“Music is the silence between the notes.” – Claude Debussy
Debussy is one of my musical heroes, and I’ve been looking forward to writing about him ever since I started this blog. His music made a huge impact on me when I first started listening more intently to classical music, and it was a desire to play his Clair de lune that finally provided me with the push to reacquaint myself with the piano after far too many years of neglect. It’s a ravishing piece of music, and one of astonishing technical perfection; you couldn’t disturb a single note of Debussy’s score without losing something. It’s an attribute I would say is typical of his work; he builds his music in layers, with thousands of subtle brushstrokes, yet never daubs the paint on too thick. And that’s really saying something, given the abstract nature of Debussy’s music. Many of his compositions bear descriptive titles (Clair de lune being the first to be given such a title – a habit which he picked up from Satie) which are depicted as musical tableaus, often in shimmering textures and exotic scales. As a consequence, Debussy is often referred to as an Impressionist, though he personally disapproved of the label.
Clair de lune (“Moonlight”) from Suite bergamasque, played by Khatia Buniatishvili
And here is the well-known scene from Ocean’s Eleven from which so many people recognize it (it features in dozens of other films, including Twilight and Casino Royale):
Debussy is considered a founding father of modern music, and was one of the most influential composers of his time. He was known to be argumentative and experimental by nature, refusing to limit his music to the rigid teachings of his eleven years of study at the Paris Conservatory. A fiercely independent thinker, he preferred to improvise at the piano than recite works fed to him by his teachers, and his rebellious tendencies often got him into trouble. His natural genius made him a top student nonetheless – he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, and with it a four year residence at the Villa Medici to further his studies. Debussy hated it however, and was not a fan of popular Italian music of the time (like Verdi), once complaining that “in opera, there is always too much singing.” When Debussy later wrote his celebrated opera Pelléas et Mélisande, it bore no resemblance to the works of the Italian masters. He preferred to do things his own way, confiding to a friend “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!”
Valse Romantique, one of Debussy’s earlier works, played by Claudio Arrau
Debussy was anything but closed-minded when it came to exploring music however, and would readily assimilate sounds that intrigued him into his own compositional style. In particular, he was profoundly influenced by a number of visits to Wagner’s opera house at Bayreuth. Debussy soon developed a thirst for harmonic innovation, making extensive use of dissonance and chromaticism (think Wagner’s Tristan). Wagner’s influence can be clearly heard in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”), one of the seminal works of the 20th century, based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The opening of its sinuous flute melody, whose sensuous tone and chromatic progression clearly bear Wagner’s fingerprints, is one of the most iconic moments in modern music; French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez once remarked “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.”
Another formative influence for Debussy was Javanese gamelan music (largely percussive traditional ensemble music from Java and Bali), which he first heard in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. This sparked a lifelong fascination with the Orient, prompting Debussy to experiment with new sound worlds, weaving exotic melodies and timbres into his works, and often writing in pentatonic (five notes per octave) and whole-tone scales (a scale in which all notes are evenly spaced, so that none stand out, creating a blurred effect).
Pagodes (“Pagodas”) from Estampes (“Prints”) which makes extensive use of pentatonic scales.
Voiles (“Sails”), a piece written almost entirely in a whole-tone scale, played by Krystian Zimerman.
String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, 1st movement, played by the Danish String Quartet. Bizarrely, this was the one and only piece for which Debussy ever supplied an opus number.
From Chopin, Debussy adopted his tendency to include free-flowing tempi in his music, inviting the performer to take poetic license in their interpretation. The tempo marking for Voiles, for example, reads “Dans un rhythme sans rigueur et caressant” (“in a tender rhythm without rigidity”). Debussy himself was a skilled pianist and a frequent improviser, and like Chopin developed his own idiosyncratic compositional style for the piano. Perhaps as an homage to his great predecessor, he wrote a number of pieces in some of Chopin’s favoured genres, such as his Mazurka, Ballade and Nocturnes.
Ballade, played by Giuseppe Albanese
Debussy’s personal life was not quite as pristine as his music. He was something of a womanizer, to put it mildly, and had a tendency to move from one to the next with little regard for the carnage that lay in his wake. This callousness led not one, but two of his former lovers to attempt suicide. His actions lost him many friends, both male and female, over the course of his life. Women, nonetheless, were drawn to Debussy; as one biographer put it “they attached themselves to him like ivy to a wall.” The soprano from Pelléas and Mélisande remarked “He was – it’s all in his music – a very sensual man.” Fittingly, Debussy ended up settling down with a woman that was no stranger to infidelity herself, a singer named Emma Bardac who had previously had an affair with Fauré. Perhaps Debussy’s greatest love however was for his daughter Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chouchou, for whom he composed a piano suite called Children’s Corner.
Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner played by Paul Burton
As a person, Debussy was something of an enigma; secretive, reserved, and with a decidedly ambivalent nature. He objected to being labelled an impressionist, for example, but also remarked to a critic “You do me a great honour by calling me a pupil of Claude Monet.” An essay entitled “Bewitching in Music, Bastard in Love” does a great job listing the many conflicting elements of his personality:
“Various pen portraits of the composer show that he was tender-hearted, infinitely sensitive, yet also brutal; he was shy and also outspoken; confident, even impetuous, yet devoured by doubts; independent but envious. Even his appearance belied his nature: he was noble, perhaps exotic, as it was thought, yet also a bohemian; he was wealthy and extravagant, as it seemed, but in reality almost a pauper. If there is a single key to the many conflicting aspects of Debussy’s nature it is his ambivalence, the sudden and unaccountable veering from one extreme to another to which an artist of sensibility is perhaps inevitably condemned.”
To end this post, I’ve included below some more of my favourite Debussy pieces, along with a few examples of the many ways in which he has influenced modern music. If you weren’t already a fan of Debussy, I hope reading this has converted you!
An excellent explanation of the unlikely connection between Debussy and Pharrell’s “Happy” by Dr Richard Worth from the University of Edinburgh:
Arabesque No. 1, played by Jean Efflam Bavouzet
And here it is again in Alicia Keys’ “Like the Sea”
Rêverie, played by François-Joël Thiollier
Now listen for Debussy’s melody in Ella Fitzgerald’s “My Reverie”. Debussy was a major influence in jazz, inspiring artists such as Duke Ellington and George Gershwin among others.