It was the exhibition in 1963 of Monet's painting 'Sunrise; An Impression' that ultimately gave birth to theterm 'impressionism'. Though it was a term Debussy did not like, it was suitable in that composers were obscuring the traditions of 'exhausted' harmony with new sonorities and colours, just as painters were obscuring the outlines of objects with gentle fogs and mists, or with the fuzzy reflection of street lights through an evening's drizzle of rain. The symbolist poet Mellarmé said, "To name anobject is to… sacrifice enjoyment… To suggest it – that is our dream." Perhaps this explains why, in the original score, the Piano Preludes' titles appear at the end of each piece, allowing an aural image to suggest itself before the identification of a scene, smell of a scent, or the invocation of a wonderful sound. Gardens in Rain, Reflections in the Water, Dead Leaves, Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea are typical of the array of poetic titles to be found in his output.
Achille-Claude Debussy was born in 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and was the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His parents ran a little china shop before moving to Clichy and then to Rue Pigalle in Paris. Times were hard, and whilst his siblings were taken in by his aunt, he was left to his own education and could not attend school. His brother Eugene died of meningitis when 7 years old, and Claude and his sister were taken to Cannes. At the tender age of 8, he is described as being introspective, a boy who spent whole days sitting on a chair thinking. He collected colourful butterflies (arranging them in zigzags on his bedroom wall) and thought of becoming a painter.
In Cannes, he received piano lessons, and Mme Mauté de Fleurville (a former pupil of Chopin) pronounced that he should become a musician. Thus he entered the Paris Conservatoire aged 10, socially awkward and initially disliked. He adored the music of Berlioz, Wagner, Mussorgsky and Lalo (once being escorted out of a theatre for being too enthusiastic) and abhorred Beethoven. In the summers of 1881 and 1882 he worked for Tchaikovsky's patron Mme von Meck in Russia. He failed to win the renowned Prix de Rome in 1883 but succeeded the following year and was to spend three years composing inthe Villa Medici, meeting other artists such as Liszt, Verdi and Boito, but he found this a miserable experience and returned a year early. In 1894, he composed the tone-poem Prélude à L'Après midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) based on Mellarmé's poem, which, along with his only string quartet, ensured much public discussion. At the age of 40, his opera Pelléas et Mélisande offered confirmation that there was a composer changing musical history – the lyricism of his vocal writing and lack of movements made many feel the experience to be like one massive recitative (the writer, Maeterlinck, furiously and publicly wished it to be an "emphatic failure").
By many, Debussy was classed 'second rate' and 'unusual', but it took little time for his individuality to be indelibly established as the voice of a genius. He did noreally care about the expected rules and formulae of the past as revealed when submitting a composition as a student. His tutor, Émile Rély, demanded, "Dissonant chords do not have to be resolved" What rules do you follow"" to which Debussy famously replied, "Mon plaisir!" His use of large orchestral forces was not for sakes of power but for delicate employment of tone-colour,and subtle effects of motion and stillness. His overall 'impressionistic' sound perhaps comes from his use of the whole tone scale – sonorities that were unusually atmospheric and far removed from the mainstream harmony and the rich chromaticism of Wagner and Strauss. He turned away from the Classical era's rigid forms, and was drawn to a more refined offering of emotion than was present in the Romantic era before him.
The piano music of Debussy was inspired by the younger Ravel's Jeux d'eau (1901) that offered a new realm of possibility into the world of technical skill and imaginative sound. (Compare Pour le piano with the illuminated Images). Outside of the 'big piano works' that took the instrument through a renaissance, came a number of delightful smaller pieces. The Rêverie was written in a hurry in 1890 yet its melodic innocence remains a delight today. The Petite Suite, written in 1889 was for two pianos in the style of Fauré, and Children's Corner was written for Claude-Emma, his illegitimate daughter. (Golliwogg's Cake Walk was an African-American dance that made fun of white society's mannerisms). Of the Préludes, La Cathedrale Engloutie has a great story; that on clear mornings, and in transparent waters, the Cathedral would rise up from the sea with the sounds of bells chiming and the priests chanting.
Debussy said that he would write his memoirs in his 60s, but he developed cancer in 1910, was a near invalid by 1914, and died when he was 55, in 1918.
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