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Claude Debussy (1908)

Achille-Claude Debussy (French pronunciation: [aʃil klod dəbysi]) (August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures working within the field of impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions.[1] Debussy is not only among the most important of all French composers but also a central figure in European music at the turn of the twentieth century. He was made Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1903.[2]

His music is noted for its sensory component and how it is not often formed around one key or pitch. Often Debussy's work reflected the activities or turbulence in his own life. His music virtually defines the transition from late-Romantic music to twentieth century modernist music. In French literary circles, the style of this period was known as symbolism, a movement that directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.




Early life and studies

Debussy at the Villa Médici in Rome, 1885, at centre in the white jacket

Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France in 1862, the eldest of five children. His father Manuel-Achille Debussy owned a china shop and was a salesman and his mother Victorine Manoury Debussy was a seamstress. Debussy began piano lessons when he was seven years old with an elderly Italian named Cerutti; his lessons were paid for by his aunt. In 1871, the young Debussy gained the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville,[3] who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin, and Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence that she was.[4] His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent eleven years. During his time there he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. He also became lifelong friend of fellow student and noted pianist Isidor Philipp.

From the start, though clearly talented, Debussy was also argumentative and experimental, and he challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals which were frowned upon at the time. Like Georges Bizet, Debussy was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished.[5] The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber; and Chopin - the Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de Concert, a relatively little-known piece that demands an even higher degree of virtuosity than either of the concertos.[6]

From 1880 to 1882, he lived in Russia as music teacher to the children of Nadezhda von Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky.[7] Despite von Meck's closeness with Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears to have had little or no effect on Debussy. In September 1880 she sent Debussy's Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky's perusal. A month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her, "It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity". Debussy did not publish the piece; the manuscript remained in the von Meck family, and it was sold to B. Schott's Sohne in Mainz, and published by them in 1932.[8] More influential was Debussy's close friendship with Madame Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She gave Debussy emotional and professional support and influenced his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, his former teacher Mme. Mauté de Fleurville's son-in-law.

As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L'Enfant prodigue, he received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885-1887). According to letters to Madame Vasnier, perhaps in part designed to gain her sympathy, he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters "abominable".[9] Neither did he delight in the pleasures of the "Eternal City", finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.

In June 1885, Debussy wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying, "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."[10]

Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima, based on a text by Heinrich Heine; the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La damoiselle élue (1887-1888), which was criticized by the Academy as "bizarre"; and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. The third piece was the first in which stylistic features of Debussy's later style emerged. The fourth piece was heavily based on César Franck's music and withdrawn by Debussy himself. Overall, the Academy chided him for "courting the unusual" and hoped for something better from the gifted student. Even though Debussy showed touches of Jules Massenet in his efforts, Massenet himself concluded, "He is an enigma."[11]

In his visits to Bayreuth in 1888-9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which had a lasting impact on his work. Richard Wagner had died in 1883 and the cult of Wagnerism was still in full swing. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies, but ultimately Wagner's extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy's way either. Wagner's influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine—Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes are all in a more capricious style. Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces. During this period, both musicians were bohemians enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.

During 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. Although direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been located in any of Debussy's own compositions, the equal-tempered pentatonic scale appears in his music of this time and afterward.

Private life

Debussy's private life was often turbulent. At the age of 18 he began an eight-year affair with Madame Blanche Vasnier, wife of a wealthy Parisian lawyer. The relationship eventually faltered following his winning of the Prix de Rome and obligatory incarceration in the eponymous city.

On his permanent return to Paris in 1889, he began a tempestuous nine-year relationship with Gabrielle ('Gaby') Dupont, a tailor's daughter from Lisieux, with whom he cohabited on the Rue Gustave Doré. During this time he also had an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged.

He left Dupont for her friend Rosalie ('Lily') Texier, a fashion model whom he married in 1899. Although Texier was affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well-liked by Debussy's friends and associates, he became increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. In 1904, Debussy was introduced to Emma, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac, by her son Raoul, one his students [1]. In contrast to Texier, Bardac was a sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, and an accomplished singer. Debussy soon abandoned Texier; distraught, like Dupont before her she attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest while standing in the Place de la Concorde. She survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life.

