This week, we celebrated the birthday of Claude Debussy with a show examining the music surrounding his life and the influence he had on other composers. Browse belowe to become a Debussyist!
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) The Rite of Spring (piano, 4 hands version) When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its infamous premiere in 1913 with the Ballet Russe, it overshadowed Debussy’s ballet Jeux, which had premiered just two weeks earlier. However, Debussy was reportedly on friendly terms with Stravinsky. He sang the praises of Petrushka and the Firebird, and even performed alongside Stravinsky at a house party to debut this piano transcription for four hands of The Rite of Spring. Debussy’s relationship with ballet and theatre in general, however, was more fraught. Though he was fascinated with theatre, he was convinced that he needed to invent a new form to truly express the unusual dramatic nuances and complexities of his ideas. Every attempt at composing for the stage was an arduous and experimental process, and many of his attempts remain unfinished.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) Tristan and Isolde: Prelude to Act III Historians have dramatically pointed to the famous “Tristan chord” in Wagner’s legendary Tristan and Isolde as the moment classical music shifted from Romanticism to Modernism. Claude Debussy, who would become one of the most influential pioneers of the Modernist sound, saw a performance of Wagner’s opera in 1887 when he was 25 years old. Like many composers of the time, he was profoundly affected by Wagner’s music, calling Tristan and Isolde “the most beautiful thing I know.” Hints of Wagner appear all over Debussy’s music, especially in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which directly evokes moments from Parsifal, another of Wagner’s operas that Debussy admired until the end of his life. As Debussy matured as a composer, he also pushed away from the Wagnerian influence, turning to tonalities from Java and Japan in part as an act of rebellion against the musical grip Wagner still had on western harmony in the late 19th century.
Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) Toward the Sea II. Moby Dick Takemitsu has mentioned several French composers who were musical inspirations, especially Debussy and later on, Messiaen. As Western music was banned in Japan during the 1940’s, Takemitsu’s exposure to Western classical music was through bootlegged gramophone recordings, and music broadcasts for American soldiers while he was working at a military base. Like Debussy, Takemitsu was deeply fascinated with water and all of its manifestations. His multi-movement work Towards the Sea exists in three versions: first for flute and guitar, then harp and strings, and lastly for harp and flute. A three-note motif regularly occurs throughout each movement consisting of E-flat, E, and A, which if you swap E-flat for the German name, which is ES, includes the word “sea.”
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) Sarabande In 2018, on the centenary of Debussy’s death, New Yorker columnist Alex Ross used a good phrase to describe Debussy’s music: “A Velvet Revolution.” When Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun premiered for example, the piece’s style, harmony and subject were radical, however, it was generally well received. Debussy ushered a startling new beauty into classical music without being shocking. One of the techniques by which he managed this was maintaining a connection to ancient music . He much prefered the modal melodies of the French medieval era to the major and minor scales of his own time, and made references to Baroque music with his Passepied in the Suite Bergamasque, and his Hommage a Rameau in his solo piano suite Images. Rameau preceded Debussy as a musical revolutionary, although his music was more divisive in its own time, with many listeners still preferring the style of Jean Baptiste Lully.
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) Seven Songs, OP. 2: 'Les Papillons' & 'Le Colibri' From a young age, Ernest Chausson showed a deep interest and genuine talent in many areas of the arts, including writing and drawing. Thanks to the connections of his affluent bourgeois family, he was in regular attendance at notable Parisian salons, and was able to cultivate an appreciation for current intellectual trends in music and literature in 19th century Paris. Despite this, he ultimately decided to study law, earning a full doctorate and becoming a barrister by the time he was 22. However before actually beginning a practice he switched gears and enrolled in the Conservatoire, becoming a composition student of Massenet in 1879. Though Massenet considered him an exceptional student, he failed to win the coveted Prix de Rome and dropped out so he could travel to Bayreuth and see Wagner’s operas. Though no longer a student, he was still heavily involved in music. He listened in on Franck’s composition classes and became secretary of the Societe Nationale de Musique, while also holding his own influential salons at his home. It was there that he became an ardent admirer and dear friend of Claude Debussy, turning pages for him during performances, and even discreetly sending him monetary support during Debussy’s many financial struggles. Chausson’s own compositional style bridges the gap between the conventional French Romanticism of Massenet and the personal mysticism encouraged by Franck.
André Caplet (1878-1925) Two Divertissements: 1a francaise By age 12, Andre Caplet had already begun his professional music career as a rehearsal pianist for a cabaret. He was admitted into the Paris Conservatory in 1896, studying harmony with Leroux. It was evident he would have a brilliant career after winning the Prix de Rome on his first attempt. Initially employed as a timpanist for the Colonne orchestra, he was eventually promoted to assistant conductor, as well as becoming the music director for the Odeon Theatre in Paris in 1898. He was a perfectionist as both a conductor and a composer, and was captivated by the harmonies of Debussy, with whom he became close friends in 1907. In fact, he became Debussy’s proofreader for many compositions and was entrusted to orchestrate and premiere Debussy’s music. Debussy had several odd nicknames for him recognizing the necessity of his proofreading skills, such as the “Angel of Correction” and the “Tomb of Errors.”
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) Meditations on a Theme of Debussy Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, made him a star in his home country of France after it was written in 1902, and is generally regarded as the work that made him hugely famous throughout Europe as well. However, it surprised Debussy on his travels post Pelleas, to learn that his earlier music was already well-known in Russia, and in Hungary, so much so that Debussy wrote that some of his pieces were more popular there than in Paris. Hungarian composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly were well aware of Debussy’s music by 1909, and huge fans. Bartok dedicated one of his Op. 20 Improvisations to Debussy, and Kodaly composed the music we just listened to on a theme from Pelléas et Mélisande.
Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle By the early 1900s, the term “Debussysme” (Debussyism) began to appear in conversations surrounding French music composition. At the Paris Conservatoire and French Academy in Rome, being called a Debussyiste was an insult. Those were Debussy’s early stomping grounds, where his style was called quote“ bizarre, incomprehensible and unperformable. ”For Gustave Samazeuilh and many other composers, being called a “Debussyiste” was a badge of honor. You can hear the influence of Debussy in Samazeuilh’s music. At 19 years old, he took lessons with Debussy and eventually became his unofficial publacist. Like Debussy, he also became a respected music critic, writing in major music journals for the premieres of composers such as Paul Dukas, and Vincent D’Indy.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918) Passepied (from Suite bergamasque) Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque has become one of the composer’s most famous piano suites, although this set of early works was not originally intended for publication. It was Debussy’s publisher who convinced him, and in 1905, fifteen years after they were written, the Suite Bergamasque was finally published. It’s highly likely that Debussy thoroughly edited the works too. We know that he changed several of the works’ titles. Inspired by the poetry of Paul Verlaine, the “Promenade Sentimentale” became the famous “Clair De Lune.” And the “Pavane” movement as it was originally called became this “Passepied,” a type of fast triple meter dance especially popular in the Baroque era. In the dance, one foot passes over the other, which is why “passepied” literally translates in French to “passing foot.”