Friday, June 7, 2013


Composer Assignment: Achille Claude Debussy
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… There’s no need either for music to make people think! ... It would be enough if music could make people listen.” –Debussy, personal letter to Paul Dukas
            The work of Achille-Claude Debussy enjoys the rarified distinction of having been popular while he was alive, as well as posthumously. Born in France in 1862 to a poor family, Debussy was raised to better means by the patronage of a Russian businesswoman. With an artist’s penchant for indulgence to his own whims, he lived a life flush with romantic intrigue and scandal. Debussy was recognized for his abilities, receiving a prestigious award with the dubious prize of a mandatory residence at the Villa Medici, which, by then, had the reputation for being disruptive to the creative process and alienating for the artists themselves. His life went on to take him up, down, and across Europe, ending back in Paris, at the time of his death on March 25, 1918.
Debussy was inclined to compose for piano, if volume is any indication; though he also composed a number of pieces for small orchestras and quartet as well.  Combining the complications of his relationships with the patronage he received and the music he composed, his emotions were intricately wrought into tangibility by his expressive compositions. He became well known for his rather rogue-ish treatment of the lingering ideals of Classical composition; in breaking from the traditional scales to nearly-relying on dissonance and unprepared modulations to build interest within his music.
“…Debussy "untethered" the basic elements of music: particularly harmony, phrase, and rhythm. Although Liszt and Wagner before him had come up with unusual harmonies, the progress from one chord to another was what the technicians call "functional." That is, the chord change somehow related to the key you were in. Debussy undermined this every which way, from his use of the old modes to his experiments with the whole-tone and octatonic scales. Debussy seemed to throw in whatever succession of chords he wanted, governed by his ear and his taste.” –Steve Schwartz (2)
A freehand with dissonances, which was not widely done in Debussy’s time in Western Music, starting even in some of his earliest works such as “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune”; a piece which remained very popular throughout his life and beyond. He was interested in distinguishing between the abstract values of music and more visual art forms. Shunning the assignation of the Impressionist title, Debussy said,
"I am trying to do 'something different'- in way realities- what the imbeciles call `impressionism' is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics." (Letter, March 1908).
            Keeping his protestations in mind, I find it difficult to separate much of his music from the dominant visual art style of the time. Listening to one his most famous works “La Mer” is something akin to viewing San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk as seen and painted by Monet. The swell of the music creates an image of the swelling of the sea. Not literal, it is merely the impression left in my mind. The music manages to build tension without violently affronting the senses. Not relying on tricks of dynamics to stun the listener, but rather, he focused on the texture and chord progressions to draw a listener in; inviting the mind to become enveloped in the music. A successful technique based on my own reaction to his music and by the reception his contemporaries gave him and his fame long after his death. As further proof, I have had Debussy’s music as my ringback tone for years and I am frequently complimented for its quality.
            Debussy is easily one of the most famous composers of his and all time. His association with other greats of his time amongst the Symbolist and Impressionist movements, the regard of his peers, and the interesting way he threw out the accepted norms of composition, all carved his name in the annals of time as a revolutionary artist.
I chose Debussy because of how much I like his body of work. I have several records of his music and they fit alongside my life. Each composition interesting enough to be concentrated upon, but not so jarring that it can’t serve as background music as well. There is a great chasm of difference between his music and that of the classical period composers and it is a difference that I like. His similarities to Wagner also attracted me. On Pandora you cannot listen to a Wagner station without Debussy being played at some point, which was the first time I can remember hearing Debussy. Yet despite those similarities, their works are easily distinguished from each other. Wagner kept more in line with compositional styles already established though his “Tristan und Isolde” and “Ride of the Valkyrie” paint pictures in the mind as Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and “La Mer” do.
His life too, interests me. The apparent ease with which he settled into a more privileged life and his philandering, the great number of married women he fell into dalliances with despite having a very misshapen head. The unapologetic way in which he bent music to his way of thinking, the arrogance that translated even into his musical notation, the alignment of many of his actions to every cliché ever ascribed to flighty, self-absorbed, tortured artists. I love it.


Debussy’s personal letters:

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