Claude Debussy and Impressionism

Photograph of Claude Debussy

by Charles K. Moss, M.M.Ed., M.Mus.

Growing up from very humble beginnings to become the most important French composer of the early Twentieth Century, Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was born near Paris in the town of St. Germain-en-Laye, where his parents kept a china shop. And his father also worked as a traveling salesman, as a printer's assistant, and as a clerk. His mother was a seamstress who managed to provide a very rudimentary education for Claude during his largely unhappy childhood. As an adult, Debussy never spoke about his childhood, and most events of his early years remain a mystery.

Claude Debussy's musical talent was discovered by his first piano teacher, Madame Mauté de Fleurville, who had been a student of Chopin. Mme. Mauté sent Debussy to the Conservatory in Paris, where he studied for ten years, beginning in 1872. At first, Debussy wanted to be a virtuoso pianist, but he later abandoned the idea after two failures in the piano examinations in 1878 and 1879. In 1880 he attended the composition class of Ernest Guiraud whose tutelage led Debussy to win the second Prix de Rome in 1883 and the coveted first Prix de Rome the following year with his Cantata L'enfant prodigue, which enabled him to study composition at the Villa de Medici in Rome for three years.

Debussy first entered the Paris Conservatory when he was only ten years old. Within a few years, he shocked his professors with "bizarre" harmonies that defied the rules. "What rules then do you observe?" inquired one of his teachers. "None-only my own pleasure!" "That's all very well," retorted the professor, "provided you're a genius." It became increasingly apparent that the daring young man was exactly that. His early compositions were highly influenced by Chabrier and Fauré, and although later on he would not admit it, Wagner's music was also an important influence on Debussy's orchestration and harmonic language as he developed into a mature composer.

Debussy was twenty-two years old when his Cantata The Prodigal Son won the Prix de Rome. Like Berlioz before him, he looked upon his stay in the Italian capital as a dreary exile from the boulevards and cafés that made up his world. By this time, he had already conceived major elements of his mature style. "The music I desire" he wrote a friend, "must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams."

Debussy worked as the household pianist at the residence of Madame Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, the eccentric patroness of Tchaikovsky, from 1879-1882. He had the good fortune to be recommended by his piano teacher, Marmontel, for this position. The wife of a Russian engineer, Madame von Meck had been left a widow at an early age, and her large fortune enabled her to bestow a pension for a number of years upon the composer, Peter-Ilich Tchaikovsky, whom she greatly admired but never met. At the castle of Chenonceau where she often resided, she kept a trio of young musicians: a pianist, a violinist, and a cellist. In 1879 Debussy replaced his comrade, Jimenez, in this little group. While at Chenonceau he was required to play classical music, and no doubt, all of Tchaikovsky's chamber music, and he improvised at the piano in accordance with the tastes of his hostess. During the Summer, Madame von Meck went to Florence, Venice, Vienna, and then to Moscow. She took her pianist with her. Debussy's other duties included teaching piano lessons to her children and acting as accompanist in all vocal and instrumental performances at the residence.

Very little is known about Debussy's tour with Madame von Meck. At Vienna, he attended a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde conducted by Hans Richter. This opera, which had then been performed in Germany for some fifteen years, was (for a time) highly praised and favored by Debussy. Such music must surely have been a revelation to him, and it produced a deep and lasting impression on the young composer. Its chromaticism offered Debussy a new viewpoint of tonal harmony that he synthesized and later rejected.

In 1888 and 1889, Debussy visited the Bayreuth Festspielhaus where he heard Wagner's great Music Dramas. Initially, Debussy was fascinated by Wagner's music, especially Parsifal, but he later rejected Wagner's approach to composition as well as most other German Romantic music. Nevertheless, traces of Wagnerian harmonic technique exist in some of Debussy's works, such as the Cantata La damoiselle élue (1888) and his now famous Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1889).

The 1890s were the most productive decade of Debussy's career, and the decade culminated in the writing of Pelléas et Mélisande. Based on the symbolist drama by the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck, this opera occupied him for the better part of ten years. He continued to revise the score up to the opening night, which took place on April 30, 1902, at the Opera-Comique. Pelléas was attacked as being decadent and lacking in melody, form, and substance. Nevertheless, its quiet intensity and subtlety of nuance had a profound impact upon the musical public. It became an international success.

After Pelléas, Debussy was famous. He appeared in the capitals of Europe as conductor of his works, and he wrote articles that established his reputation as one of the wittiest critics of his time. In the first years of the Twentieth Century, he exhausted the Impressionist vein, and he found his way to a new and tightly controlled idiom: a kind of distillation of Impressionism.

