Chapter 22

Chapter 22: The European Mainstream in the Early Twentieth Century

Composer Biographies

Claude Debussy

Born: August 22, 1862, St. Germaine-en-Laye, France

Died: March 5, 1918, Paris, France

In his own words . . .

"A symphony is usually built on a melody heard by the composer as a child. The first section is the customary presentation of a theme on which the composer proposes to work; then begins the necessary dismemberment; the second section seems to take place in an experimental laboratory; the third section cheers up a little in a quite childish way, interspersed with deep sentimental phrases during which the melody recedes, as is more seemly; but it reappears and the dismemberment goes on. . . . I am more and more convinced that music is not, in essence, a thing which can be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colors and rhythms."

French composer and critic. Debussy's music is often associated with the contemporary impressionist movement in painting, and his approach shares some characteristics of this style.

"The primary aim of French music," Claude Debussy wrote in 1904, "is to give pleasure." Debussy, more than anything, was interested in the sensuous quality of music. Even as a student he let his concept of sound override many of the rules he was so assiduously taught by his teachers (much to their consternation). From this, he developed a style that was wholly his own, but that also owed much to a wide variety of disparate influences. He also was a passionate champion of a purely French style, and he proudly referred to himself as "Claude Debussy, musicien français."

Debussy was educated at the Paris Conservatory, and in 1885, he won the coveted Prix de Rome. His period in Rome, however, was not pleasant for Debussy, and he longed to return to Paris. His early works show his desire to break the constraints of Western harmony and form (he especially disliked sonata form, which he came to see as overly Germanic and not fitting for a French composer). His Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" departs from any sense of development, relying instead on a series of free repetitions and variations of basic themes.

As a student and a young composer, Debussy was also an ardent Wagnerite, seeing in the German composer the future of music, specifically musical drama. He later turned away from Wagner, describing him as "a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn." Yet his one completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande , owes much of its conception to this influence, even if the musical language is markedly different. The other strong influences on Debussy at this time were the symbolist and decadent movements in poetry, with their concern for sound and abstract meaning. While Pelléas was his only opera, he worked on various subjects by Edgar Allan Poe, one of his favorite writers and a strong influence on the symbolists.

Debussy's interest in the exquisite and sensual also led him to an appreciation of the music of other cultures, and his use of various scales beyond the traditional major and minor shows the influence of Eastern and Russian music. A decisive influence was the Paris Exhibition of 1889, where he first encountered the music of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra. The music's scales, as well as its floating qualities of form and rhythm, would find their way into his work, especially his piano music.

Late in his life, Debussy turned his interests to abstract forms, producing three remarkable sonatas (he had originally conceived of six for various instruments, with the final one planned for all the instruments of the previous five). In these works, Debussy's rich melodic and harmonic language found a new and intriguing expression. Sadly, this endeavor was cut short by the composer's death at the height of World War I. The conflict of German and French civilization was for him a violent reflection of the musical conflict he dealt with his entire life.


  • Orchestral music, including Prelude à "L'après-midi d'un faune" (Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun," 1894), Nocturnes (1899), La mer (The Sea, 1905), Images (1912), and incidental music
  • Dramatic works, including the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and the ballet Jeux (Games, 1913)
  • Chamber music, including a string quartet (1893) and various sonatas (cello, 1915; violin, 1917; flute, viola, and harp, 1915)
  • Piano music, including Pour le piano (For the Piano, 1901), Estampes (Prints, 1903), and 2 books of preludes (1909–10, 1912–13)
  • Songs and choral music and cantatas, including L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son , 1884)

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Musical Examples

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  • A General Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a picture gallery, bibliography, works list, and sound clips of a number of Debussy's piano works.
  • An Introduction to Impressionism
    Debussy is often tied to the impressionist painters. While there is not a true link between them, the style of the impressionists tells us much about France and French thought in Debussy's time. This exhibit, from the National Gallery in Washington, provides a virtual tour of seven paintings, complete with background and audio commentary on the paintings.
  • A Symbolist Painter
    Odilon Redon was a contemporary of the impressionists, but with a style approaching that of the later surrealists. This site presents a good introduction to his work.
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