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Debussy, (Achille-)Claude

The Oxford Companion to Music

Robert Orledge

Debussy, (Achille-)Claude (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. 

The early years

Debussy's early life was unsettled because of his father's numerous occupations and his imprisonment after the Commune of 1871, and he received no formal education until he entered the Paris Conservatoire the following year. Piano lessons with Mme Mauté, who claimed to be Chopin's pupil, led to early hopes of a virtuoso career, but Debussy decided in favour of composition with Ernest Guiraud in 1880 and won the Prix de Rome in 1884 with his cantata L'Enfant prodigue. He regarded the Villa Medici in Rome as a prison, and his ‘envois’ (Zuleima, 1885–6, now lost; Printemps, 1887, reorchestrated by Busser, 1912; La Damoiselle élue, 1887–8) received little approval from the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The most promising work to emerge was a setting of part of Act II of Banville's Diane au bois (1883–6), which anticipated the forest dream world and seductive flute writing of the Prélude à ‘L'Après-midi d'un faune’ (1894), his first great success. Earlier, Debussy had attempted conventional opera with Rodrigue et Chimène (libretto by Catulle Mendès, after Guillén de Castro and Pierre Corneille, 1890–2), which he found grandiose and uncongenial. But both that and the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1887–9) were the vehicles whereby he was able to compose the superficial aspects of Wagnerism out of his system, though a deeper-seated influence and a love–hate relationship with both Wagner and the theatre persisted through to his ballet Jeux (1913).

The year 1893 proved a turning-point for Debussy: La Damoiselle élue at the Société Nationale on 8 April brought his music to public attention, and on 17 May he saw the premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck's Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande (1892) at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. In the shadowy, suggestive, and apparently simple world of Pelléas, Debussy realized he had found his ideal opera libretto, and he set the play directly, in prose (with only four scenes cut), between August 1893 and 17 August 1895. After Albert Carré finally agreed to produce Pelléas at the Opéra-Comique in May 1901, Debussy completed its orchestration, adding extra (Wagnerian) interludes at the last moment to facilitate the complex scene changes. Difficulties with Maeterlinck came to a head at the stormy dress rehearsal on 28 April 1902, chiefly because he had tried to insist that his mistress Georgette Leblanc play Mélisande, instead of Mary Garden who was Debussy's choice. Badly copied parts, injunctions, the sale of defamatory librettos, Garden's Scottish accent, and the completely new operatic conception of Pelléas did little to ease its birth, but in spite of being thought formless, monotonous, decadent, and technically incomprehensible by many of its audience, the younger enthusiastic element prevailed and the opera entered the repertory. Like Wagner, Debussy gave the orchestra a substantial commentatorial role and used recurring themes. But the latter were subtly adapted to the characters' changing states of mind and feelings rather than being mere ‘visiting-cards’ announcing their entry. The main influence was more Musorgsky in the precise prosody and naturalness of the recitative-like vocal lines.

Otherwise, Debussy's theatrical career was one of ‘compulsive inachievement’ (Holloway). He never again found his ideal poem or poet, and his one-act Edgar Allen Poe operas Le Diable dans le beffroi (1902–?12) and La Chute de la maison Usher (1908–17) remain unfinished, as does his music for Le Roi Lear (1904) and No-ja-li (1913–14). Other dramatic projects were, like his uncongenial foreign conducting tours, accepted for financial reasons and often required outside assistance to complete their orchestration. Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (a five-act mystery by Gabriele D'Annunzio mixing Christianity with paganism) was completed in 1911 with André Caplet's help; Khamma (a ‘ballet pantomime’ commissioned by the exotic dancer Maud Allan) was finished by Charles Koechlin in 1912–13; and La Boîte à joujoux (1913, a children's ballet by André Hellé) was completed by Caplet in 1919.

After ‘Pelléas’

In almost every respect the performance of Pelléas et Mélisande forms a watershed in Debussy's career. While his songs are evenly spread before and after in terms of quality (compare the two sets of Paul Verlaine's Fêtes galantes of 1891 and 1904), his best piano music dates from after he left his first wife Rosalie (Lilly) Texier for Emma Bardac in June 1904. Their daughter Claude-Emma (Chouchou) was born on 30 October 1905 and her parents married on 20 January 1908. The piano pieces inspired by their ‘honeymoon’ in Jersey and Dieppe in the summer of 1904 included Masques and the unusually extrovert L'Isle joyeuse, and these, like Debussy's two series of Images (1905, 1907), were first performed by Ricardo Viñes. Chouchou's infant world inspired the Children's Corner suite (1906–8) with its celebrated Tristan parody in Golliwogg's Cake-Walk, but Debussy is best known for his two books of Préludes (1909–10, 1911–13), which evoke a series of widely varied natural subjects from the antics of Christy ‘minstrels’ at Eastbourne in 1905 and the American acrobat ‘Général Lavine’ to dead leaves and the sounds and scents of the evening air. They are wrongly termed impressionistic, for Debussy's inspiration owed far more to the painter J. M. W. Turner and to the literary *symbolist movement. But in his orchestral Images (Gigues, 1909–12; Ibéria, 1905–8; and Rondes de printemps, 1905–9), Debussy told his publisher Jacques Durand that he was ‘attempting something different—in a sense, realities’, and he delightedly described to Caplet in 1910 how natural the join between the last two parts of Ibéria sounded, almost as if it were improvised. He claimed he could actually hear ‘the watermelon merchant and the whistling urchins’ at the start of ‘Le Matin d'un jour de fête’, though such moments of complete artistic optimism were sadly rare.

Debussy's style

‘Music is made up of colours and barred rhythms’, Debussy told Durand in 1907, and in his experiments with timbre and his efforts to free music from formal convention he tried many different solutions—from proportional structures based on the Golden Section (La Mer; L'Isle joyeuse) to the cinematographic form of Jeux, with its constant motivic renewal in which undulating fragments gradually evolve into a scalar theme which is itself broken off at its violent climax. As elsewhere in Debussy's works, this climax is approached by a series of lesser ones and is placed as near to the end as he dared. Debussy's earlier orchestral music includes the Nocturnes (1897–9), with their exceptionally varied textures ranging from the Musorgskian start of Nuages, through the approaching brass band procession in Fêtes, to the wordless female chorus in Sirènes, whose study of ‘sea-textures’ is a kind of preparation for La Mer (1903–5). Here the ever-changing moods of the sea are fully explored and the three ‘symphonic sketches’ together make up a giant sonata-form movement with its own Franckian cyclic theme. The evocative central ‘Jeux de vagues’ is a sort of development section leading into the final ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, a powerful essay in orchestral colour and sonority.

After La Mer, the woodwind increasingly carried the main thematic burden, and the percussion gradually gained in importance via Ibéria to the subtleties of Jeux. Here, Debussy attempted to find an orchestra ‘without feet … lit from behind’ as in Wagner's Parsifal. In spite of its radical nature, Jeux was overshadowed in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes season (15 May 1913) by the succès de scandale of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring a fortnight later. The cordial relations between the two composers deteriorated after this, though Stravinsky's rising genius had earlier influenced Debussy: Khamma (1911–12), for instance, shows how well Debussy had learnt the lesson of Petrushka. Whereas Debussy's early songs, inspired by his affair with a Madame Vasnier, included much showy vocalise, his settings were more mature and restrained from the Ariettes oubliées (1885–7) onwards. He wrote his own poems for the Proses lyriques (1892–3) and for the recently rediscovered Nuits blanches (1898–1902) but, as in La Chute de la maison Usher, his literary talents were not on a par with his musical imagination. His career as a songwriter culminated in the sensitive and witty Trois ballades de François Villon (1910) and in the Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913). Two of the latter (Soupir and Placet futile) were also set by Ravel in the same year (to Debussy's annoyance), both composers finding inspiration in the atmospheric qualities and formal subtlety of Mallarmé's poetry.

Debussy's career in chamber music had had an auspicious beginning with his cyclic String Quartet (1893), the influential scherzo of which, with its cross-rhythms and flying pizzicatos, recalled the gamelan sonorities he had heard at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. But apart from the Première rapsodie for clarinet and piano (1909–10), written for the Paris Conservatoire, it was not until his final years that Debussy reverted to the medium. Ever concerned with the necessity for French music to be true to itself, he planned a series of six chamber sonatas in a nationalistic spirit looking back to Rameau. Before finally succumbing to rectal cancer, he completed three of them: the Cello Sonata (1915, contemporary with En blanc et noir for two pianos and the 12 Études in memory of Chopin), the Sonata for flute, viola, and harp (1915), and the Violin Sonata (1916–17). The finale of the last sonata caused the ailing Debussy enormous difficulty, though there is virtually no evidence of declining powers in any of his wartime music. All three sonatas anticipated neo-classicism in their simplicity, clarity, and stylistic restraint.

Robert Orledge


E. Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 2 vols. (London, 1962, 1965/R1979)Find this resource:

    R. Orledge, Debussy and the Theatre (Cambridge, 1982)Find this resource:

      R. Howat, Debussy in Proportion (Cambridge, 1983)Find this resource:

        F. Lesure and R. Nichols (eds.), Debussy Letters (London, 1987)Find this resource:

          R. Nichols, Debussy Remembered (London, 1992, 2/1998)Find this resource:

            R. Langham Smith, Debussy Studies (Cambridge, 1997)Find this resource:

              R. Nichols, The Life of Debussy (Cambridge, 1998)Find this resource:

                S. Tresize (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge, 2003)Find this resource: