Tesla CEO Elon Musk posted a lovely video of Debussy’s ‘Arabesque No.1’, charmingly rendered on the piano by his son at a retirement home in California, in October 2019 –viewed over 1,50,000 times on Twitter. French composer, Claude Debussy, born in 1862 to poor parents in a Paris suburb, is attributed to have created mature compositions with a highly original system of harmony and musical structure, blending modernism with sensuality.
Regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Debussy was known for the adoption of non-traditional scales and tonal structures, so much so that he is considered the founder and leading exponent of musical Impressionism, a label which he disliked.
As a child, Debussy’s impoverished parents wanted him to be a sailor—fortunately, an affluent aunt’s indulgence enabled him to take piano lessons and get into the tradition-bound Paris Conservatory by the age of eleven. In the next decade or so, he evolved quickly and started surprising his teachers with his brilliance which sometimes bordered on brazen independence. When during a class, his teacher proclaimed, ‘Modulate!’ ‘Modulate!!’ Debussy’s cool response was, ‘Why? I’m perfectly happy where I am.’ Another time, when another composition teacher said to him, ‘I’m not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd’ Debussy retorted, ‘There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.’
Debussy’s novel works include the Clair de lune (Moonlight, in Suite bergamasque, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun),Pelléas et Mélisande, and La Mer (The Sea).
Clair de Lune
At the age of 22, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata L’enfant prodigue which funded his study in Rome and subsequent trips to Bayreuth and the Paris World Exhibition. It was during this phase that his inclination towards Wagner surfaced and subsequently declined.
When he was 32, Debussy witnessed the successful premiere of revolutionary work, viz Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). The next year it was followed by the phenomenal opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. These two works would be creating fans and critics alike. In essence, the huge acclaim pitchforked him to the status of a leading figure in French music; so much so that terms like Debussysme (Debussyism) were coined.
Debussy’s inclination to the English Pre-Raphaelite painters was evident in La Damoiselle élue. But he was constantly evolving and searching new frontiers where the various influences merged to create an imaginative unfathomable composition. This could be gleaned from his spectrum of works: the opera, Pelleas et Melisande, and La Mer.
Arabesque No 1
His private life witnessed turbulences such as having a mistress for ten years; then being twice married; the attempted suicide of his first wife, Rosalie Texier, whom he had abandoned to marry singer, Emma Bardac. This marriage was happy and their daughter Claude-Emma, whom they called “Chouchou” was a source of joy in his later years; and became the subject of the composer’s Children’s Corner piano suite.
Debussy’s biography in French written by François Lesure, depicts him as ‘withdrawn, unsociable, taciturn, skittish, susceptible, distant, shy’. Or he was described as ‘catlike and solitary living in a kind of haughty misanthropy, behind a rampart of irony.’ Debussy said of himself thus: “Those around me persist in not understanding that I have never been able to live in a real-world of people and things.”
In his later years, unconventional works like Cello Sonata marked Debussy’s instrumental writing phase in search of illusion. Debussy’s genius was cut short by a bout of cancer to which he succumbed when he was just 55 years old. In his last works, the piano pieces En blanc et noir (In Black and White) and in the Douze Études (Twelve Études), Debussy had explored modes of composition which later developed in the styles of composers like Stravinsky and Bela Bartok.
The Vintage Guide to Classical Music makes a pertinent comment: ‘In his own time, Debussy’s voice was like the intrusion of a dream world into sound…Even individual instruments seem remade into visions and suggestions: a flute becomes the memory of a caress, a cymbal becomes a chill ocean spray. Compared to Debussy’s luminescent orchestra, that of Wagner and Brahms seems turgid and opaque; compared to the intoxicating perfumes of his harmonies, later innovators of the twentieth century seem almost puritan.’