Richard Nisley


A break with orthodoxy: the music of Claude Debussy
Music - Classical Released - Aug 25, 2018
Impressionist music begins with Claude Debussy (1862-1918). He shunned composing symphonies, and asked, "Is it not our duty to find the symphonic formula which fits our time, one which progress, daring and modern victory demand? The century of airplanes has a right to its own music." Debussy (pronounced Deb-U-C) summed up his own musical approach this way:

"I am more and more convinced that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a tradition and fixed form. It is made up of color and rhythms. The rest is a lot of humbug, invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters–who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music. Bach alone had an idea of the truth."

Born to a family of modest means and little cultural involvement, Debussy showed enough musical talent to be admitted at the age of ten to France's leading music college, the Conservatoire de Paris. He originally studied the piano, but found his vocation in innovative composition, despite the disapproval of the Conservatoire's conservative professors. He took many years to develop his mature style, and was nearly 40 before achieving international fame in 1902 with the only opera he completed, "Pelléas et Mélisande."

Compared with other great composers, Debussy did not write a lot music. He began producing masterpieces after he had socialized in the cafes of Paris with the Impressionist painters and the Symbolist poets toward the end of the nineteenth century. The works that launched Impressionism began in 1893 with his Quartet in G minor; the next year brought his single most famous composition, a dreamy orchestral prelude he called, "The Afternoon of a Fawn." Among compositions he completed over the next several years was a suite called "Three Nocturnes for Orchestra." He gave each of the nocturnes names: "Nauges" (Clouds), "Fetes" (Festivals) and "Sirenes" (Sirens). Among his more famous orchestral compositions is the three-part "La Mer" (The Sea).

"Images for Orchestra" is the third of Debussy's three tripartite sets of musical evocation, which includes "Iberia" a Spanish landscape piece containing, as one critic has it "a dazzling display of light and color as image follows musical image."

The music which the critics say that Debussy's contribution to twentieth century piano music compares with Chopin's contribution to nineteenth century piano music, is the preludes. Just before World War I he wrote two sets of preludes, twelve in each set, which came to be regarded as landmarks of piano composition. One critic said of them: "No one since Chopin so changed the character and technique of piano writing as did Debussy. . . . The new colors, nuances, effects, and atmosphere created by Debussy–largely through his harmonic writing and a new approach to resonance–brought an expressiveness of the keyboard it did not know even with Chopin and Liszt."

Among his better-known piano pieces are: "Claire de lune" and "Reverie" which transcribed for orchestra hold up remarkably well.

On the list of great composers, Debussy checks in at 22.

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