CLAUDE ACHILLE DEBUSSY 1862 – 1918
This is the last composer in the series selected by Matthew in our Belle Époque series and where Matthew is dealing with his early years. In his life he was seen as one of the set of composers from the group we have examined and it is only later on that he emerges as the great figure of French music who stands out from all the rest. His name is associated with impressionism but it was not he who gave it the name. His music is distinctive in its sounds, its atmosphere, its harmonies and yes its impressions. His methods cannot be compared to the impressionist painters but he evokes the same mood. You only have to set Monet’s realisations of Rouen Cathedral against Debussy’s La Cathédral Engloutie. With his harmonies he developed tone colours. With his light “brush strokes” of sound as in Jeu de Vagues, the second movement of La Mer, he produced spots and splashes of sound which bring to mind Seurat and the pointillist movement.
Born in 1862 he was named Achille-Claude but he preferred it the other way round and switched it later on. Usually one had a relative’s name bestowed but in this case Debussy was given his father’s first name of Achille which he obviously did not like as he himself was called Claude. There is no record of his mother having dipped him in the Styx or in the Seine for that matter. He was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the north western areas above Paris, the eldest of five children. His father owned a china and hardware shop and his mother was a seamstress. Where have all the seamstresses now gone? The family moved to Paris in 1867, but as with most of the other composers in this series, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 had its effect and Debussy’s mother, pregnant again, moved for safety to an aunt in Cannes. It was there that Debussy at the age of seven began piano lessons which were paid for by his great aunt. Round about 1871 he came to the attention of Marie Fleurville, a pupil of Chopin, or so she claimed. It is incredible that, having started at the age of seven or eight Debussy by the age of ten had gained a place at the Paris Conservatoire. There he spent eleven years, shades of Prokofiev at St Petersburg.
Reports state that, though clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental, challenging the rigid teaching of the conservatoire, seeking out dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon, just as one saw with Prokofiev. It obviously goes with the age. And like Prokofiev he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have pursued a professional career as such had he so wished.
During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882 Debussy accompanied the wealthy Russian patroness Nadezhda von Meck, as tutor and piano tutor for her children as she travelled with her family in Europe and Russia. One will recall that she was the patron of Tchaikovsky for eleven years on condition that they never met. Madame von Meck did send a work of Debussy to Tchaikovsky for approval but he dismissed it pretty well out of hand. It was never published anyway. A greater influence was Debussy’s close friendship with Madame Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She and her husband respectively gave Debussy emotional and professional support. The exact form that this took can only be left to the imagination. Monsieur Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, the son-in-law of his former piano teacher, Mme. Mauté de Fleurville. So she did have some connections after all, apart from possibly playing Chopsticks with Chopin.
The winning of the Prix de Rome has featured extensively in this series that by now we might all feel we want a go. Debussy took first prize in 1884 with his composition L’enfant prodigue, This condemned him to a minimum three year residence without remission at the French Academy in Rome, (the Villa Medici). According to the letters he wrote to Madame Vasnier he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters abominable. Otherwise it was alright except that neither did he delight in the pleasures of the “Eternal City”, finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Well, you can’t please everybody. Debussy was not the first to experience the boredom of Italy. Berlioz, as related in his Memoires, went through just the same kind of experience. All that was necessary during this sojourn was to produce one work to send back a year, called envois. Debussy managed four of them, first a symphonic ode Zuleima which seems to have disappeared; then the orchestral piece, Printemps, except that it was not an orchestral piece as we now know it until 1913 after the original had been destroyed at some time by fire and only later reconstructed and orchestrated by Henri Busser. It was originally written for voices with an accompaniment of two pianos. It was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera from which one can conclude that Debussy had his good moments in Italy. The committee back at the Conservatoire pronounced it as containing vague impressionism of the most dangerous kind. The third of these was La Demoiselle Élue a cantata based on the best known poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Debussy had taken a shine to the English Pre-Raphaelites but that has not prevented one entry in Google referring to him as an Italian poet. The cantata was criticized by the committee as “bizarre”. The fourth piece, Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra, owes much to César Franck and Fauré. It is in three movements and is the nearest thing to a piano concerto that Debussy created although the piano is not so much a star as a fellow worker. The last of its movements owes a little something to D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Theme. The committee chided him for “courting the unusual” and hoped for something better. Massenet concluded, “He is an enigma”.
We have seen from an examination of the other composers in this series how they all fell under the spell of Wagner in some way. Fauré differed from the others in that, notwithstanding the magnet of Wagner, his musical output showed no sign of influence. Wagnerism can be detected in the others to a lesser or greater extent.
In 1888, after his return from Rome, Debussy made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to become exposed to and seduced by Wagner’s operas. They had a lasting impact on his work and he responded positively to Wagner’s sensuousness and striking harmonies which is evident in La Demoiselle Élue. Wagner’s extrovert emotionalism was not to be Debussy’s way but Wagner’s methods were employed even though the outcomes were different, as was certainly the sound produced.
In 1889, the year of the centenary of the French Revolution, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle. It was there that Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music and from then on made use of the pentatonic scale and the whole tone scale giving his music a trade mark from this time onwards.
These extremes between Wagner and Debussy are best described in what has been my bible for the last 60 years, Music Ho by Constant Lambert, first published in 1934. I quote:
“The emotional reaction we get from Wagner may be compared to the direct and almost cinematic emotional appeal of a ship with the hero’s sweetheart on board leaving the quay, or the departure of a troop train in time of war. The emotional reaction we get from Debussy is of the less personal and more subtle order that we get from the mere sight of an unknown ship in sail.
The complete contrast of both method and aim between Debussy’s work and that of the German Romantics may be seen again if we compare the maddening repetitions in Wagner’s operas with the equally maddening repetitions in Pelléas and Mélisande. The Wagnerian repetitions are a mounting and rhetorical series reminiscent of a lawyer’s speech – an oratorical device whose aim is to emphasize the meaning of the argument until not even the dullest member of the jury remains unconvinced. Debussy’s static repetitions do not quicken the pulse – they slacken it. Like the repetitions of an oriental priest their aim is to destroy the superficial connotations of the phrase until it appeals to the deeper instincts rather than to reason”.
1889 is a suitable place to pick up on Debussy’s private life. This ranks more alongside Fauré than it does alongside Franck. Debussy’s private life was extremely
turbulent. At the age of 18 he had begun an eight-year on and off affair with Blanche Vasnier. The relationship eventually started to peter out following his winning of the Prix de Rome in 1884 and his obligatory residence in Rome. On his permanent return to Paris he began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle (‘Gaby’) Dupont, a tailor’s daughter. They soon set up together but at the same time he was also to have an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged. He was condemned by friends for his behaviour and it ended his long time friendship with the composer, Ernest Chausson. It would have ended anyway when Chausson died from a bicycle