napa Valley I lived in. The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was another milestone, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s last recording of pieces from Images is revelatory.
But the most inspiring piece for me is En blanc et noir for two pianos. It’s such an overwhelming visionary piece, almost cinema-like in showing where Debussy’s mind was in the last period of his work. And it’s wonderful that Robin Holloway has done a fabulous orchestration of it, as Colin Matthews has with the Préludes.
Natalie Dessay, soprano
I think it must be the chemistry between the words and the music which makes Pélleas et Mélisande such a wonderful opera – and unique; its music seems to come from another planet. I think this is the only opera I have chosen to do because of the music and not the character.
Mélisande is an absolute mystery, I still don’t understand her – and that’s how it should be. One almost has to intone her words rather than sing them, and because of this I believe you must truly know French to give the music what it deserves. It’s such beautiful language, but very complicated and difficult to sing. Pélleas makes you realise that French is not flat, but phrased in little waves. The music of Debussy is really like a language that resides in my body and my mind – it’s part of me.
Steven Osborne, pianist
For me, La cathédrale engloutie has a lot of sentimental associations. I learnt it when I was a kid and loved playing it – technically it’s pretty simple, and yet there are these amazing sonorities he gets from the piano. But then, as I got older, I realised more and more what an astounding piece of music it is. You have this opening rising figure that comes back constantly, but the piece develops in slow motion into this overwhelming climax when the figure becomes the melody.
He does it all with such amazing economy of means. Part of the skill in playing it lies in how you layer the sound – it has to have an incredible sense of space and you have to control the sound well enough from the first chord to ensure that space isn’t disturbed.
Colin Matthews, composer
My immediate reaction was to go for Jeux, which I couldn’t live without; but the piece which perhaps exemplifies what I most love about Debussy is Rondes de Printemps, from the orchestral Images. It’s such a wonderfully elusive piece – as soon as you’ve grasped one element of it, off it goes somewhere else.
Yet it retains such a strong sense of direction through the constant beauty and subtlety of Debussy’s inimitable soundworld. The melodic ideas start by being fragmentary but build towards a brilliant climax – and it’s all achieved with an orchestra that has no trumpets or trombones.
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
I was a serious piano student before I studied singing, and Clair de lune is still a very big part of my life. The thing I love about Debussy, and why I will go into my house in the hills of Santa Fe with nobody around, open the doors, lift up the lid of my grand piano and play this piece, is because it feels like it’s just for me.
I started learning about it from a young age: the painting and the music from that period are closely intertwined – it all made sense to me. When I started tackling the piece, it was so fulfilling to play. Debussy was such a rule-breaker, and invented a language that is so full of freedom and relentlessness. I love Clair de lune’s changes in mood; it has a beginning, a middle and an end – to me it tells a story.
Noriko Ogawa, pianist
While I really love all the Etudes, particularly the one for sixths, I still have such vivid childhood memories of seeing André Watts on television playing Reflets dans l’eau from Images Book I. I just thought it was the most beautiful piece of music. I thought that I would like to play this piece myself, and so in a way it changed my life.
The challenges for a player lie in the very fast demi-semi-quavers which have to sound very fluid in order to achieve the needed flexibility of sound and tone colours. And there are also tiny little differences from one figuration to another – they sound and look very similar, but there may be only one note different. To do what Debussy wanted, you have to look very closely at every note.
Emmanuel Pahud, flautist
So much of Debussy’s music is magnificent for the flute – straight off I can think of Syrinx for solo flute, or that chromatic line in the introduction of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, or La mer, or Pelléas et Mélisande. But if I had to pick one, I’d go for the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.
There is so much happening between the notes in this work – the notes are moving forward like waves and the idea of taste and smell that emerges from it is unbelievable. Experiencing this power with the other musicians as you perform it is something quite intimate, almost like making love – having an audience there is almost voyeurism. Sensuous and voluptuous, it’s music that really gets under your skin.
Jun Märkl, conductor
Debussy created a completely new set of colours for the orchestra – very different from what had come before. The refinement of colours, the blend of different instruments, the transparent sound – these are things which are very remarkable and typical in Debussy’s music. He redefined French music in the 20th century.
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is all about creating a feeling, an atmosphere. We do not get the facts of Saint Sebastian’s story from the text – rather like in Pelléas et Mélisande – but instead we get indications and then the spirit of the saint in the music. So we have a lot of freedom to be creative.
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, pianist
Neither of the pieces by Debussy that inspire me most are for piano. The first is Pelléas et Mélisande because it was the no-return point for me. About 15 years ago I was touring in Asia, I listened to the marvellous recording by Herbert von Karajan in my hotel room and I began to cry. For several years I could not hear a note by Debussy without being moved to tears.
Shortly after I wrote a piano version of Jeux – probably the ultimate in his orchestral and harmonic writing – which was another turning point for me, a chance to be immersed in the piece’s architecture, to plunge into the score.
This feature was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine