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The Life and Times of Claude Debussy

Art is like a giant tree: it grows from what has already developed. No matter how modern or experimental, art always has some descendant. This is true of most things; you have to build on another pillar to touch the sky. Art is no different- on the surface it appears to change, but on its most fundamental level the same ingredients remain. It is like matter being converted into raw energy.

The late 1800s and early 1900s is referred to as a new period in the history of art. Known as the Romantic movement, it is said to have begun with the death of Beethoven and ended with the onset of the first World War. During this broad span of history, changes were taking place in art and music that would greatly effect all the art to follow it.

The late 1800s and early 1900s is referred to as a new period in the history of art. Known as the Romantic movement, it is said to have begun with the death of Beethoven and ended with the onset of the first World War. During this broad span of history, changes were taking place in art and music that would greatly effect all the art to follow it.

The Romantics were the beatniks of their age. Early Romantics lived in a time of set cultural principles. ‘This is the way we write. This is the way we draw. This is the way we compose. This is the way its always been done.’ The Romantic artists world had been greatly affected by the Enlightenment: the central belief in logic and reason to explain and solve man’s problems. The art previous to the Romantics followed a set pattern and structure…an orderly, predictable structure.

Then things began to change. During the late 1800s. The Romantics wanted to take the logic out of art, and replace it with emotion. As a result, instead of art being a literal representation of the real world, romantic art drew more towards symbolism and imagery. It was not supposed to look exactly as it would look in reality; it was supposed to reflect the feelings it gave the artist.

In the middle of this artistic revolution was one Claude Debussy. His parents originally wanted him to become a sailor, but he took a liking to music, and entered the Paris Conservatory while in his teens. He became a notable artistic rebel in the institution. Though classically trained, he much preferred to compose whatever made him happy; whatever pleased his ears. This striking individuality was typical of romantics. He became legendary at the Conservatory for his romantic nature…but still somehow schooled himself in the classics. His goal was to win the musical honor, Prix de Rome, and to do that he had to work in a more classical setting.

Debussy won the honor of Prix de Rome in 1884 and subsequently left Rome afterwords (he hated everything about it). For a number of years, the love struck Debussy would pander to numerous women, doing his best to win their hearts (no matter if they were married or not). Some of his finest works were dedicated to the women in his life.

Debussy continued to hone his craft over the years, composing music his own way instead of in the classical tradition. He took influences from Japanese music during the Paris Exposition of 1889. he looked for a way to further distance himself from the ways of the European composers before him.

Finally, Debussy got his big break with the Suite Bergamesque (the third movement, Claire de Lune or moonlight, is one of the most famous pieces of piano music ever). Arguably though, the greatest show of his talents came with the 1894 piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The piece is very airy, and light, and breaks free from structure. The rhythm floats and flies like a caged bird set free. Their really doesn’t seem to be a particular focus for the piece- it just glides beautifully along. It was more emotional than logical. It is romantic music at its finest.

Also during the 1890’s, Debussy began to work on an opera (which he was determined not to be in the German tradition). It was a very symbolic piece, paired with a play by another Symbolist named Maurice Materlinck. It had a long road to the stage though.

Debussy worked on the project off and on throughout the 90’s, and by 1901, plans for performing it began to take shape. Everything seemed to go according to plan at first between the two collaborators, mostly because Materlinck assumed that his mistress would be allowed to perform the lead role. When Debussy chose someone else, Materlinck was furious; angry to the point where he almost dared Debussy to duel him.

More chaos ensued in actually getting the opera (now entitled Pellas) to the stage. The orchestra botched attempts at practice, and even worse, the time it took to change scenes was more than the music allowed. Debussy was forced to write thirteen more pieces of instrumentation to allot for the time it took. Materlinck, still fuming, began to distribute pamphlets badmouthing Debussy’s opera outside the opera house. The punchline in this bad joke of a production? The censors forced Debussy to cut out an entire scene on the grounds that in was ‘indecent’.

Yet it was a hit! The opera somehow transcended the controversy that had arisen. The main reason people seemed to come was for the difference in style from operas previous. It had taken almost a decade, but Debussy had finally seemed to have severed himself from the Germanic opera tradition.

Debussy eventually married, divorced, than married again in 1904. His fame and output increased during the early 1900’s. His major notable works of his later life include the Children’s Corner and La Mer, a sort of of musical picture of the sea, but yet not a full symphony.

He also apprenticed young Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and the two became close. Debussy’s influence is evident in Stravinsky’s work especially the opening flute solo in his famous ballet, The Rite of Spring.

Debussy was also a big Edgar Allen Poe fan, and wanted to adapt his short story, ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, as an opera. He never got the chance though.

Around 1910, Debussy began to have health problems due to cancer. He retired, and isolated himself from the world around him. Only his compositions kept him in the real world. He still composed during his ill health, even managing to write an entire ballet.

During World War I in 1916, Debussy became very depressed with the state of Europe and stopped composing for good. The song in his heart had died out at the angry marches of war. The Romantic movement was slowly fading away. Ironically, Debussy himself was killed by his cancer in the middle of WWI, right before its end. In both a literal and figurative sense, romance had died.

Though not the only romantic composer, Debussy’s works do embody the romantic ideal of free thinking, passionate individualism that is so prevalent in American society to this day. Had these men not built the pillars for us to stand on, America might be a far different culture than it is today. The Romantics remind us that there is still beauty in the world; we just need turn our ears to the skies, and listen to the free melodies glide away into the sunset.


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