From 1887 on, Debussy viewed himself almost exclusively as a composer, and he rarely appeared in public as a pianist or as a conductor of his own works. His circle of friends did not contain musicians; rather he enjoyed the company of the leading Impressionist poets and painters of his day who gathered at the home of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Their influence is felt even in Debussy's first important orchestral work, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-1894), inspired by Mallarmé's poem, L'Apres-midi d'un faune, which was performed at the Société Nationale on December 22, 1894. This work established the style of Impressionist music and initiated Debussy's most productive period, which lasted nearly 20 years. During that time he composed the orchestral suites Nocturnes (1893-1899), La Mer (1903-1905), and Images (1906-1909); most of his piano music, including the two books of Preludes (1910-1913); the incidental music to The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1911); the ballet Jeux (1912); a number of songs and some chamber music; and his one completed opera (1892-1902).

Debussy was associated with many women, some of whom who were of doubtful reputation. One of his mistresses, Gabrielle Dupont, threatened suicide. Also, as is sometimes the case with artists of passionate intensity, Debussy held many thoughts of suicide. In 1899, Debussy married Rosalie Texier, a dressmaker. He left her in 1904 for Emma Bardac, an amateur singer and the wife of a Parisian banker. He moved into an apartment with Emma in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, where he spent the rest of his life. Debussy married Bardac in 1908, following the birth in 1905 of his one daughter, Claude-Emma, the "Chou-chou" to whom the Children's Corner Suite (1906-1908) was dedicated. The orchestral works of Debussy have their parallels in much of his piano music, which comprise a significant part of the piano repertoire of the early Twentieth Century. Debussy's chief impressionistic works for the piano can be found in collections published between 1903 and 1913, including the two books of Images and two books of Preludes. The features of this music are unique. The blurring of the soft pedal against attractive pianistic effects and a delicate poetic propensity is always evident. It is important to remember that impressionism only forms one aspect in the compositions of Debussy. His piano music sometimes displays a Hellenistic detachment as in his Children's Corner Suite. In Golliwog's Cakewalk there is a satirical reference to Wagner's Tristan, and he parodies Clementi's similarly titled work in the first piece of the suite, Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum.

His energies increasingly sapped by the ravages of cancer, Debussy worked on with remarkable fortitude. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 robbed him of all interest in music. France, he felt, "can neither laugh nor weep while so many of our men heroically face death." After a year of silence, he realized that he had to contribute to the struggle in the only way he could, "by creating to the best of my ability a little of that beauty which the enemy is attacking with such fury." One of his last letters speaks of his "life of waiting--my waiting-room existence, I might call it--for I am a poor traveler waiting for a train that will never come any more." His last work, the Fourth Sonata for Violin and Piano, was performed in May 1917 with Debussy at the piano. It was the last music that he played in public, at St. Jean-de-Luz in September.

Debussy died in March 1918 during the bombardment of Paris by airships and long-distance guns during the last German offensive of World War I. This was a time when the military situation of France was considered desperate by many, and these circumstances did not permit his being paid the honor of a public funeral, or ceremonious graveside orations, or festivals of his works. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets as shells from the German guns ripped into his beloved city. It was just eight months before victory was celebrated in France. And French culture has ever since celebrated Debussy as one of its most distinguished representatives.

Much of his most creative work as a composer was in the sphere of piano music. Like Chopin, he revolutionized the technique of piano playing. Apart from Schönberg there was no composer at the beginning of the Twentieth Century who exercised so great an influence on his contemporaries and on the generation that followed as Debussy. His discoveries in harmony and tone color have even entered into the field of film and popular music. For decades, Jazz has not succeeded in enlarging Debussy's stock of chords. But Debussy never became the founder of a school. His music was criticized as being "boneless tonal vibrato," but these persons were judging him far too generally. They overlooked the fact that this very subtle composer was capable of powerful, but controlled eruptions that he portrayed in his music whenever his compositional bent lay in that direction.

Debussy was no "man in an ivory tower." This is demonstrated by his delight in the music of the circus and music halls, as is clear from his cakewalks, which are closely akin to Ragtime. Unjustly, Debussy has been admired exclusively for his harmonies, with little attention paid to his melodic qualities. His later works are rhythmically free and supple in expression, but they are also especially rich in melodic shapes in an almost "neo-classical" manner.

