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Debussy

Category: Musician or composer

Achille-Claude Debussy  (1862 –1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with the new free-er, less classical and more sensual music of the era. 

He was extremely experimental in his use of scales and tonality. 

He frequently used  “parallel chords which are in essence not harmonies at all, but rather 'chordal melodies', enriched unisons"; he used bitonal chords; and whole-tone and pentatonic scale, as well as “unprepared modulations, without any harmonic bridge." 

I am certain that if Debussy had been asked if he was spiritually inclined he would have laughed, but his work is extraordinarily spiritual in nature.  He uses all the older scales from the days of Orpheus!  For example he used the Phrygian mode as well as less standard scales, all of which created  a sense of floating, ethereal harmony.  On the other hand he did say "Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic."

 

At the time he was composing, the Symbolists were very prominent in the world of art and poetry, and he brings this same symbolism to the world of music.  If one could have symbolic composing his music would be that.

He was influenced by an eclectic mix of poetry, Javanese gamelan music, Wagner, Eric Satie, and his daughter.  In 1889, for example, he composed Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, were settings of Paul Verlaine.  He also produced works based on the poems of Heinrich Heine. Debussy was  a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé's Symbolist gatherings. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, was based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  An unfinished opera was based on Edgar Allen  Poe's The Devil in the Belfry  and The Fall of the House of Usher. He was also influenced by ballet.  The ballet Jeux (1912) was written for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. 

But his greatest inspiration was LOVE.  Later in life, it was his love for his only daughter.  But through most of his life it was  making love, passion, sex in great swathes and it is there in all his music - the sensuousness, the passion and the emotion.  It was a constant driver – the thrill and the passion of love at its most intense.

Portrait of Marie Blanche Vasnier

And he started relatively young.  At the age of 18 he began an eight-year affair with Blanche Vasnier, wife of a Parisian lawyer. The relationship eventually faltered following his winning of the Prix de Rome in 1884 and obligatory residence in Rome.  On his permanent return to Paris, he began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle Dupont, he was soon cohabiting with her. During this time, he also had an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged.  He ultimately left Dupont for her friend Rosalie ('Lilly') Texier, a fashion model whom he married in 1899, after threatening suicide if she refused him.

Texier was “affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well liked by Debussy's friends”.  Hmmm.  He became increasingly irritated by “her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity” - or something like that. In 1904, Debussy was introduced to Emma Bardac, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac, by her son Raoul, one of his students.  After despatching Lilly to her father's home, Debussy secretly took Bardac to Jersey for a holiday. On their return to France, Debussy wrote to Texier, informing her their marriage was over.

Debussy with Lily Texier

On 14 October, five days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Texier attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver while standing in the Place de la Concorde; she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life.

In the spring of 1905, finding the hostility towards them intolerable, Debussy and Bardac (now pregnant) fled to England, via Jersey. Bardac's divorce was finalized in May. The couple settled at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne,  where Debussy corrected proofs to his symphonic suite La Mer.

Chou chou aged 3

The couple returned to Paris buying a house off the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now Avenue Foch), where Debussy was to reside for the rest of his life. Their daughter (the composer's only child) Claude-Emma was born there on 30 October. Her parents were eventually married in 1908, their troubled union enduring until Debussy's death in 1918. More affectionately known as 'Chouchou', Claude-Emma was possibly the only person Debussy ever truly unconditionally loved, and a great musical inspiration to him (she was the dedicatee of his Children's Corner suite). Debussy was to remark towards the end of his life, when gravely ill, that were it not for Chouchou, he might have committed suicide. She outlived her father by scarcely a year, succumbing to the diphtheria epidemic of 1919 after her doctor administered the wrong treatment.

Debussy with Emma

And what about the rest of his life?  Debussy began piano lessons at the age of seven years and in 1872, at age ten, he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent eleven years. From the start, though clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental and challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy. He was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, and played in public.

As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome he received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but again, the rigidity of the styles and compositions he was expected to follow  suffocated him “he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters abominable". Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose.  In June 1885, Debussy wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying, "I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!"

Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy.  The Academy said they were "bizarre"; and chided him for "courting the unusual" and “hoped for something better”.  Even Massenet concluded, "He is an enigma."  Sometimes when you are way out in front, it is better not to look behind.

Debussy was a rebel, an unconventional revolutionary in all things including his love life.  He showed pretty scant regard for any conventions of the day and spent his entire life trying to shake off the cords of control and convention.  He was without a doubt naturally gifted, but his emotional passion and disregard for convention in all things produced works of genius.

Debussy died of rectal cancer at his Paris home on 25 March 1918. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in 1909.

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