August Composer of the Month

COMPOSER OF THE MONTH: CLAUDE DEBUSSY

On August 22, 1862, Victorine Debussy gave birth to her first child in an old, rented three-floor house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a Parisian working class suburb. The baby boy was named Claude, the son of a seamstress and the owner of a crockery shop located on the home’s ground floor. Victorine went on to give birth to four more children, Adèle, Emmanuel, Alfred, and Eugène-Octave. The family of seven, however, was far from close-knit. Victorine was not particularly enamored by motherhood and yearned for independence. She sent Alfred and Adèle to be raised by their aunt and godmother, and tragically lost Eugène to meningitis at the age of 4. Emmanuel had a penchant for delinquency and was often dragged into the police station, resulting in his unsurprising departure from home at a young age. He became a farm hand. The eldest son, however, went on to become an unlikely canonized composer, an enigmatic character that left an everlasting body of work that continues to capture millions.

The humble and chaotic upbringing of Claude Debussy was far from emblematic of his future. He lived a fascinating, yet reclusive life and left a legacy as a prolific composer, a harmonic innovator, and a demi-god in Parisian salons. Today, his popularity hasn’t waned. Beginning piano students dream of playing Claire de Lune, experienced pianists eagerly play his pieces, and even the world of marketing and commerce has embraced the evocative effect of his music. 

Debussy’s ethereal compositions evoke listeners with a sense of wonder, provoking ripples of goose-bumps, as his emotive and lawless music necessitates the immersion of sublime magnificence. How exactly, then, was he able to create his own harmonic style and orchestral coloring? What precisely informed his groundbreaking work, so rich in essentialism that human beings of all creeds agree on the veracity of its beauty? Debussy himself concurred that there is no answer to these questions that can satisfy any sort of formulaic, results-yielding explanation. Rather, he wrote that “we should constantly be reminding ourselves that the beauty of a work of art is something that will always remain mysterious.” And this mystery is what he vehemently urged mankind to preserve. 

Debussy spent ample time in conservatories, studying under master pianists while cultivating his own style that tested the limits imposed by the maxims of his education. Instead of sticking to these prescribed principles, he used them as the foundation upon which his fantasy could flourish abundantly, resulting in the conception of an entirely new manner of expressing beauty. His intuitive approach to composition wasn’t initially embraced by professors at the Conservatoire de Paris, who found it to be a careless way of doing things, even calling it peculiar and erratic. These criticisms, however, merely fueled the young composer’s quest to create work that aligned with his instincts.

“Art is the most beautiful deception of all,” he once proclaimed, “lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” And though the word deception often carries negative connotations, Debussy considers it a crucial factor to the universal appreciation of art: as a means to escape. Thereby he nurtured his instinctive musicality, creating compositions that deceive the listener into a dream-like state, a consolatory remedy for the drab mundanity of everyday living. And throughout his own life, he never lost sight of one other fundamental belief: “There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

Debussy established an entirely new concept of tonality in European music, pieces with lengthy pedal points and whole-tone harmonies. His music was received by audiences enthusiastically during his lifetime, though of course there was ample criticism toward his disobedience of the status quo. Critics condemned the ‘looseness of structure’—the anarchy of ‘harmonies mocking the laws of acoustics’ as they saw it. 

But that’s a foreseeable reaction to pioneering work. Once Debussy’s name became a familiar one, the composer inspired others to reconsider the laws of music. His rise to prominence never led him to seek out laurels and public approval, nor did he desire to be a part of elite social circles. Debussy saw no need for a publicist, secretary, or loyal disciples—he spent his life under nature’s wing, allowing emotion and instinct to inform his work. In fact, he’s been described by those who knew him as a withdrawn, solitary, and a ‘catlike’ man. He is one of few well-remembered geniuses in the history of mankind that was never swayed by an overzealous ego, he simply identified himself as a musician, not a prophet nor a saint.  

His music is easy to embrace but attempts at analysis fall short of consensus. This sense of mystery, the unexplainable quality of art that causes us to worship it, is precisely what Debussy set out to preserve. In a world that was, and continues to be enmeshed by quantifiable, objective measures, there are some things that remain unmeasurable. The musician bathed in the unquantifiable, nurtured it throughout his life, as he knew that within those instinctual feelings and thoughts the compass to his creations lived. 

After his death in 1918, his passing was merely that of his physical presence, as his approach to music remains to greatly inspire musicians today. He questioned and outright rejected the constricting set of rules and expectations of acceptable compositions. He took to the world of visual art and poetry, and closely followed the trends within these arenas and found himself envious of the free verse in poetry, and the slow ascent towards abstraction in painting. Compared to the confines of conservatories, it was hard for him not to see that it had fallen behind by its unwillingness to evolve along with society. Instead of shrugging off this observation, he indulged in it, unleashing the power and spirit of music everlastingly. Like Debussy once said, you merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.

Some suggested listening:

Claire de Lune

La Mer

Deux Arabesques

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Citations:

Dietschy, Marcel, and Edward Lockspeiser. “The Family and Childhood of Debussy.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, 1960, pp. 301–314. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/740659.

Debussy on Music, ed. By François Lesure, trans. And ed. By Richard Langham Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), pp. 84-85, 277-79, 295-98.

Pasler, Jann. “Debussy: The Man, His Music, And His Legacy: An Overview Of Current Research.” Notes, vol. 69, no. 2, 2012, pp. 197–216., www.jstor.org/stable/23358736.

Kelly, Barbara L. “Remembering Debussy In Interwar France: Authority, Musicology, And Legacy.” Music & Letters, vol. 93, no. 3, 2012, pp. 374–393., www.jstor.org/stable/41684199.

Fazekas, Gergely. “'Unhealthy' and 'Ugly' Music or a 'Compass Pointing towards a Purer Art of Superior Quality'? The Early Reception of Debussy in Hungary (1900-1918).” Studia Musicologica, vol. 49, no. 3/4, 2008, pp. 321–339. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25598327.