During his own lifetime Debussy was connected with the older Impressionism of the painters. Since that time, the idea of him as a musical Impressionist has become inseparable from his name. He himself was just as allergic to this word as Schoenberg was to the word "atonal." Only in a few works at most was Debussy truly an Impressionist, and in none was he a mood-painter, as the popular cliché would have it. Nevertheless Debussy's works, particularly the piano music of his middle period, are full of rhythmic power and dynamic impulses. The freedom of form (not to he mistaken for its dissolution) does not indicate a rhapsodic gliding-over from one bar to another or a loose improvisation on a couple of sounds or scraps of melody. To the contrary, everything is most carefully composed; every detail is minutely indicated. The compositional structure also has a high degree of organization in which several "voices," lines, or layers are combined over broad passages which, taken alone, lack a deeper meaning. They are not always easily recognizable, but a detailed analysis of these layers must precede any correct interpretation. Indeed they are of varying weight and varying importance. Therefore, they must be played in as differentiated a manner as possible.

It often becomes necessary to play even the single notes of a chord with varying degrees of strength. The question of which note is to specifically stand out from the others emerges mostly from the part writing. Bass notes or chords, which are to be drawn out, should be struck very clearly so that they are certain to be sustained. Under no circumstances may they merge in with the other "voices" to produce a melancholy hodge-podge of sound. Even when a chord runs directly into the next one, a modulated touch must provide for a clear, logical hierarchy of sound. Only this brings out the specific atmosphere of the composer's style. Debussy warns against misuse of the damper pedal "which is mostly a means of covering up a technical deficiency." His music demands a finely differentiated pedal technique. "The art of pedaling is a kind of breathing," wrote Debussy to Jacques Durand (September 1, 1915). "This is what I observed in the case of Liszt when he permitted me to listen to him during his stay in Rome."

Debussy's meticulous articulation signs have already been mentioned. Legato and phrasing ties must always be exactly observed, as well as the signs for the (somewhat stressed) tenuto (stroke over or under the note) and the portato (dot and tie together). Staccato dots on the other hand are rarer. The French terms Cédez (slacken tempo) and Serrez (speed up tempo) correspond with ritardando/rallentando, or with accelerando respectively. Rubato playing and even the tiniest alterations in tempo are only permitted where they are specifically marked. With the indication "sans rigueur" (without rigor) Debussy appeals in a very special way to the intelligence of his interpreter: here he must not submit mechanically to the rigid "despotism of the rhythm," but play with suppleness and a gentle rhythmic flexibility.

Debussy's Études for piano were completed by the end of September 1915 and published in 1916 in two books. These were Debussy's last piano compositions. They carry on the tradition of the concert étude, established by Chopin, as a genre which combines pianistic problems with artistic demands. Debussy wrote to his publisher Durand (August 28, 1915): "You will agree with me that it is not necessary to load down technique any more just for the sake of making an impression of seriousness, and that a little charm can never do any damage - Chopin proved that..." It is to Frédéric Chopin that the Études are dedicated.

Each Étude treats a special problem of piano technique. In the first book the fingers are trained, their mechanism and striking technique subjected to an instructive course of study. This stretches from the ironical handling of one of Czerny's five-finger exercises and an étude for eight fingers to études in thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves. In the second book, the main preoccupation is with sound-effects, as the titles of the individual études indicate, such as Pour les sonorités opposées or Pour les arpéges composés. It is here above all that Debussy's genius for innovation is revealed. Difficult as the collection is, Debussy once said that these pieces "hovered above the heights of execution."

Debussy's Études may be called neo-classical in so far as this is understood as pushing the pictorial and picturesque elements into the background and honoring the masters of the past. Debussy's late works have nothing in common with the neo-classicism which became fashionable after the First World War. His works consist rather of highly poetic images, in which the tonal register, the color values, the dynamics, the tempo and the tonal density are subjected to incessant change. Their style is non-continuous, and both performer and listener must be prepared for sudden interruptions and surprises. Though the Études anticipated the works of many important composers of Twentieth Century music, they remained practically unnoticed for a long time. It has only been in the closing decades of this century that their outstanding significance for the future has been recognized.

Claude Debussy was a great harmonic innovator of the Twentieth Century. He created fresh, new tonal perspectives without abandoning tonality itself. As with the painters, Impressionist composers did not seek to express a feeling or tell a story, but to evoke a mood or an atmosphere. The emphasis of Debussy's expression was given to color, shadings, and textures instead of clarity of design. The Impressionists wanted to escape the major-minor sounds of the past. To do this there must be an avoidance of half-step distances that define major and minor tonalities. Debussy frequently built on pentatonic, modal, and whole-tone scales and chords. Augmented triads, a natural result of whole-tone scales, and unresolved seventh and ninth chords were frequent. These were harmonies of exceeding richness offering a depth of glowing color. In addition, the sustained pedal effects and the carryover of non-chord tones created a sonorous haze against which succeeding harmonies unfold. In the composition of his songs, especially, his innovations were based on subtle inflections of French language and poetry, particularly its non-metrical and non-symmetrical feel, resulting in the antithesis of the Romantic art song.

Impressionists, especially Debussy, regarded chords as entities in their own right, intended to arouse a sensation apart from any context. Impressionism released the chord from its function in regard to the movement and goal of the music. Chords could be freely altered. Chords no longer required preparation or resolution in conventional harmonic patterns. Writers describe this as the "emancipation of sound." Harmonic patterns were free to move in nontraditional manners. This blurring of traditional tonal progressions may be analogous to the Impressionist painters' technique of avoiding hard edges and sudden, sharp contrasts.

Impressionism created what was virtually a new musical language, free of superimposed formal constraints and deterministic tonal harmony. A technique of the Impressionists in avoiding traditional harmonic progressions can be called "sideslipping" or "gliding chords." Parallel chordal movement (up or down) sometimes included chords of the same quality (i.e. all major, or minor). Parallel movement could also be according to a given diatonic scale. Even higher number chords of sevenths or ninths were candidates for this form of chordal movement. Many times a primary interval (octave, fourth, or fifth) was added in parallel fashion to a melody. This produced a thickening out of the melody much as in painting, the luminous haze is a thickening out of a single line. Impressionist composers juxtaposed pure chordal colors, leaving it to the ear of the listener to interpret the whole. Melodies were frequently elusive. The short brush strokes of an Impressionist painter were similar to the short melodic lines of narrow scope used by composers. Repeated melodic fragments were common. Impressionistic rhythms were frequently not clear-cut or predictable. They frequently lacked a strong pulse or were slightly irregular in manner. Rather, rhythms veiled the beat and helped to free music from the tyranny of the bar line. Especially in the music of Debussy, unity of form was not demanded, nor was it desired. Maurice Ravel, on the other hand, was a classicist formally.

Debussy's style was unquestionably one of the most important influences on music in the early Twentieth Century. He turned against the Germans' supreme achievement: Sonata Allegro Form. He regarded as an outmoded formula the exposition-development-recapitulation structure. However, in his last years, Debussy did compose several Sonatas, but these were far from the German Romantic conception of musical form. Once at a concert, Debussy whispered to a friend, "Let's go--he's beginning to develop!" The composer's own words offer the best explanation of his art.
There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth, an open-air art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.

Debussy also rejected the overblown forms and the harmonic style of the post-Wagnerians such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. He preferred understated effects similar to those achieved by the French Impressionist painters and poets. Pelléas et Mélisande, the most significant Impressionist opera, has been called a masterpiece of understatement. He wanted his music to sound improvisatory, as though it had not been written down. Many of his compositions are miniatures, such as the 24 Piano Preludes, which often have fanciful titles such as What the West Wind Saw, Dead Leaves, and Sounds and Scents Revolve in the Evening Air. But there are marked stylistic differences between the earlier Preludes and the later works from the second book, such as Ondine. The discontinuity of Debussy's late works has been acknowledged and variously described by many writers: Herbert Eimert describes it as endless variation; Robert Sherlaw Johnson compares this aspect to the collage technique of Messiaen; Robert Orledge describes it as mosaic construction; Roy Howat refers to it as a definable system of block construction; and Boulez describes it as musical pointillism. Regardless of the applicable descriptions one might favor, it is evident that the forms of the later Preludes are much more loosely conceived and open, a deliberate feature of design by the composer.

Debussy's piano music is the most important creation by a French composer since that of Chopin. He created a subtle pianistic style that made new demands on performing technique, and the shifting, blurred sonorities of the style were achieved by a new use of the damper pedal. His best-known composition in any medium is most likely the famous Claire de Lune (Moonlight) from Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) for solo piano.

Claude Debussy's influence is very much alive in music at the end of the Twentieth Century. Many neo-tonal composers have chosen elements of his compositional style for their creations of late Twentieth Century eclecticism. Debussy remained a tonal composer, although his harmonies were not within the tradition of functionality. As tonality has again risen to popularity in serious music, Debussy's style is showing the way to many modern-day composers.

Debussy Picture Gallery: Click on the Thumbnails for Large Photos.

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