Claude Debussy – Painter of Music

debussy profileBefore we depart the month of August, let’s not forget to honor the birthday of that incomparable French composer, Claude Debussy. 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.
                                                                                                                                 August 22, 1862- March 25, 1918

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.

Among his new-style works was the orchestral prelude The Afternoon of a Faun (L’Aprés-midi d’un faune) composed in 1894. Inspired by a poem by Mallarme, this was Debussy’s first masterwork for orchestra. The opening solo flute theme evokes the dream of nymphs by a half-asleep faun: The Afternoon of a Faun

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) 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. (By the way, you’ll hear a ‘quote’ in it taken from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – no kidding!)

debussyI cannot end this brief memory of a great French composer without paying tribute to his masterful 24 preludes, without doubt the quintessence of his Impessionism and his painterly genius. Collected in two books of 12 preludes each over the period 1910-1913, each piece was given a title by Debussy, but placed at the end of the composition as he didn’t want to influence the listener by any preconceived notion as to its content.

My personal favorites from the time I was a ‘preteen’ are The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (La Fille aux cheveux de lin) and The Engulfed Cathedral (La Cathédrale engloutie) found in Book I. The former is a tender evocative melody, one of Debussy’s most popular; the latter was inspired by a Breton legend about the cathedral of Ys which is said to rise out of and return to the sea to the sounds of tolling bells and chanting priests:

The Girl with the Flaxen Hair
The Engulfed Cathedral

In the last decade of his life, Debussy suffered from debilitating cancer and money problems. His passing on March 25, 1918 went virtually unnoticed.

[References: Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen (1959) and Wikipedia]

Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas





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