This Afternoon's Featured Composer 
CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)


Claude Achille Debussy was born in St. Germain-en-Laye in August of 1862. Greatly influenced by the Impressionistic art of Monet, Degas, and others, Debussy created a new kind of musical expression. Subtle splashes of tonal color abound in his instrumental and vocal scores. Themes are often skeletal; broken off at first appearance, only to be developed and enlarged in a score's later pages. The hazy gauze of instrumental color often takes precedence over form in Debussy's mature works.

Debussy musical background was fairly traditional. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire from 1872-84 with Ernest Guiraud - best known for his controversial editions of Bizet's "Carmen" and Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffman." Travels to Rome (1885-1887) and Wagner's Bayreuth (1888 and 1889) were formative compositional influences. Wagnerian influences are strongly felt in the cantata "La Damoiselle Elue" (1888) and the 1889 Baudelaire songs. Perhaps Debussy's most Wagnerian work was the opera "Pelleas et Melisande" (written between 1893 and 1902). A deliberately understated music drama, "Pelleas" relies heavily on vocal declamation. (Maurice Maeterlinck's drama is paramount.) One of Debussy's most austere works, "Pelleas" was a totally original artistic concept that proved unrepeatable. (Paul Dukas attempted to mine the Pelleas genre in "Ariane et Barbe Bleu" - a flawed opera that is worthy of a contemporary revival.) While Debussy attempted several other operatic projects, only fragments - albeit fascinating ones - remain of his setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher."

The aura of Cesar Franck hangs over the composer's String Quartet in G Minor. A lighter, more outwardly Gallic style embraces several of his song cycles - "Ariettes Oubiees," "Trois Melodies," "Fetes Galantes." His most characteristic works are marked by sudden bursts of instrumental color. The tonal coloration of "Preludea 'L'apres-midi d'un Faune" ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun") based on a poem by Mallarme (1894) is highly original - a humid aura literally unfolds in floating harmonics. A veritable cornucopia of orchestral colors and shadings were unleashed by Debussy in "La Mer" (1905). The three "Nocturnes" of 1899 ("Nuages," "Fetes," "Sirenes") are luxuriant studies of veiled harmony, instrumental texture, and misty sound portraits. Perhaps the composer's most modernist statements are the three orchestral "Images" (1912) and the ballet score "Jeux" (1913). Here the revolutionary dissonance and panoramic orchestral vision of Stravinsky are nearly as strongly influential as Impressionism. Debussy's final stage works represent some of his most striking work - the ballet scores "Kharma" (1912) and "The Magic Toy Box" and the musical mystery play "Le Martyre de St. Sebastien" (1911) - a brilliant example of antique modal harmony (also evident in the piano piece "La Cathedrale Engloutie"). 

Debussy's early piano works reflect an Impressionistic form of neo-Baroque and neo-classical utterance - "Suite Bergamasque" (1890), "Pour le Piano" (1901). Later works - such as the two sets of Preludes and the Etudes - reflect the composer's impressions of Spain and the East in typically delicate pastel tones. Debussy's final works reflect the composer's increasingly austere originality - the Mallarme songs of 1913 and the series of sonatas. The Cello Sonata (1917) is imbued with strong Eastern influences via Islamic modes (potently refracted in arabesques). The Sonata for Flute, viola and harp (1915) looks back to Classical models. Debussy had planned to write a set of six sonatas but the cycle was cut short by the composer's death (from cancer) on March 18, 1918 in Paris. 

While Debussy and Ravel are often linked together under the Impressionistic banner, Debussy was much more the pioneer, the original. Ravel's lush orchestral textures and opulent vocal lines have links to such 19th century Russian masters as Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Debussy's delicate harmonies, wafts of instrumental and vocal color, and austere theatricality are the mark of a creative master! In no small manner, Debussy reinvented French music! 

Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen


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