Debussy’s Passing 99 Years Ago

CLAUDE DEBUSSY’S PASSING 99 YEARS AGO went virtually unnoticed due to dire personal circumstances and public indifference. I’ll, therefore, do my best to recount notable events in his career in a way that he – one of my favorite composers – will, I hope, be fondly remembered for another 99 years by music lovers everywhere.

August 22, 1862- March 25, 1918

It’s well nigh unseemly that Debussy was given a drab funeral after having undergone a dreadful last decade of his life suffering from cancer and two painful and debilitating operations. Let’s reflect, then, on his earlier days, when as the first great painter in music, Debussy became  not only an innovator whose influence was to be felt by an entire generation, but also a creator of preeminent significance.

In celebrating Debussy’s birthday anniversary back in 2015, my August 22 post summarized mainly his piano music, which has an introspective vision and is completely original. Here’s what I wrote in part at the time:

Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France on August 22, 1862, he attended the Paris Conservatory from 1874 to 1884. In the summers of 1881 and 1882 he was the household pianist for Mme. von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patroness. In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome, but his stay in Italy was not to his liking: the criticisms that his musical compositions were subjected to by the Conservatory authorities caused him to cut short his time there and he returned to his beloved Paris without completing the mandatory three years in Rome.

In the French capital Debussy was inspired by the provocative blossoming of new poetry and new horizons of expression in music and the arts: Eric Satie, on the one hand; Manet and Renoir, on the other. By adopting such devices as the whole-tone scale, unresolved discords, and new ideas of tone and color, Debussy had arrived at musical Impressionism – in short, he’d become a painter of music! His influence as a true innovator affected the musical output of an entire generation.

For piano, there are so many wonderful pieces one could point out that are worthy of performance by children and adults alike, but from a personal standpoint I would single out Deux Arabesques (1888) – available on YouTube here – and Children’s Corner (1908). The latter is a suite of children pieces written for the composer’s daughter, Chou-Chou. Debussy provided English titles for the work’s individual movements to enable an English governess to play games with a French child. Perhaps, the last movement, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is the most famous and is derived from a dance popular in America in the 1890’s. It’s played by the composer himself (1913) via a piano roll transcription – warts and all! (By the way, you’ll hear a ‘quote’ in it taken from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – no kidding!)

In my CD collection, I have performances of Debussy’s piano pieces galore by such luminaries as Moura Lympany, whom I got to know over a 2-week period in 1956 in Europe; Martha Argerich, whom I squired in the US for a week during her concerts in New York in 1976; Philippe Entremont; and Sviatoslav Richter. An interesting departure for me personally was when Richard Stolzman, the brilliant clarinetist, performed – as an encore in Florida after a concert with my orchestra there – La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair).

That simple, tender evocative prelude by Debussy transcribed for clarinet brought the house down!

Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen, Wikipedia

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