A Profile of Claude Debussy
Achille-Claude Debussy is a French composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, known for having been a link for both Romantic and 20th Century periods. He was born on August 22nd, 1862 in St. Germaine-en-Laye (Lesure). He grew up mostly in France and spent some time in Italy for education, though he drew much inspiration from his native Paris (Kamien, 294, 2011). His family lived as peasants for a good deal of their life before Debussy’s father came home from serving seven years in the marine infantry, settled in St. Germaine-en-Laye with his wife and acquired and ran a china shop (Lesure). He won the Prix de Rome in 1884 with his cantata L'Enfant Prodigue, which paid for three years of study in Rome, living there for only two of those years, leaving due to lack of inspiration away from his home in Paris (Orledge). Other than a job as a pianist for Tchaikovsky's patroness and piano teacher, he wasn't otherwise employed; he, for lack of a better phrase, went straight to work on composition after he left Italy (Kamien, 294). Eventually, he married Rosalie Texier, but only to leave her in 1904 for another woman, Emma Bardac, with whom he would have his daughter, Claude-Emma Debussy, a year later (Orledge). He had a friendship with Igor Stravinsky, the famous ballet writer, and at one point during a visit to Louis Laloy, his biographer, he played with Stravinsky a version of The Rite of Spring for four-hand piano (Lesure). The last years of his life were painful at best, dealing with depression surrounding the first World War and a bout with rectal cancer, both of which sending him into a dampened creative state. He died on March 25th, 1918 in his beloved Paris (Lesure).
Debussy grew up in France and was educated there, for the most part. He was uneducated until the age of ten, when he began studying at the Paris Conservatory, where he was highly regarded by his musical teachers and was thought of as “a talented rebel” for not following conventional musical rules. (Kamien, 294). Debussy started his music lessons in 1872, goals set on being a virtuoso, with an instructor named Mme Mauté, who claimed to be that of Chopin (Lesure). He was taught to play the piano, but after failing to win any premier prix, he began to study composition with Ernest Guiraud in 1880 instead, which led to his winning of the Prix de Rome (Orledge). Debussy's first major work was Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un Faune ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"), first performed in 1894, a seductive, flute-heavy piece, but it was not until his completion and production of his first and only finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande ("Pelléas and Mélisande") in 1901, that he became regarded as one of the most important French composers of the time (Orledge). He then went on to compose several classics, such as the Children's Corner suite (1906–8), and Jeux (1913), his only ballet (Lesure). As a composer, Debussy himself did not enjoy performing his own works. In fact, according to Kamien, "He was not gifted as a conductor and hated appearing in public, but to maintain his high standard of living he undertook concert tours and presented his music throughout Europe" (Kamien, 294-5).
Debussy belongs to the Romantic period of music, though most of his works were written in the twentieth century. That said he was a link between these two periods, incorporating both the beautiful Romantic styles while also pushing the boundaries of music, moving beyond many rules of the trade. His music usually has an overall light tone color and soft dynamics (with the possible exception of the Children's Corner suite), but takes advantage of the opposite extreme by making his high-tension points as epic as possible. His music tends to fall under two categories: the first is more beautiful and romantic, having a very soft, cradling melody that is easily recognizable (Petite Suite minus the Ballet section); the second is heavier, leaning towards the twentieth century, with fewer recognizable melodies and is, in general, more bombastic (La Mer). His major compositions include: Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un Faune (1894), a single piece and one of his more romantic orchestral works, written in inspiration of a symbolist Mallarmé poem called L’après-Midi D’un Faune but also meant to be part of a larger work; Pelléas et Mélisande (1901), an opera in five acts and his only composition of the kind, the work he spent the most time and effort writing; his Nocturnes (1897-9), three pieces entitled Nauges, Fetes, and Sirenes, none of which having any relation to Chopin's Nocturnes; La Mer (1905), a suite in three parts: De L'aube a Midi Sur La Mer, Jeux de Vagues, and Dialogue Du Vent et De La Mer, all of which exemplify his harder, bigger and more bombastic creative attempts; and Clair de Lune (1890), a song written for solo piano that was more recently made famous by its presence in the movie Twilight (2008).
I want to focus now on Clair de Lune. This piece was written in 1890, as the third movement of the Suite Begamasque (Oxford UP). The song is written expressly for the piano and is meant to be performed as such. (Though notation exists for a full orchestral performance, I do not believe it holds up compared to the solo piano.) The result is a beautifully light tone color that feels like relaxing under the glow of a moonlit sky, which explains the title. It means "Moonlight" (Oxford UP) which excellently compliments the deep melody of the song itself. The musical form comes in at A B C A' C', beginning softly, slowly getting faster and faster, then receding, then speeding up one more time before ending on a broken chord. The melody is light as a feather, hovering around the high notes of the piano, which invokes the feeling of a perfectly clear night sky. The song is monophonic in texture and the harmony is carried by the lower accompanying notes of the piano; the quickly-played arpeggios throughout the second half contribute to the sense of being doused in the moonlight for which the piece is named. The meter appears to be in quadruple time, though it is very tough to tell, and the tempo is on average a slow largo, though it broadens and quickens at its high-tension moments and becomes much slower and more distant at its low moments. The rhythm only barely clings to the tempo as the notes float on air through the song. It is stunningly beautiful. That such a wondrous composition could be created for just the piano that rivals Chopin in its brilliance is incredibly remarkable. It's not a very sad song, like most of Chopin's famous works. It's not very happy, either; it is simply contentedness under the light of the moon and the stars.
Debussy is one of those underrated composers of the Romantic period that gets overshadowed by the likes of Frédéric Chopin, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Wagner, at least to me, as I had not heard any of his work previously. It's unfortunate, really, considering the masterful works he composed over his life of fifty-five years. It's nice that he can at least get some exposure from popular movies like Twilight, though Clair de Lune doesn't really accurately portray the majority of Debussy's works, which are primarily orchestral. It's funny how he only managed to acquire acclaim well after his works were first performed, considering his obvious talent. He still managed to go down in history as a great composer of his day. I really like the way he manages to accommodate two different audiences in the division of his works from romantic to twentieth-century. His compositions are both beautiful and modern at the same time. I don't think I would have liked him very much if I knew him personally, though. He led a very luxurious lifestyle, in stark contrast to his family history. It seems to me that he likely wasn't very humble, either, and his womanizing tendencies would have been incompatible with me, especially since many of them attempted suicide after being left (Lesure). His works are full of unfinished projects, as well, from the remaining parts of L’après-Midi D’un Faune (Lesure) to unfinished one-act Edgar Allan Poe operas Le Diable Dans le Beffroi (1902–?12) and La Chute de la Maison Usher (1908–17) (Orledge). Still, he is most definitely one of the greatest composers of his time, despite his personal downsides and downfalls. Even if I didn't like him, I can at least love his music. I have found a new favorite.
"Clair De Lune." Oxford Music Online. Oxford UP. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.
Kamien, Roger. "Part VI - 4: Claude Debussy." Music: an Appreciation. New York.: McGraw-Hill, 2011. 294-97. Print.
Lesure, François, and Roy Howat. "Debussy, Claude." Oxford Music Online. Oxford UP. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.
Orledge, Robert. "Debussy, (Achille-)Claude." Oxford Music Online. Oxford UP. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.