Brushstrokes on a Musical Canvas: Claude Debussy | Music | DW | 21.08.2012
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Brushstrokes on a Musical Canvas: Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy had strong links with the visual arts and the literature of his time. His music is unmistakably French, and 150 years after his birthday, sounds as refined and exquisite as ever.

A contemporary photograph of Claude Debussy. Photo: dpa

Claude Debussy

Many young people today know the name of Debussy because his composition “Clair de lune” features in the popular vampire film “Twilight.” Little do they suspect that many pieces written by the French composer have much to do with stories and images similar to those of the famous movie.

Given his strong links to the visual arts of his time, Claude Debussy, born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris on August 22, 1862, would probably have felt at home composing for the cinema. Labeled an “impressionist,” he enjoyed the company of non-musician artists. His friends included symbolist poets and painters, and like them, he developed a great interest in the indefinite and the mysterious.

Flirting with the occult, Debussy cultivated an interest in producing a “theater of fear” inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Fragments of his music for both unfinished projects have been reconstructed and occasionally performed.

"Pelléas et Mélisande," a dark opera

Debussy’s outstanding opera is “Pelléas et Mélisande.” In an interview for DW, British musicologist Langham Smith, co-author of the “Cambridge Opera Handbook” to that opera and editor of “Debussy Studies,” described the work as “…a very radical story. It’s a typical love triangle but really about things like destiny, fate and willpower. It has to do with the concepts of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the notion of how much we are in control of our own situations. It’s about Mélisande who is really an abuse victim, and it’s about a character consumed with jealousy. It’s about love too. The sort of love that Mélisande experiences is maybe not sexual, but more profound in some ways.”

Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande in a 2007 staging by Christof Nel

Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" in a 2007 staging by Christof Nel

When it was first performed,“Pelléas et Mélisande” was a provocation. “People said it was an opera without any singing, because it had no tunes or arias that you could really remember. That is different from operas for example by Massenet and Gounod, where you have a display of soprano voices, which is what the public liked and were used to. And suddenly to have this darker opera…”, explained Langham Smith, who reconstructed “Rodrigue et Chimene,” another opera by Debussy, for performance in Lyon in 1993.

Debussy and Wagner: sunrise or sunset?

At the beginning of Debussy’s career the operas of Richard Wagner were the main subject in musical circles. Debussy visited Bayreuth but soon distanced himself from the composer, claiming, “Wagner was a sunset that was mistaken for a sunrise.” Critical in words, Debussy nonetheless used Wagnerian compositional techniques in “Pelléas et Melisánde” such as musical motifs for particular characters.

Portrait of Richard Wagner, dated around 187

Debussy heaped scorn on, and sometimes emulated, Richard Wagner

Debussy’s rejection of German music went beyond Wagner, calling Beethoven “the old deaf one” and describing Schubert’s songs as “pressed flowers that you put in a drawer”. Langham Smith sees political reasons for this: “He became very nationalist in his late years just before the First World War and of course during it when he wanted to say that he was very French.”

Debussy, French composer with a worldwide perspective

150 years after his birthday, the music of Claude Debussy sounds as refined and exquisite as ever. His inimitable palette shines particularly in piano works such as the “Estampes,” “Préludes,” “Images” and “Etudes,” but also in his orchestral pieces. Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez described Debussy’s “Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun” as “the beginning of 20th century music.”

Interested in the cultural landscape of ancient Greece and in Asian cultures, Debussy adored all things Spanish without having ever visited the country. An admirer of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky and his piece “The Nursery,” Debussy wrote charming works for young people such as “Children’s Corner” and “La boîte a joujoux.”

Sculpture of Claude Debussy

Debussy's is more lively than monumental

Despite these many influences, Debussy’s music sounds unmistakably French. Langham Smith explained, “Early Debussy and late Debussy are miles apart, but you can trace a path all the way through, and that path was to some extent fertilized by literature in particular.”

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