This year marks the centenary of the death of Achille-Claude Debussy, and to mark the occasion we have arranged an exhibition in the Music Department which runs until October
Born in St. Germain-en-Laye to Manuel-Achille Debussy and his wife Victorine, proprietors at the time of a little china shop at 38 Rue au Pain, Debussy was to become one of the key figures of the French musical world. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in the autumn of 1872 aged ten, home-schooled, having had only two years’ piano tuition and with a father in prison because of his activities in the Commune, on arrival at the Conservatoire, young Debussy proceeded to upset every apple cart he could find, refusing to accept what he felt to be the stultifying straitjacket of its rigid, rules-based syllabus. It was largely thanks to Ernest Guirard’s support, in whose composition class Debussy had enrolled, that he was not thrown out on his ear for insubordination. And it was with Guirard’s help that Debussy was awarded first prize in the 1884 Prix de Rome. The rest, as they say, is history…
However, despite this most prestigious (although conservative) of awards, Debussy saw no reason to compose conforming to what he felt to be out-moded musical forms, largely inherited from Austro-German musical traditions. This anti-rule-book, anti-establishment attitude never changed, and because of it, we have some of the finest and most ravishingly beautiful music ever written – La Mer, the Préludes and Images for piano, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune spring immediately to mind – you, dear reader, will have your own particular favourites. As Stephen Walsh says in his excellent new biography of the composer (Debussy: a painter in sound. Faber, 2018): “…his music is without ideology and without doctrine. Like the world, it simply is, take it or leave it.”
Impossible, of course, in this short post to offer any in-depth consideration of Debussy’s output, but perhaps I might indulge in a look at one of my favourites: La Mer [the UL’s score in the Complete Edition of Debussy is at M200.a.190.505]. The temptation to draw parallels with ‘impressionist’ paintings is strong, but this was a comparison which Debussy (and indeed Ravel) hated. Debussy’s subtitle for the work was ‘three symphonic sketches’, emphatically not a symphony. For me, it is the way he uses the palette of the orchestra to depict the ever-changing moods of the sea which is so captivating and one is simply drawn in, and borne along by, his sheer creative brilliance. Not exactly enthusiastically received at its premiere in 1905 in Paris, it fared much better in London three years later when Debussy himself conducted its British premiere at the Queen’s Hall on 1 February. The Times’ critic praised the orchestration to be “of most remarkable quality. All manner of instruments are used freely, but there is never a note in the score which does not tell…”. Today, it is embedded in every self-respecting orchestra’s repertoire world-wide and universally beloved by audiences. Further discussion of the work can be found in Debussy by Eric Frederick Jensen (Oxford, 2014), pp. 196-206 [M477.c.04.32]and Cambridge University Press have an entire monograph devoted to it: Simon Trezise, La Mer. CUP, 1992 [M674.c.95.106].
No self-respecting post on Debussy can pass by Pelléas et Mélisande, the composer’s only opera completed in 1902 based on Maeterlinck‘s play of the same name. A desperate love-triangle ending in tragedy, it was first performed at the Opéra Comique on 30 April 1902 with Jean Périer and Mary Garden in the title roles and has since established itself in the repertoire of all major opera houses (indeed, at this year’s Proms it received a concert performance by the cast of the new Glyndebourne production). It is probably safe to say that Pelléas is like nothing which had gone before (although I would be delighted to be corrected): Debussy wanted to evolve a new approach to the form, and, writing to Ernest Guirard in 1890, he explained that “Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.” Needless to say there is an abundance of literature on the work (try Roger Nichols and Richard Langham Smth’s exploration for CUP [M704.c.95.35]) and for the full score the UL’s copy in the Debussy Complete Edition is at M200.a.190.602c.
There was also another way Debussy found to demonstrate his anti-rule book stance and to express his own aesthetic. This was through music criticism, albeit irregularly, and only from April 1901, providing a handful of contributions for La Revue Blanche, then two years later another handful for Gil Blas followed by sporadic essays for several journals and finally between 1912 and 1914 for Société Internationale de Musique (SIM). Thus, we are introduced to his alter-ego Monsieur Croche, the self-appointed dilettante-hater. Whilst only appearing in a handful of Debussy’s essays, Croche became the vehicle through whom he was able to set out his position, especially his more extreme views. Here Debussy recalls their first meeting in his revue of 1 July 1901 for La Revue Blanche:
Monsieur Croche was a spare, wizened man and his gestures were obviously suited to the conduct of metaphysical discussions…he spoke almost in a whisper and never laughed…He aroused my curiosity at once by his peculiar views on music. He spoke of an orchestral score as if it were a picture. He seldom used technical words, but the dimmed and slightly worn elegance of his rather unusual vocabulary seemed to ring like old coins…I suddenly decided to ask him what his profession might be. He replied in a voice which checked any attempt at comment: ‘Dilettante Hater’
Debussy drew together a selection of his critical essays just before the outbreak of WWI which were published in 1921 as Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater (now available in English translation as a Dover reprint M824.c.95.42).
Debussy finally succumbed to the colon cancer which he had been fighting for some years 0n 25 March 1918 having completed only three of the set of six sonatas on which he had been working since 1914: one each for cello; for violin; and for flute, harp and viola.
Impossible to do justice to Debussy in such a confined space, but perhaps we might all agree with Jane Fulcher, who writes in her Editor’s Introduction to Debussy and his World (Princeton University Press, 2001. M517.c.200.5): “…the one continuity we may recognise in Claude Debussy is his unceasing evolution – his perpetual reinvention and self-exploration, both personal and creative, throughout his life. Always responding to his contemporaries, continually in tense dialogue and competition with them, inherently hostile to dogmas or to factions, he stubbornly refused to repeat himself.”
Some books for further reading (there are so many, but I have found these particularly helpful):
Debussy, Claude. Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater (In: Three Classics in the Aesthetics of Music. Dover, 1962. M824.c.95.42).
Fulcher, Jane E. (ed.). Debussy and his World (Princeton University Press, 2001. M517.c.200.5)
Jensen, Eric Frederick. Debussy. OUP, 2014 (M477.c.04.32)
Nichols, Roger. Debussy Remembered. Faber, 1992 (M517.c.95.247. A fascinating collection of contemporary accounts of meetings with Debussy)
Walsh, Stephen. Debussy: a painter in sound. Faber, 2018 (electronic copy available in the UL)
MusiCB3’s own post on the Debussy Centenary – https://musicb3.wordpress.com/2018/03/23/debussy-centenary/