Classical Composer Profile: Claude Debussy
by Betty Fry
Claude Debussy is often described as an impressionist composer because of his genius for painting images in sound, and this is perfectly illustrated by the lovely sensuous strains of ‘Claire de lune’ (moonlight).
Listening to it, as I was not many moments before I started writing these words, I did not need to pull my curtains to see the moon that will be lighting my garden, and reflecting in the goldfish pond. The music itself evokes its silvery light.
At first the music is quiet, peaceful, even tinged with a kind of melancholy . Then it becomes more urgent; rippling notes bring a change of mood, the surface of the pool is disturbed, the senses race, the pulse quickens, and then finally the opening theme returns, and all is serene once more.
Above all other pieces ‘Claire de lune’ from his ‘Suite bergamasque’ is immediately recognisable as the music of Debussy. Even before I recognise the melody, the gentle notes stir my heart with delight, and I cannot help but relax, close my eyes so that I can more clearly see the picture he has painted, and surrender to the mood his music creates in me.
He took each of these titles from a poem by the celebrated and decadent French poet Paul Verlaine, who in turn was inspired by the 18th century paintings of elegant garden parties. In fact at one time Debussy had almost decided he wanted to be a painter, but fortunately for the world it soon emerged that his future lay in music. And yet, somehow he brings into his music a picture so vivid it becomes almost tangible.
Claude Debussy was born in 1862 above his father’s china shop in very humble circumstances. His father was clearly an activist of some kind because in 1871 he was sent to prison for a political offence.
Born with a double forehead his parents feared he would develop fluid on the brain. But although this did not happen, any pictures of him show his hair cut in a deep fringe which adequately hides the deformity.
Because of his misshapen head he was not sent to school but was taught to read and write by his mother. This meant his education was not good; he lacked the company of other children; and was shy, clumsy, and often unhappy.
Fortunately Claude did have wealthy God parents who recognised his musical talent and when he was nine he began musical studies with Madame Maute, a disciple of Chopin, and a year later entered the Paris Conservatoire. He showed promise as a virtuoso but his lack of progress disappointed his teacher.
However from about the age of fifteen he began composing songs and short instrumental pieces, and in the summer of 1880 was engaged as a pianist by Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy patroness of Tchaikovsky. At the time he was writing a piano trio and other music which she showed to Tchaikovsky who found fault with the young composer’s sense of form.
This criticism resulted in Debussy enrolling in the composition class of Ernest Guiraud at the Conservatoire, who was clearly a great teacher, because four years later his young pupil won the prestigious Prix de Rome.
This award entitled Debussy to a period of residence in Rome during which he was expected to write new works and submit them to the French Academic des Beaux Arts.
But although he met Liszt, who played to him, and introduced him to the beauties of sacred music, he was unhappy during his sojourn there, and irked by the restrictions of student life.
He also disliked being separated from the singer Blanche Vasnier, with whom he had fallen in love, and who had already performed some of his music. Nor was he very happy when the French Academy criticised his orchestral suite ‘Printemps’ for what they called its ‘vague impressionism’, and in 1887 he returned to his parents’ house in Paris.
In 1888-9 he visited Bayreuth and came under the spell of Wagner; was enthralled by the Javanese gamelan orchestra who came to Paris for the World Exhibition; and began an affair with Gabrielle Dupont.
This relationship lasted some years, but ended badly when in 1897 she attempted suicide. Two years later he married her friend Lilly Texier. But five years later he left her for Emma Bardac, a rich widow. Utterly devoted to him Lilly also attempted suicide, but succeeded only in injuring herself.
These events caused considerable scandal at the time, particularly when a daughter Claude-Emma and whom Debussy affectionately called Chouchou was born to Emma in 1905. But in 1908 Debussy married Emma.
And it was for Chouchou that Debussy wrote his ‘Children’s Corner Suite’ which includes the familiar ‘Golliwog Cakewalk’, ‘Jimbo’s lullaby’, and ‘The Snow is Dancing’ which magically conjures up the winter scene a young girl might watch through a window.
The musical means are simple. A constant chatter of notes suggesting snowflakes runs through the piece, sometimes disjointed, other times smooth and rippling. The constantly changing notes reflecting the ever varied dance of the snowflakes before spiralling to the ground.
Debussy took his ‘Gollywog Cakewalk’ melody from a military march. He speeded up the tempo, jazzed up the rhythms, and so helped ragtime catch on in Paris, and children to see, if they listen carefully, the title character strutting about to the jaunty music.
Debussy’s title ‘Jimbo’ is his misspelling of Jumbo, and the elephant lullaby opens with a soft lumbering sort of phrase. This pace gradually picks up and the melody, with its hint of the Orient, briefly shines through, before the merest whisper of an ending – all wrapped up in some of Debussy’s own magical harmonies.
Although not overly fond of children, Debussy adored the daughter who arrived at a time when the composer was troubled by illness, debt, and scandal, and became the joy of his life. People generally found Debussy cold, and always angry, but a different person again when with his beloved Chouchou.
But a year after her birth it became clear that he was suffering from cancer. In 1915 he underwent an operation which resulted in his wearing a colostomy device for the rest of his life. He died on the 25th March, 1918 and his daughter was able to write in her diary that at last he looked ‘oh so happy’. The following year she died of influenza in the epidemic that swept across Europe after the first World War.
Debussy was one of the most influential composers for the piano of his time. Rejecting the lush romantic music of that period, he developed his own highly individual and refined style. His music reflected the artistic styles of France as he knew them, Symbolism in literature, and Impressionism in painting, so that his work is often linked or compared with painters from Turner whom he greatly admired; to Monet whose water colours are often the visual counterparts of his pieces.
“Music has this over painting” Debussy is said to have declared in 1906, “it can bring together all manner of variations of colour and light, and of course is always in motion as opposed to static as a painting can only be”.
He believed his music should have ‘colour and rhythms’ rather than the ‘lifeless rules invented by pedants’.
By following his instinct and what he called his ‘ear’ he brought to music a unique world of sensibility. And while his work is often exquisite as in the lovely ‘Clair de lune’ or the tender ‘La Fille aux cheveux’ (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), it sometimes has power and drama.
In this latter context I think of the elemental force of ‘La Mer’ (the Sea), or the passion of his only completed opera ‘Pelleas et Melisande’.
This opera depicted the agonising jealousy of Prince Golaud over the growing youthful affection between his wife and his half brother Pelleas.
Like the man himself, Debussy’s ‘preludes’ are not a prelude to anything, but self contained pieces. Nearly all evoking extremes of mood, from sunlight on water, to wind and snow. As in the pure love for his daughter, and the anger that sometimes seemed to consume him.