The scandal obliged Debussy and Bardac (already carrying his child) to flee to England, eventually settling in Eastbourne, where he completed his symphonic suite La Mer, until the hysteria subsided and legal entanglements resolved. The couple were eventually married in 1908, their troubled union enduring until Debussy's death in 1918. Their child, a daughter (and the composer's only child), was named Claude-Emma, more affectionately known as Chouchou, the dedicatee of Debussy's Children's Corner suite. Claude-Emma outlived her father by scarcely a year, succumbing to the diphtheria epidemic of 1919.


Debussy's grave at Cim. de Passy

Claude Debussy died of rectal cancer in Paris on March 25, 1918, in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of the city during the Spring Offensive of World War I. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets to Père Lachaise cemetery as shells from the German guns ripped into his beloved city. At this time, the military situation in France was desperate, and circumstances did not permit his being paid the honour of a public funeral or ceremonious graveside orations. It was just eight months before France would celebrate victory. Debussy's body was reinterred shortly afterwards in the small Cimetière de Passy sequestered behind the Trocadéro; his wife and daughter are buried with him. French culture has ever since celebrated Debussy as one of its most distinguished representatives.

Musical style

Chords, featuring chromatically altered sevenths and ninths and progressing unconventionally, explored by Debussy in a, "celebrated conversation at the piano with his teacher Ernest Guiraud".[12]

Rudolph Réti points out these features of Debussy's music, which "established a new concept of tonality in European music":

  1. Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of tonality;
  2. Frequent use of parallel chords which are "in essence not harmonies at all, but rather 'chordal melodies', enriched unisons";
  3. Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords;
  4. Use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scale;
  5. Unprepared modulations, "without any harmonic bridge."

He concludes that Debussy's achievement was the synthesis of monophonic based "melodic tonality" with harmonies, albeit different from those of "harmonic tonality".[13]

The application of the term "impressionist" to Debussy and the music he influenced is a matter of intense debate within academic circles. One side argues that the term is a misnomer, an inappropriate label which Debussy himself opposed. In a letter of 1908, he wrote "I am trying to do 'something different'--an effect of reality...what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art."[14] The opposing side argues that Debussy may have been reacting to unfavorable criticism at the time, and the negativity that critics associated with impressionism. It can be argued that he would have been pleased with application of the current definition of impressionism to his music.

List of works

Early works

Debussy at the piano, in front of the composer Ernest Chausson, 1893

Beginning in the 1890s, Debussy developed his own musical language largely independent of Wagner's style, colored in part from the dreamy, sometimes morbid romanticism of the Symbolist Movement. Debussy became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé's Symbolist gatherings, where Wagnerism dominated the discussion. In contrast to the enormous works of Wagner and other late-romantic composers, however, around this time Debussy chose to write in smaller, more accessible forms. The Deux Arabesques is an example of one of Debussy's earliest works, already developing his musical language. Suite bergamasque (1890) recalls rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement. This suite contains one of Debussy's most popular pieces, Clair de Lune. Debussy's String Quartet in G minor (1893) paved the way for his later, more daring harmonic exploration. In this work he utilized the Phrygian mode as well as less standard scales, such as the whole-tone, which creates a sense of floating, ethereal harmony. Debussy was beginning to employ a single, continuous theme and break away from the traditional A-B-A form, with its restatements and amplifications, which had been a mainstay of classical music since Haydn.

Influenced by Mallarmé, Debussy wrote one of his most famous works, the revolutionary Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, truly original in form and execution. In contrast to the large orchestras so favoured by late-romanticism, Debussy wrote this piece for a smaller ensemble, emphasizing instrumental colour and timbre. Despite Mallarmé himself, and colleague and friend Paul Dukas having been impressed by the piece, it was controversial at its premiere. Prélude subsequently placed Debussy into the spotlight as one of the leading composers of the era.

Middle works

The three Nocturnes (1899), include characteristic studies in veiled harmony and texture as demonstrated in Nuages; exuberance in Fêtes; and whole-tones in Sirènes. Contrasting sharply with Wagnerian opera, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, after ten years of work. It would be his only complete opera. Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the opera proved to be an immediate success and immensely influential to younger French composers, including Maurice Ravel. These works brought a fluidity of rhythm and colour quite new to Western music.

La Mer (1903-1905) essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement, although the middle movement, Jeux de vagues, proceeds much less directly and with more variety of colour. Again, the reviews were sharply divided. Some critics thought the treatment to be less subtle and less mysterious than his previous works and even a step backward. Pierre Lalo complained "I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea". Others extolled its "power and charm", its "extraordinary verve and brilliant fantasy", and its strong colors and definite lines.[15]

During this period Debussy wrote much for the piano. The set of pieces entitled Pour le piano (1901) utilises rich harmonies and textures which would later prove important in jazz music. His first volume of Images pour piano (1904–1905) combine harmonic innovation with poetic suggestion: Reflets dans l'eau is a musical description of rippling water; Hommage à Rameau, the second piece, is slow and yearningly nostalgic. It takes as its inspiration a melody from Jean-Philippe Rameau's Castor et Pollux.

