Debussy, Achille-Claude

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Debussy, Achille-Claude (b St Germain-en-Laye, 1862; d Paris, 1918). Fr. composer and critic. As a child he had little formal education but his mus. tendencies were channelled into pf. lessons, those with Verlaine's mother-in-law, Mme Mauté de Fleurville, leading to his entry into the Paris Cons. in 1872. His reputation there was that of an erratic pianist and a recalcitrant in matters of harmony and theory. In 1880 and 1881 he went for summer employment to Russia as pianist to Tchaikovsky's patron, Mme von Meck. Failing to win the Prix de Rome in 1883, he succeeded in 1884 with the cantata L'Enfant prodigue. He spent 2 years at the Villa Medici, Rome, where he met Liszt, Verdi, and Boito, and heard Lohengrin. He went to the Bayreuth fests. of 1888 and 1889, but an even greater mus. influence was that of hearing the Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Other influences of these years were his friendship with the painters of what became known as the ‘Impressionist’ movt. and, even more important, with writers and poets such as Mallarmé and the ‘symbolists’. But after 1889 he could not share the symbolists' idolatry of Wagner, recognizing his greatness but also the fact that he represented a ‘dead end’ for other composers. He cultivated a distinctively Fr. mus. outlook, eventually styling himself ‘musicien français’. Other significant events in his life were his study in 1889 of the score of Boris Godunov and his acquaintance from 1891 with Erik Satie.

In 1893 Debussy began work on an opera based on Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande, a task that was to occupy him for nearly 10 years. In 1893 his str. qt. was perf., and in 1894 his orch. Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune upset certain critics with its alleged ‘formlessness’. He followed this with his 3 Nocturnes, orig. planned for solo vn. and orch., perf. 1900 and 1901. They are ded. to Rosalie (Lily) Texier, whom he married in 1899 but deserted 5 years later for Mme Emma Bardac, a singer and wife of a banker, whom he married in 1908. Their child was born in 1905, the year in which the symphonic sketches La Mer were f.p. Pelléas had been successfully prod. at the Opéra-Comique in 1902, to the fury of Maeterlinck who publicly wished it ‘emphatic failure’. Debussy's remaining orch. works were the set of 3 Images comp. between 1905 and 1912, and the ballet Jeux for Diaghilev (1913). In 1910 he developed cancer and was a semi-invalid when war broke out in 1914. He wrote some mus. inspired by patriotic sentiments and completed 3 sonatas before his death. He wrote mus. criticism under the pseudonym of M. Croche. A collection, Monsieur Croche antidilettante, was pubd. in Paris 1921 (Eng. trans. 1962).

Debussy was among the greatest and most important of 20th-cent. composers both by reason of his own achievement and by the paths he opened for others to explore, hence the homage to him paid by later composers such as Boulez, Messiaen, Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky, and many others. His use of block chords, of harmony with a modal flavour and based on the whole-tone scale, the delicate colours of his orchestration, his technique of ‘layering’ sounds, the declamatory yet wholly lyrical style of his vocal writing, especially in Pelléas, all proclaim him an innovator of the first degree who revolutionized comp. for the pf. and for the orch. In general Debussy's effects are understated, his aim being for a ‘sonorous halo’ of sound. But the label of ‘impressionist’, while accurate, has tended to obscure the strong sense of form which underlies all his works. Prin. comps.: STAGE: Rodrigue et Chimène (opera, 1888–92, unfinished. Vers. by Richard Langham-Smith perf. Paris 1987 and Lyons 1993); Pelléas et Mélisande (opera, 1893–5, 1901–2); Le diable le beffroi (2 tableaux after Poe, 1902–11, incomplete); Jeux (ballet, 1912–13); Khamma (ballet, 1911–12, orch. Koechlin, 1912–13); La boîte à joujoux (children's ballet, 1913, orch. completed 1918–19, Caplet); incidental mus. to King Lear (1904); incidental mus. for Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien by D'Annunzio (orch. Debussy and Caplet) (1911); La Chute de la Maison Usher (1908–17, unfin. opera after Poe).ORCH.: Printemps (1887); Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (1892–4); 3 Nocturnes (1897–9); La Mer (1903–5); 3 Images (1905–12); Fantaisie, pf., orch. (1889); Rapsodie, sax., orch. (1901–8); Danse sacrée et danse profane, hp., str. (1904); Berceuse héroïque (1914, also for pf.).CHAMBER MUSIC: str. qt. (1893); Première rapsodie, cl., pf. (1901–8); Syrinx, fl. (1913); vc. sonata (1915); sonata for fl., va., hp. (1915); vn. sonata (1916–17).CHORAL: L'Enfant prodigue, cantata, sop., ten., bar., ch., orch. (1884, rev. 1906–8); La Damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel), cantata, sop., women's ch., orch. (1887–8, re-orch. 1902); 3 Chansons de Charles d'Orléans, unacc. SATB (1898–1908).PIANO: 2 Arabesques (1888–91); Suite bergamasque (1890, rev. 1905); Pour le Piano (1896–1901); Estampes (1903); L'Isle joyeuse (1904); Images I (1905), Images II (1907); Children's Corner (1906–8); 12 Préludes, Book I (1910), Book II (1912–13); 12 Études (Books I and II, 1915).PIANO DUET: Petite Suite (1886–9); Marche écossaise (1891) (orch. version by Debussy); 6 Épigraphes antiques (1914) (orch. Escher, 1976–7).2 PIANOS: Lindaraja (1901); En blanc et noir (1915).SONGS: Mandoline (1880–3); Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1887–9); Ariettes oubliées (1888); Fêtes galantes I (1882, rev. 1891–2) and II (1904); Proses lyriques (1892–3); Chansons de Bilitis (1897–8); Trois ballades de Villon (1910) (also with orch. acc.); Trois ballades de Mallarmé (1913).ARRANGEMENTS: Orch. of 2 of Satie's Gymnopédies 1896; pf. transcrs. of Wagner, Schumann, Gluck, Raff, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky.