Salut, Claude!

© Wikipedia

2012 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude-Achille Debussy (22 August 1862–25 March 1918), and, all being well, there will be plenty of performances of his fabulous music to celebrate the occasion.

2011 was of course Franz Liszt’s year, but despite many fine performances to mark the occasion (a couple of which I was fortunate enough to attend – reviews here and here), I suspect the case for Liszt still needs pleading (not something Debussy need worry about, given the perennial popularity of his music). Much of Liszt’s music remains obscure or impenetrable, or simply totally ‘over the top’ to many listeners and performers, and a common misconception remains that much of his music is unplayable, except by top flight virtuosi.

Not so the music of Debussy, which is accessible and generally easy on the ear, and which can be enjoyed by the proficient amateur as well as the professional musician. I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard Debussy’s music: I suspect it may have been a recording of La Mer, a richly evocative piece completed in 1905, after the composer enjoyed a stay at the English seaside resort of Eastbourne. The first piano piece by Debussy I learnt was a simplified version of the languorous Prélude ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (‘the girl with the flaxen hair’); my father and I also played a clarinet and piano version of this, and later I learnt the original piano version. In my teens, I learnt another of the Préludes, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (‘the submerged cathedral’), in which the composer evokes the ancient Breton legend of the cathedral of Ys, which was said to rise from the waves, with its bells tolling, priests chanting, and the organ playing. Subsequently, I’ve dabbled with other Préludes, some of Children’s Corner, and the first two movements of the suite Pour le Piano. This year I’ll be learning more, probably the Hommage à Rameau, more Préludes, and the Valse Romantique.

Together with Maurice Ravel, Debussy is considered to be one of the most prominent figures in the “impressionistic” movement, though he himself disliked the term intensely when applied to his compositions. It is too sweeping a term, making a strong connection with Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet (the Dover editions of Debussy’s piano music have reproductions of paintings by Monet on their covers), and suggesting that Debussy’s music is all about blurred edges and misty harmonies. In a letter from 1908, Debussy described his music as being “an effect of reality”. His musical influences and style are far wider, and his early music demonstrates his interest in the Symbolist movement of art and literature with its dreamy, often morbid romanticism. Already, he was experimenting with harmonic colour, the use of whole-tone scales, and a move away from strictly classical forms of musical construction towards music with a single, continuous theme.

At times, he seems the natural heir to Chopin, with his sensitive approach to melody, filigree passagework and articulation, and fioriture, and his music bridges the gap between the Romantic period and the twentieth-century. In other works, he looks back to ancient music such as Gregorian chant, or East to Javanese gamelan music. In Pour le Piano, he makes direct reference to his French Baroque antecedents in both the organisation and style of the material. His two books of Préludes are related to Bach’s and Chopin’s, but they are impressionistic tone poems, their titles suggesting literary or artistic stimuli. Each is complete within its itself, but by including the title at the end of the piece, Debussy implied a “story” within the music. Meanwhile, his Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune is a revolutionary work, both in style and execution, perhaps the first piece of truly ‘modern’ music, and demonstrating the key features of his music: uncertain or parallel harmonies, unprepared modulations which lack a harmonic ‘bridge’, the use of harmony and chord progressions for colour and timbre, and the use of whole-tone and pentatonic scales.

Debussy is regarded as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. His use of harmony had a direct influence on composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, Boulez, as well as the minimalist composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Toru Takemitsu, and jazz musicians including George Gershwin, Bill Evans and George Shearing.

Today, in performance, his piano music in particular seems to “suffer” occasionally from too impressionistic a reading: there is a misconception that all his music is dreamy, fluid and gentle. It was, compared to the style prevailing at the time of its composition, but we have almost gone too far now. In any event, I am sure we can look forward to plenty of varied performances this year.

I expect everyone has their favourite works by Debussy. I list a handful of my own here:

La plus que Lente (literally “as slow as can be”). A decadent, tender and languorous cocktail waltz, full of subtle ambiguities and sly ironies.

Pascal Rogé – La Plus Que Lente

‘Voiles’ (from Préludes Book 1). More eroticism in a piece employing whole-tone and pentatonic scales to great effect, suggesting both veils and sails

Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: Préludes – Book 1 – 2. Voiles

‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’

Nelson Freire – Debussy: Préludes – Book 1 – 8. La fille aux cheveux de lin

‘La cathedréle engloutie’

Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: Préludes – Book 1 – 10. La cathédrale engloutie

Pour le Piano – there is a pleasing stridency and uprightness in Gilels’ performance, even in the ‘Sarabande’

Hommage à Rameau – another work which harks back to the Baroque, but which shares some of the decadent languor of La plus que lente

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Debussy : Images Set 1 : II Hommage a Rameau


Emmanuel Pahud – Syrinx

Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor

Janine Jansen – Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor – 1. Allegro vivo

Further reading/resources:

Images: the Piano Music of Claude Debussy – Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press)

The Piano Works of Claude Debussy – E. Robert Schmitz (Dover Publications)

Debussy at the Piano – interesting website with accounts describing Debussy as a pianist. Some useful insights into his playing style and how he wanted his piano music to be played.

Playing Debussy’s Piano Works – website by an amateur pianist with playing notes and analysis of many of Debussy’s piano music.

Notes from a Pianist – pianist and blogger Christine Stevenson will be writing about Debussy this year, following on from her journey through the music of Franz Liszt in 2011

Unveiling Debussy – an earlier blog post


  1. As an addition to the reading list, Roy Howat’s “Art of French Piano Music” is really excellent. Lots of detailed stuff on performance practice and put in the context of other French composers e.g. Chabrier, Faure, Ravel.

    • Many thanks, Kevin. I will look out for this – I’ve certainly browsed it on Amazon. Hope you are well and enjoying plenty of music. I am revisiting Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 142/1

  2. Fascinating, as you say, that Debussy is both accessible and popular and yet also one of the key revolutionary figures underpinning much 20th century music.

    It’s easy to assume that radical art will inevitably be unpopular (at least until the artist is dead) – especially as this fits into a certain romantic view – but I’ve often wondered if there is actually any truth to it. I suspect in fact there’s almost no relationship between the two, other than at very sepcific historic moments.

    Another important aspect of Debussy’s position in the history of music is his relationship to Wagner. I see him as one of the most significant figures who, in a sense, helped music get past Wagner. He is a ‘post-wagnerian’ in the sense of deeply absorbing and rejecting, and along with Schoenberg found a language to integrate Wagnerian high romanticism with other strands of 19th century musical thought.

    Looking forward very much to discovering new aspects of his work and hopefully some rarities this year!

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