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Claude Debussy

1862 - 1918

Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918), known since the 1890s as Claude-Achille Debussy or Claude Debussy, was a French composer. He and Maurice Ravel were the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though Debussy disliked the term when applied to his compositions. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed.

Debussy's music is noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of nontraditional tonalities.The prominent French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.

Claude Debussy was born in St German-en-Laye and was encouraged to take up music at an early age. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, and quickly learned to play a considerable repertoire of very difficult piano works. However, he abandoned his planned career as a virtuoso pianist when he joined the Conservatoire's composition class in 1880 and won the coveted Prix de Rome competition twice. He travelled extensively in these early years, visiting Italy, Vienna, and Russia. He also spent two unhappy years studying in Rome. He was known as a moody, unsociable youth who found it difficult to endure the company of strangers even temporarily.

Debussy returned from Rome in 1887, and m 1888 and 1889 followed the well-worn path to Bayreuth in order to sample Wagner's genius. He also attended the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889 where, like Ravel, he was enthralled by the Javanese gamelan music. During this tune he set up house with a girlfriend, Gabrielle Dupont, with whom he would live in poverty for six years.

In 1892 he began one of his best-known orchestral works, Prelude a l'apresmidi d'un faune. At the first performance it was enthusiastically received and accorded an immediate encore, and the work is now recognized as breaking new musical ground with its unconventional and "impressionistic" harmonics. Based on a poem by Stephane Mallarme, which describes the dreams and desires of a faun basking in the afternoon heat, the music consists of a beautiful and sensual mosaic of sound graphically depicting the erotic content of the poem.

In 1893 Debussy began work on his only completed opera, Pelleas et Melisande. It took the composer almost ten years to finish and was premiered at the Opera-Comique in 1902. The music turns away from the drama and thunderous passion of Wagnerian opera, remaining for the most part subdued and always allowing the words to be clearly audible. The trance-like quality of the score almost hypnotizes the listener with a new and beautiful world of sound. For many Pelleas et Melisande is Debussy's finest creation.

The years 1904 and 1905 were especially fertile for Debussy. He completed the first book of Images for piano and the popular orchestral work La Mer (The Sea) which makes full use of the impressionistic techniques developed in previous works. At the same time Debussy's personal life was in tumult. In 1904 he left his wife. Lily, whom he had married barely five years before, to move in with a wealthy lady, Emma Bardac, who was later to become his second wife. Distraught, his first wife shot herself; she was badly wounded and taken to a nursing home. An enormous scandal ensued, fuelled by comments from the press. Many of the composer's friends held him to blame and broke with him in disgust. During this time he was also plagued by a series of lawsuits, a result of debts, which continued to plague him until his death.

Debussy was now well established and his music increasingly performed, although controversy attended nearly every new work at its first performance. A second book of Images for piano was followed in 1908 by the delightful collection of piano pieces Children's corner, dedicated to his daughter. From this set the Golliwog's cakewalk is especially well known, featuring a playful skit on the opening of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. Two sets of Preludes were completed in 1910 and 1913 and a book of Etudes in 191 5 — also for the piano.

Debussy's last major orchestral work, the ballet score Jeux, has been described as "a beautiful nightmare." Commissioned by Diaghilev, it was premiered in 1912. In 1909 Debussy had been diagnosed as having cancer, which by 1915 was so serious that he had to undergo surgery. He died m 1918, internationally recognized as the foremost French composer of his time. The use of exotic and unconventional harmonies, together with the delicate colouring which characterizes his work, have revealed Debussy as an innovator who has inspired generations of subsequent composers, and have ensured him a position among the greatest of twentieth-century composers.

"It is unnecessary for music to make people think... it would be enough if it made them listen."

Claude Debussy   

Key Works

Suite Bergamasque

[00:04] 1. Prélude
[06:09] 2. Minuet
[11:24] 3. Clair de lune
[18:17] 4. Passepied

La Mer

1 "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" (from dawn to midday on the sea);
2 "Jeux de vagues" (Play of the Waves);
3 "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the wind and the sea).

Préludes, Book 1

00:00 I Danseuses de Delphes. Lent et grave
03:08 II Voiles. Modéré
07:07 III Le vent dans la plaine. Animé
09:19 IV Les sons es les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir. Modéré
12:55 V Les collines d'Anacapri. Très modéré
16:09 VI Des pas sur la neige. Triste et lent
20:13 VII Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest. Animé et tumultueux
23:51 VIII La fille aux cheveux de lin. Très calme et doucement expressif
26:17 IX La sérénade interrompue. Modérément animé
28:53 X La cathédrale engloutie. Profondément calme
35:17 XI La danse de Puck. Capricieux et léger
38:12 XII Minstrels. Modéré

Préludes, Book 2

01. [00,01~] Brouillards (3'31)
02. [03.33~] Feuilles mortes (4'00)
03. [07,30~] La puerta del vino (3'08)
04. [10,40~] Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (3'14)
05. [13,51~] Bruyères (3'06)
06. [17,00~] "General Lavine" - excentric (2'38)
07. [19,36~] La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (4'32)
08. [24,10~] Ondine (3'24)
09. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (2,25)
10. Canope (3'15)
11. Les tierces alternées (2'47)
12. Feux d'artifice (4'37)

Trois Nocturnes

1. Nuages ("Clouds")
2. Fêtes ("Festivals")
3. Sirènes ("Sirens")

Images pour orchestre

1. Gigues (0:00)
2. Iberia:
I. Par les rues et par les chemins (7:30)
II. Les parfums de la nuit (14:30)
III. Le matin d'un jour de fête (22:00)
3. Rondes de printemps (26:20)

Danse sacrée et danse profane, for harp and strings 

I. Danse sacrée [0:00]
II. Danse profane [5:13]

Debussy's grave at Passy Cemetery in Paris

Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun

String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10

I. Animé et très décidé - 00:00
II. Assez vif et bien rythmé - 06:17
III. Andantino, doucement expressif - 10:17
IV. Très moderé - Très mouvementé et avec passion - 17:34

Chansons de Bilitis

1. La Flûte de Pan
2. La Chevelure
3. Le Tombeau des Naïades

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