The evocative Estampes for piano (1903) give impressions of exotic locations. Debussy came into contact with Javanese gamelan music during the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Pagodes is the directly inspired result, aiming for an evocation of the pentatonic structures employed by the Javanese music.[16] Debussy wrote his famous Children's Corner Suite (1908) for his beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, whom he nicknamed Chouchou. The suite recalls classicism—the opening piece Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum refers to Muzio Clementi's collection of instructional piano compositions Gradus ad Parnassum, as well as a new wave of American cakewalk music. In the popular final piece of the suite, Golliwog's Cakewalk, Debussy also pokes fun at Richard Wagner by mimicking the opening bars of Wagner's prelude to Tristan and Isolde.

The first book of Préludes (1910), twelve in total, proved to be his most successful work for piano. The Preludes are frequently compared to those of Chopin. Debussy's preludes are replete with rich, unusual and daring harmonies. They include the popular La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) and La Cathédrale Engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral). Debussy wanted people to respond intuitively to these pieces and so he placed the titles at the end of each one in the hope that listeners would not make stereotype images as they listened.

Larger scaled works included his orchestral piece Iberia (1907), began as a work for two pianos, a triptych medley of Spanish allusions and fleeting impressions and also the music for Gabriele d'Annunzio's mystery play Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911). A lush and dramatic work, written in only two months, it is remarkable in sustaining a late antique modal atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces.

During this period, as Debussy gained more popularity, he was engaged as a conductor throughout Europe, most often performing Pelléas, La Mer, and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. He was also an occasional music critic to supplement his conducting fees and piano lessons. Debussy avoided analytical dissection and attempts to force images from music, "Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic." He could be caustic and witty, sometimes sloppy and ill-informed. Debussy was for the most part enthusiastic about Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky, worshipful of Chopin, Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart, and found both Liszt and Beethoven geniuses who sometimes lacked "taste". Schubert and Mendelssohn fared much worse, the latter he described as a "facile and elegant notary".[17] He also admired the works of Charles-Valentin Alkan.[18]

Late works

Debussy's harmonies and chord progressions frequently exploit dissonances without any formal resolution. Unlike in his earlier work, he no longer hides discords in lush harmonies. The forms are far more irregular and fragmented. These chords that seemingly had no resolution were described by Debussy himself as "floating chords", and were used to set tone and mood in many of his works. The whole tone scale dominates much of Debussy's late music.

His two last volumes of works for the piano, the Études (1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by the young Igor Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos, 1915). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915), though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism.

With the sonatas of 1915–1917, there is a sudden shift in the style. These works recall Debussy's earlier music, in part, but also look forward, with leaner, simpler structures. Despite the thinner textures of the Violin Sonata (1917) there remains an undeniable richness in the chords themselves. This shift parallels the movement commonly known as neo-classicism which became popular after Debussy's death. Debussy planned a set of six sonatas, but this plan was cut short by his death in 1918 so that he only completed three (cello, flute-viola-harp and violin sonatas).

Caplet and Debussy

The last orchestral work by Debussy, the ballet Jeux (1912) written for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, contains some of his strangest harmonies and textures in a form that moves freely over its own field of motivic connection. At first Jeux was overshadowed by Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, composed in the same year as Jeux and premiered only two weeks later by the same ballet company. Decades later, composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué pointed out parallels to Anton Webern's serialism in this work. Other late stage works, including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La boîte à joujoux (1913) were left with the orchestration incomplete, and were later completed by Charles Koechlin and André Caplet, who also helped Debussy with the orchestration of Gigues (from Images pour orchestre) and Le martyre de St. Sébastien.

The second set of Preludes for piano (1913) features Debussy at his most avant-garde, where he utilizes dissonant harmonies to evoke specific moods and images. Debussy consciously gives titles to each prelude that amplify the preludes’ tonal ambiguity and dissonance. He utilizes scales such as the whole tone scale, musical modes, and the octatonic scale in his preludes that exaggerate this tonal ambiguity, making the key of each prelude almost indistinguishable at times. The second book of Preludes for piano represents Debussy’s strong interest in the indefinite and esoteric.

Although Pelléas was Debussy's only completed opera, he began several opera projects which remained unfinished, his fading concentration, increasing procrastination, and failing health perhaps the reasons. He had finished some partial musical sketches and some unpublished libretti for operas based on Poe's The Devil in the Belfry (Le diable dans le beffroi, 1902-?1912) and The Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher, 1908-1917) as well as considered projects for operas based on Shakespeare's As You Like It and Joseph Bedier's La Legende de Tristan.

Further plans, such as an American tour, more ballet scores, and revisions of Chopin and Bach works for re-publication, were all cut short by the outbreak of World War I and the onset of colorectal cancer, which required morphine injections to relieve the pain. Debussy underwent one of the first colostomy operations ever performed in December 1915, but this achieved only a temporary respite and occasioned him considerable frustration; he was to liken dressing in the morning to "all the labours of Hercules in one".

Mathematical structuring

Given that Debussy's music is apparently so concerned with mood and colour, one may be surprised to discover that, according to one author, many of his greatest works appear to have been structured around mathematical models even while using an apparent classical structure such as sonata form. Howat suggests that some of Debussy's pieces can be divided into sections that reflect the golden ratio, frequently by using the numbers of the standard Fibonacci sequence.[19] Sometimes these divisions seem to follow the standard divisions of the overall structure. In other pieces they appear to mark out other significant features of the music. The 55 bar-long introduction to 'Dialogue du vent et la mer' in La Mer, for example, breaks down into 5 sections of 21, 8, 8, 5 and 13 bars in length. The golden mean point of bar 34 in this structure is signalled by the introduction of the trombones, with the use of the main motif from all three movements used in the central section around that point.[19]

The only evidence that Howat introduces to support his claim appears in changes Debussy made between finished manuscripts and the printed edition, with the changes invariably creating a Golden Mean proportion where previously none existed. Perhaps the starkest example of this comes with La cathédrale engloutie. Published editions lack the instruction to play bars 7-12 and 22-83 at twice the speed of the remainder, exactly as Debussy himself did on a piano-roll recording. When analysed with this alteration, the piece follows Golden Section proportions. At the same time, Howat admits that in many of Debussy's works, he has been unable to find evidence of the Golden Section (notably in the late works) and that no extant manuscripts or sketches contain any evidence of calculations related to it.


Debussy had a wide range of influences, including the great Russian composers of his time. The most prominent influences on Debussy were Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky.[20] It can be inferred that from the Russians “Debussy acquired his taste for ancient and oriental modes and for vivid colorations, and a certain disdain for academic rules.”[20] Specifically, Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov directly influenced one of Debussy’s most famous works, Pelléas et Mélisande. In addition to the Russian composers, one of Debussy’s biggest influences was Richard Wagner. According to Pierre Louys, Debussy “did not see ‘what anyone can do beyond Tristan.”[20] After Debussy’s Wagner phase, he started to become immensely interested in non-western music. He was drawn to unorthodox approaches to composition that non-western music utilized. Specifically, he was drawn to a Javanese Gamelan, which was a musical ensemble from the island of Java that played an array of unique instrumentation. He first heard the gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Debussy was not as interested in directly citing his non-western influence in his music, but instead used his non-western influence to shape his unique musical style in more of a general way.

Debussy was just as influenced, if not more influenced by other art forms than he was by music. He took a strong interest in literature and visual art and used these mediums to help shape his unique musical style. Debussy was heavily influenced by the French symbolist movement, which was an art movement in 1885 that influenced art forms such as poetry, visual art, and theatre. He shared the movement’s interest in the esoteric and indefinite and rejection of naturalism and realism. Specifically, “the development of free verse in poetry and the disappearance of the subject or model in painting influenced Debussy to think about issues of musical form.”[20] Debussy became personally acquainted with writers and painters of the movement and based his own works off of those of the symbolists. One of Debussy’s main influences was the famous poet Mallarme, who “held the idea of a ‘musicalization’ of poetry.”[20] In other words, Mallarme drew strong connections between music and his poetry. Debussy wrote Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, which was directly influenced by Mallarme’s poem “Afternoon of a Faun.” Like the symbolists in respect to their own art forms, Debussy aimed to reject common techniques and approaches to composition and attempted to evoke more of a sensorial experience for the listener with his works. Since his time at the Paris Conservatoire, Debussy believed he had much more to learn from artists than from musicians who were primarily interested in their musical careers.

Influence on later composers

Claude Debussy is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His harmonies, considered radical in his day, were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century, especially the music of Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, and the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as the influential Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. He also influenced many important figures in Jazz, most notably George Gershwin, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Herbie Hancock and Jimmy Giuffre. Furthermore, he had a profound impact on contemporary soundtrack composers such as John Williams because Debussy's colorful and suggesting style translated easily into an emotional language for use in motion picture scores. In 1999, The Art of Noise released a concept album titled "The Seduction of Claude Debussy". The group blended the music of Claude Debussy with drum and bass, opera, hip hop, jazz, and narration, and described the album as "the soundtrack to a film that wasn't made about the life of Claude Debussy." In 2000, the Art of Noise released Reduction, a limited edition album comprised mainly of outtakes from this album.

Leopold Stokowski, in an article, pointed out the identification of composers including Debussy with the music of Palestrina, providing an inspiration for non-contrapuntal music.


Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: I. Brouillards
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: II. Feuilles Mortes
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: III. La Puerta Del Vino
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: IV. 'Les Fées Sont D'Exquises Danseuses'
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: V. Bruyères
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: VI. 'General Lavine' - Excentric
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: VII. La Terrasse Des Audiences Du Clair De Lune
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: VIII. Ondine
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: IX. Hommage À S. Pickwick, Esq., P.P.M.P.C.
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: X. Canope
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: XI. Les Tierces Alternées
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Debussy: Préludes, Book 2: XII. Feux D'Artifice
Performed by Giorgi Latsabidze
Clair de lune from Suite Bergamasque
Performed by Robin Alciatore. Courtesy of Musopen
Quand j'ai ouy le tambourin
(2.4 Mb)
Dieu qu'il la fait bon regarder
(1.5 Mb)
Dieu qu'il la fait bon regarder
(1.9 Mb)
Quand j'ai ouy le tabourin sonner
(1.9 Mb)
Yver vous n'estes qu'un vilain
(1.6 Mb)
Beau Soir
La Plus que Lente
Arranged by J. Kowalewski, performed by the Advent Chamber Orchestra
Le Petit Negre
Arranged by Anne DeBlois, performed by the Advent Chamber Orchestra
Performed by Sarah Bassingthwaite
  • Problems listening to the files? See media help.



Debussy participated in a handful of recordings, made in 1904, with soprano Mary Garden. He also made some piano rolls for Welte Mignon in 1913.[21]


  1. ^ Politoske, Daniel T.; Martin Werner (1988). Music, Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall. p. 419. ISBN 0-13-607616-5. 
  2. ^ "Claude Debussy — Biographie : 1903 - 1909 - Centre de documentation Claude Debussy". Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  3. ^ "Léon Vallas: ''Claude Debussy - His Life and Works''".,M1. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  4. ^ "Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers".,M1. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  5. ^ Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists, p. 343
  6. ^ "Concerts where Debussy appeared as a pianist". Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  7. ^ Archangel Fashion Cat (.ed) (2002-01-23). "Claude Debussy - the Composer". BBC h2g2. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  8. ^ Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, p. 375
  9. ^ Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist, Tudor Publishing Company, 1940, p.70
  10. ^ Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist, Tudor Publishing Company, 1940, p.77
  11. ^ Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist, Tudor Publishing Company, 1940, p.82
  12. ^ Lockspeiser, Edward (1962). Debussy: His Life and Mind, p.207. ISBN 0304918784 for Vol. 1. cited in Nadeau, Roland (Sep., 1979), "Debussy and the Crisis of Tonality", p.71, Music Educators Journal, Vol. 66, No. 1, pp. 69-73.
  13. ^ Reti, Rudolph (1958). Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313204780. 
  14. ^ Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist, Tudor Publishing Company, 1940, p.161
  15. ^ Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist, Tudor Publishing Company, 1940, p.158-9
  16. ^ Brent Hugh. "Claude Debussy and the Javanese Gamelan". Retrieved 2007-01-27. 
  17. ^ Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist, Tudor Publishing Company, 1940, p.180-5
  18. ^ "The Myths of Alkan". Jack Gibbons. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  19. ^ a b Howat, Roy (1983). Debussy in Proportion: A musical analysis. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521311454. 
  20. ^ a b c d e François Lesure and Roy Howat. "Debussy, Claude." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 14 Dec. 2009 <>.
  21. ^ "Steve's Debussy Page". 1913-11-01. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 


  • Barraqué, Jean (1977). Debussy (Solfèges). Paris: Editions du Seuil. ISBN 2020002426. 

Further reading

  • Fulcher, Jane (ed.) (2001). Debussy and His World (The Bard Music Festival). Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691090424. 
  • Trezise, Simon (ed.) (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521654785. 
  • Roberts, Paul (ed.) (2001). Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy. Amadeus Press. ISBN 1574670689. 
  • Lücke, Hendrik (2005): Mallarmé - Debussy. Eine vergleichende Studie zur Kunstanschauung am Beispiel von „L'Après-midi d'un Faune“. (= Studien zur Musikwissenschaft, Bd. 4). Dr. Kovac, ISBN 3-8300-1685-9.
  • R.S. Parks : The Music of Claude Debussy (New Haven, 1989)
  • R.L. Smith, ed.: Debussy Studies (Cambridge, 1997)
  • R. Nichols : The Life of Debussy (Cambridge, 1998)
  • M. Baigent : The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (G.B 1983)

External links

Music scores


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naïve candour of a child. No doubt, this simple musical grammar will jar on some people. It is bound to offend the partisans of deceit and artifice. I foresee that and rejoice at it.

Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 186225 March 1918) was a French composer, prominent in the style commonly referred to as Impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term.



I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.
  • The colour of my soul is iron-grey and sad bats wheel about the steeple of my dreams.
  • I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! ... It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.
The worship of Adonis is united with that of Christ.
  • Collect impressions. Don’t be in a hurry to write them down. Because that’s something music can do better than painting: it can centralise variations of colour and light within a single picture — a truth generally ignored, obvious as it is.
    • Debussy in a letter to his pupil Raoul Bardac (1906)
  • Every sound perceived by the acute ear in the rhythm of the world about us can be represented musically. Some people wish above all to conform to the rules, I wish only to render what I can hear.
    • Statement of 1910, as quoted in Debussy on Music (1977) edited and translated by Françoise Lesure and Richard Langham Smith, p. 243
Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion...
  • The worship of Adonis is united with that of Christ.
    • On the tale of Saint Sebastian, as told by Gabriele d'Annunzio in the play Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911), for which he wrote the music, as quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225. Shortly before its opening, the Archbishop of Paris declared the work offensive to Christian consciences, and forbid French Catholics to attend upon pain of excommunication.
To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! ... that is what I call prayer.
  • Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist's soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d'Annunzio's mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church.
    Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.
    • On his music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911), in a 1911 interview, as quoted in Dancing in the Vortex : The Story of Ida Rubinstein (2001) by Vicki Woolfe, p. 56
Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.
  • I do not practise religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpetted earth, ... and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. ... To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! ... that is what I call prayer.
    • As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225
    • Variant translation: Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion. The whole expanse of nature is reflected in my own sincere and feeble soul. Around me the branches of trees reach out toward the firmament, here are sweet-scented flowers smiling in the meadow, here the soft earth is carpeted with sweet herbs. ... Nature invites its ephemeral and trembling travelers to experience these wonderful and disturbing spectacles — that is what I call prayer.
    • As quoted in The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 240
  • I wish to write down my musical dreams in a spirit of utter self-detachment. I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naïve candour of a child. No doubt, this simple musical grammar will jar on some people. It is bound to offend the partisans of deceit and artifice. I foresee that and rejoice at it. I shall do nothing to create adversaries, but neither shall I do anything to turn enmities into friendships. I must endeavour to be a great artist so that I may dare to be myself and suffer for my faith. Those who feel as I do will only appreciate me more. The others will shun and hate me. I shall make no effort to appease them. On that distant day — I trust it is still very far off — when I shall no longer be a cause of strife, I shall feel bitter self-reproach. For that odious hypocrisy which enables one to please all mankind will inevitably have prevailed in those last works.
    • As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 226
Is it not our duty to find the symphonic formula which fits our time, one which progress, daring and modern victory demand?
  • The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous may happen.
    • As quoted in Music in the Modern World (1948) by Rollo Hugh Myers, p. 99
    • Variant translation: The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous might happen.
      • As quoted in Debussy (1989) by Paul Holmes, p. 10
As there are no precedents, I must create anew.
  • Music should humbly seek to please; within these limits great beauty may perhaps be found. Extreme complication is contrary to art. Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.
    • Quoted in French Music : From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (1951) by Martin Cooper, p. 136, and in Debussy and Wagner (1979) by Robin Holloway, p. 207
  • A beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.
  • 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.
    • As quoted in Music in History : The Evolution of an Art (1957) by Howard Decker McKinney and William Robert Anderson, p. 640
    • Variant: The century of aeroplanes deserves its own music. As there are no precedents, I must create anew.
    • As quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 69
How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.
  • People don't very much like things that are beautiful — they are so far from their nasty little minds.
    • As quoted in Debussy : Musician of France (1957) by Victor Illyitch Seroff, p. 172
  • Music expresses the motion of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.
    • As quoted in The Twentieth Century (1972) by Caroline Farrar Ware, p. 222
    • Variant translation: Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.
  • How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Time (1979) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 351
I need a text by a poet who, resorting to discreet suggestion rather than full statement, will enable me to graft my dream upon his dream...
  • The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.
    • As quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 194
  • 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.
    • Quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 268
      • Unsourced variant: There is no theory. You have only to listen. Fantasy is the law.
There is nothing more musical than a sunset.
  • Composers aren't daring enough. They're afraid of that sacred idol called "common sense", which is the most dreadful thing I know — after all, it's no more than a religion founded to excuse the ubiquity of imbeciles!
    • Debussy Letters (1987) edited by Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols
  • Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light.
    • As quoted in Greatness : Who Makes History and Why by Dean Keith Simonton, p. 110
  • First of all, ladies and gentlemen, you must forget that you are singers.
    • Instructions to the singers in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, as quoted in 100 Great Operas and Their Stories (1989) by Henry William Simon, p. 371
Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.
  • Music would take over at the point at which words become powerless, with the one and only object of expressing that which nothing but music could express. For this, I need a text by a poet who, resorting to discreet suggestion rather than full statement, will enable me to graft my dream upon his dream — who will give me plain human beings in a setting belonging to no particular period or country. ... Then I do not wish my music to drown the words, nor to delay the course of the action. I want no purely musical developments which are not called for inevitably by the text. In opera there is always too much singing. Music should be as swift and mobile as the words themselves.
    • As quoted in Debussy (1989) by Paul Holmes, p. 36
  • Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.
    • As quoted in Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought (1992) by John Paynter, p. 590
    • Unsourced variant: Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.
  • Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are part of Infinity. ... There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little — the book of Nature.
    • As quoted in The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (1996) by Don Michael Randel
  • What I am trying to do is something different — an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism, a term that is usually misapplied, especially by the critics who don't hesitate to apply it to Turner, the greatest creator of mysterious effects in the whole world of art.
    • As quoted in The Lives of the Great Composers (1997) by Harold C. Schonberg, p. 464
  • Music is the space between the notes.
    • As quoted in Turning Numbers into Knowledge (2001) by Johnathan G. Koomey, p.96 ISBN 0-9706019-0-5
    • Unsourced variant: Music is the silence between the notes.
  • It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you. All people come to music to seek oblivion.
    • As quoted in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (2003) by Simon Trezise, p. 120

The Life of the Creative Spirit

Quotations from The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 239 - 240
Listen to no one's advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind...
  • Art is the most beautiful deception of all! And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory. ... Let us not disillusion anyone by bringing too much reality into the dream.
    • Unsourced variant: Art is the most beautiful of all lies.
  • I believe the principle fault of the majority of writers and artists is having neither the will nor the courage to break with their successes, failing to seek new paths and give birth to new ideas. Most of them produce them twice, three, even four times. They have neither the courage nor the temerity to leave what is certain for what is uncertain. There is, however, no greater pleasure than going into the depth of oneself, setting one's whole being in motion and seeking for new and hidden treasures. What a joy to finde something new in oneself, something that surprises even ourselves, filling us with warmth.
  • Search for a discipline within freedom! Don't let yourelf be governed by formulae drawn from decadent philosophies: they are for the feeble-minded. Listen to no one's advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind...
  • To complete a work is just like being present at the death of someone you love.


  • I am more and more convinced that music is not, in essence, a thing which can be cast into a more traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colours and rhythms.
  • Their conservatoire is the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind among leaves and the thousand sounds of nature.
    • On Javanese music at the 1889 Paris Exposition

Quotes about Debussy

  • I love Italian opera — it’s so reckless. Damn Richard Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death. Damn Debussy, and his averted face. I like the Italians who run all on impulse, and don’t care about their immortal souls, and don’t worry about the ultimate.
    • D. H. Lawrence in a letter (1 April 1911) in The Letters of D.H. Lawrence Vol. 1 (1979), edited by James T. Boulton
  • An examination of the harmonic techniques out of their context has all too often led to misleading terminology such as 'static' or 'non-functional' as a description of Debussy's harmonic methods. Viewed as a whole, however, the tonal coherence of his music depends upon a carefully calculated and often dramatic interaction of these various harmonic 'types' with each other and with orthodox diatonic harmony. The result is a tonal language, but one which is fundamentally different in concept from classical tonality. The detailed classifications of harmonic events is no longer possible in Debussy's music where the central tonality of a work emerges only through a constant focusing and re-focusing on harmonic types.
    • Jim Samson in Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920 (1977), p.38 ISBN 0393021939

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Simple English

Achille-Claude Debussy (born St Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862; died Paris, March 25, 1918) was a French composer. He is one of the most important composers of the early 20th century. Most of his compositions are for orchestra or for piano. He also wrote some songs, chamber music and one opera. He made his music very different from the Romantic style that other composers were using at the time. He is often called an Impressionistic composer because he was influenced by the group of painters called “Impressionists”. They were not so much interested in making their paintings look exactly like the real world, but preferred to paint things such as the effect of the sunlight shining on water. Debussy often did this in his music, which creates a special atmosphere.


Claude Debussy did not have an easy childhood. His father was a travelling salesman and his mother worked as a seamstress. He learned the piano when he was young and went to the Paris Conservatoire. For a time it seemed that he would become a concert pianist, but he did not do well enough in his examination. After winning an important prize, the Prix de Rome, he went to Rome for two years but he did not enjoy it. He visited Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889 to hear Wagner’s operas but he did not like them. He preferred sounds like that of the Javanese gamelan which he heard in Paris at the World Exhibition.

In 1899 he married a young woman named Lily Texier. He got a job as music critic of a journal called La revue blanche. He wrote his opera Pélleas et Mélisande which was performed at the Opéra-Comique. It was extremely successful and was performed 100 times there during the next ten years. He wrote exciting music for orchestra: Fêtes galantes and a work called La Mer (The Sea) which he worked at while staying in Brighton on the south coast of England. It is one of the most exciting pieces of music about the sea.

Debussy was now starting to become very famous. His personal life changed. He left his wife because he had fallen in love with Emma Bardac who was an amateur singer for whom Gabriel Fauré had written a song cycle La Bonne Chanson. Her husband was a banker. She bought an apartment and Debussy lived with her there for the rest of his life. They had a daughter called Chou-Chou, born in 1905. They married in 1908.

Debussy’s next orchestral work was called Images. He began composing a set of preludes for piano. Other works followed: Khamma, Le martyre de St Sébastian and the ballet Jeux, which was produced in 1913 by Dyagilev’s company. People soon forgot about this work because only two weeks later the same ballet company produced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which caused a riot.

By this time Debussy was already ill with cancer. His visit to London in 1914 was his last trip to another country. He wrote more piano works: a set of Études and a piano duet called En blanc et noir (In black and white). He planned to write six sonatas, each for a different group of instruments, but he only wrote three of them: one for cello and piano, one for flute, viola and harp and one for violin and piano. The Sonata for violin and piano (1917) was the last work he played in public (he played the piano part). He became very ill and died in 1918.

His music

Debussy is often thought of together with Ravel, but really they composed in very different ways. Between 1892 and 1894 Debussy worked on a short orchestral piece called Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. It is about a fawn waking up and seeing the world around him. It is based on a poem by Mallarmé, a poet who belonged to the group known as the Symbolists. It is a wonderful piece of music, but many people at the time did not understand it. Saint-Saëns, for example, did not understand the way that the musical ideas flowed gently into one another. He was always an enemy of Debussy.

There is a lot of variety in Debussy’s piano music. Some of it is very difficult to play, e.g. the Études and pieces such as L’isle joyeuse (The happy island). Other collections are much simpler, e.g. Suite bergamasque which includes the very popular piece called Clair de lune (Moonlight). He wrote two books of preludes. Each of the pieces has a title, but the titles are printed at the end of each piece, as if he did not want the listener to know what it was about until afterwards.

Debussy wrote wonderfully for the voice, making the music just right for the rhythm of the French language. This can be heard in his songs and his opera. Using melodies and harmonies which are often quite simple he creates a special kind of dream-world which can be very powerful. He often uses the whole tone scale and the pentatonic scale which give the music a hazy feeling because it does not seem to be clearly in one particular key. He liked to use unusual chords just for their own sake, not in order to make them lead to a particular key. He also used the old scales known as the church modes.

Debussy’s music had a great influence on many composers in the 20th century. Cage, Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen all learned from listening to his music.


Groves Dictionary of Music Onlinepcd:Claude Debussy


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