Friday, February 24, 2012

Claude Debussy - History and Influences

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

   Debussy is one of the major composers of impressionist music - though he hated being labeled this (as well as being labeled as anything else.) His music and style also reflects a style of his lifetime known as symbolism. He is certainly a composer who affected the changes in music entering the 20th century.

Early Life and Development:
   To understand certain aspects of how Debussy works, I think its important to understand certain aspects his background:

   Debussy's father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, was a shop owner dealing in china and crockery. However, in 1871, Manuel Debussy joined the National Guard under the then Paris Commune. After the commune was defeated, Manuel is imprisoned due to his involvement with the commune - which stains the family. Debussy develops a distaste for convention of any kind after this.

   On the other end, Debussy had a very distant relationship with his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, due to her very severe and cold attitude toward him. These relationships contributed to the morose, moody, and at times, anti-social nature of Debussy later in his life.

   As a testament to the cold nature of Debussy - here is an example from Debussy's private life. Debussy had several affairs throughout this lifetime. One such instance involved his wife at the time, Rosalie "Lilly" Texier (a friend of a girl he had an affair with prior to their invovlement), whom was liked by Debussy's friends - however Debussy grew tired of Texier's limitations intellectually. Debussy met, Emma, the wife of a banker and the mother of one of his students, who ultimately won over Debussy because of her sophistication and accomplishment as a singer. After taking Emma on a holiday, Debussy wrote to Texier saying that marriage was over. Texier then attempted to commit suicide by shooting herself in the chest - she survived with the bullet logged in her vertebrae. Unwilling to pay for her medical bills, one of Debussy's friends and fabeled composer, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), stepped in to cover the costs.

   The start of music for Debussy began with the piano, which he excelled at - achieving prodigy status among composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig von Beethoven, Georges Bizet, Sergei Prokofiev. A testament to Debussy's skill at the piano and sight reading is shown when he was accepted to the Paris Conservatory of Music at age 10. During his time at the Conservatory, Debussy was highly experimental and argumentative - questioning any and all conventions in music and the method that it was taught. Here is an example of the difficulty teachers had with Debussy in a translated conversation that Debussy has on theory with one of his teachers, Ernest Guiraud (1837-92):

Debussy: [I have] no faith in the supremacy of the C major scale. The tonal scale must be enriched by other scales. Nor am I misled by equal temperament. Rhythms are stifling... Rhythms cannot be contained within bars. It is nonsense to speak of "simple" and "compound" time. There should be an interminable flow of both. Relative keys are nonsense too. Music is neither major nor minor. Minor thirds and major thirds should be combined, modulation thus becoming more flexible. The mode is that which one happens to choose at the moment. It is inconstant. There must be a balance between musical demands and thematic evocation. Themes suggest their orchestral coloring.
Guiraud: [Debussy having played a series of chords on the piano] What's that?
Debussy: Incomplete chords, floating. One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door. Greater nuances.
Guiraud: But when I play this [a "French sixth" chord on Ab, evidently one of the chords Debussy had played] it has to resolve.
Debussy: I don't see that it should. Why?
Guiraud: Well, do you find this lovely? [He plays a series of parallel triads.]
Debussy: Yes, yes, yes!
Guiraud: I am not saying that what you do isn't beautiful, but it's theoretically absurd.
Debussy: There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.
Guiraud: I would agree with you in regard to an exceptional person who has discovered a discipline for himself and who has an instinct which he is able to impose. But how would you teach music to others?
Debussy: Music cannot be learned.
Guiraud: Come now, you are forgetting that you yourself were ten years at the Conservatoire.
Debussy: [He agrees and admits that there can after all be a doctrine.] Yes, this is silly. Except that I can't reconcile all this. True enough, I feel free because I have been through the mill, and I don't write in the fugal style because I know it.
(Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, I (London: Cassell, 1962), 207-208) - click here for a  link to the text.

   Due to Debussy's distaste in convention, he hated traditional theory. The use of musical forms was also something he was not fond of. Labeling something with a name was also something he didn't like. He didn't like the idea of being labeled as an impressionist composer.

   At age 14, Debussy began writing music - conceiving all of his works at the piano.

The Prix de Rome:
   As we move away from Debussy's academic life, we come to a landmark in his career - the Prix de Rome. In a nutshell, the Prix de Rome was a competition for composers, as well as other fields, that started in 1803 by the French Academie Royale. Each year a winner was selected and the recipient of the award received one to two years of study in Rome, a cash stipend for five years, instant celebrity, and further study in Germany if desired. Debussy managed to win the Prix de Rome in 1884 with his cantata, L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child) - full performance of the piece below with performance information (Also if you want to follow along with a music score, click here):


L'Enfant prodigue (Der Verlorene Sohn /The Prodigal Son / Il Figliol Prodigo), scene lyrique for voices & orchestra, L. 57 (by Edouard Guinand)

1) Prélude (Orchestre) 0:00
2) Récit et AIR DE LIA : "L'année en vain chasse l'année" (Jessye) 2:42
3) Récit de Siméon: "Eh bien, encore des pleures?" (Dieskau) 7:30
4) Cortège et air de danse (Orchestre) 8:30
5) Récit et air d'Azaël: "Ces airs joyeux, ces chants de fête" (Carreras) 12:32
6) Récit de Lia: Je m'enfuis...De mes pleures je ne suis plus maîtresse!" (Jessye Norman) 18:15
7) Duo (Lia & Azaël): "Rouvre les yeux à la lumière" (Jessye/Carreras) 20:37
8) Récit et air de Siméon: "Mon fils est revenu" (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) 25:36
9) Trio: "Mon cœur renaît à l'espérance" 29:37 (Azaël/Siméon/Lia & Azaël/Siméon/Lia & Azaël/ Trio)

Lia : Jessye Norman, soprano
Azaël : José Carreras, tenor
Siméon : Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone

Stuttgart Radio Symphony
Conducted by Gary Bertini
1981

The Importance of the Prix de Rome:
   Unfortunately for Debussy, he was unhappy during his stay in Rome and found it difficult to compose. However, two major influences came to Debussy in Rome - The first being Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt (1811-86) (Pictured to the right) - who was residing in Rome at the time.

   Until I write a post on Liszt, I'll post a little information on Liszt here. Essentially - Liszt is a virtuoso to the piano in the same sense that Niccolò Paganini was a virtuoso on the violin. There were things that Liszt was able to do at the piano that no other performer could do - giving people to reason that he was some god or the devil.

   Debussy admired the command that Liszt had at the piano. So much of Liszt's late piano writing and style has influenced the way Debussy approached composition.

   The second influence that Debussy encounter at Rome was introduced to him by Liszt - Early music (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526-94) in particular). The modal music that Debussy listened to would take influence in Debussy's work. Below is an example of Palestrina's music:


The Importance of 1888-89:
   During this time, Debussy made his first trip to Bayreuth, Germany - home of the fabled opera house built by Richard Wagner (1813-83) (Pictured to the right). It was here that Debussy was exposed to the music of Wagner - starting a lifelong fascination/relationship with the music of this monumental German composer. Debussy realizes the importance of chromatic mediants from Wagner's music. Though perhaps the extroverted emotion brought by Wagner's music would not be something Debussy pursues, many of Wagner's theory and opinions of opera poured into Debussy's only opera and considered to be his greatest work - Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelleas and Melisande). (Said theories and opinions will be left for a different blog post and examples of Wagner's opera can be seen at this blog post).

   The other major influence that Debussy was exposed to in 1889 was the Exposition Universelle - or the World Expo. The World Expo brought performances by groups from around the world. Debussy and several other composers were exposed to all sorts of music which would take a huge influence on their music.

   One example found at the World Expo that influenced Debussy would be Javanese Gamelan. Some of the aspects of gamelan that influenced Debussy would be the static harmony within the music, the planar writing (many different planes of activity simultaneously), very complex rhythms, non-Western scales (pentatonic, etc.), and circular form. Here is an example of Jazanese Gamelan:


   Another major influence that Debussy found at the World Expo is Russian music. Russian music at this time was "exotic" to the European ears. Debussy found Modest Mussorgsky particularly interesting - especially with the use of the interval of a tritone and tritone relationships - this will become evident in the piece that made Debussy internationally famous - Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun).

Debussy, Impressionism, & Symbolism:
   As mentioned above, Debussy is commonly categorized as a composer of impressionist music. Impressionist music, in a nutshell, focuses on depicting an atmosphere rather than depicting a story or strong emotion as music of the romantic era did. In comparing the two styles, romantic music utilized chromaticism within the diatonic structures of major and minor scales. Impressionist music, on the other hand, had the tenancy to make more use out of dissonances - using uncommon scales (i.e. whole tone scale, synthetic scales). Romantic music leaned toward longer forms such as symphonies and concertos. Impressionist favored shorter forms such as nocturnes and preludes. In a sense, impressionism is a reaction to romanticism.

   Despite being labeled as an impressionist, Debussy soon molded into a symbolist after making use of several literary works by major symbolist writers. Symbolism appealed to the idea that art should speak of absolute truths, however these truths could only be described indirectly. As symbolism relates to Debussy, we must look a little bit about the construction of literary works as many of the major writers of the symbolist movement gave Debussy inspiration in his music (to be discussed on blogs which feature the afore mentioned inspired works)

   Symbolist literature focused free verse where the text could focus more on the natural emphasis or fluidity of normal speech. Text was meant to evoke ideas through symbolic imagery, not to describe them. Literary techniques like alliteration, onomatopoeia, obscuration, vagueness, and symbolic imagery were commonly used in symbolist literature. Here is a really prime example of symbolist writing by Charles Baudelaire's (1821-67) Correspondences taken from wikipedia:

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens.

(There are perfumes that are fresh like children's flesh,
sweet like oboes, green like meadows
— And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant,

having the expansiveness of infinite things,
like amber, musc, benzoin, and incense,
which sing of the raptures of the soul and senses.)

    As for Debussy, he pulled from the texts of four symbolist writers for his his works:
  •  Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949)
    • Wrote the story of Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelleas and Melisande) (1892) which was the basis for Debussy's opera (1902) by the same name.
  •  Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98)
    • Wrote the poem L'après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) (1876) which was the basis for the piece that made Debussy internationally famous, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) (1894)
  • Paul Verlaine (1844-96)
    • Wrote several poems that Debussy used in his art songs.
  • Charles Baudelaire (1821-67)
    • Wrote several poems that Debussy used in his art songs.
Debussy and his Opera - Pelléas et Mélisande:
   Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, was finished and performed in 1902. This is considered to be Debussy's greatest work. This section will merely give a general overview of some of the musical developments. The piece will be discussed in detail in a later blog post.

   The writing and structure of the opera can be traced back to Wagner's ideals in opera - the music drama. Wagner believed that opera had "too much singing" to the point that it creates stops in the drama. Wagner wanted to keep the drama and the story moving along. This can be seen throughout Wagner's operas as all the singing is done in a sort of recitative style with major orchestral accompaniment. Debussy follows his this model (perhaps, minus the major orchestral accompaniment), but adds the symbolist ideals by relying on the natural speech patterns rather than focusing so much on singing.

   The opera also uses tonal symbolism -  where certain keys represent certain emotions. The opera in general is very quiet - in the entire three and a half hour opera there are ONLY  four FF markings in the score. Leaving the audience listening to mostly the vocalists and subtle orchestration.

   I believe it was composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) who saw a performance of Pelléas et Mélisande
 in Paris. He left the opera theater part way through asking, "Where's the music?"

Debussy's Late Period - Jeux:
   Arguably one of the most important pieces in Debussy's output was his final orchestral piece for his ballet - Jeux. It is considered his most modern approach to music. (More details for the piece will be provided in a separate blog)

Summary of Debussy's Contributions to the Breakdown of the Tonal System:
  • Diatonic Saturation - also known as Pandiatonicism.
    • Using other diatonic notes of a scale in any given harmony without the limitations of functional tonality
  • Use of Tritone Relationships - Acquired from Modest Mussorgsky
  • Use of Modal Scales - Acquired from his time in Rome with Franz Liszt
  • Use of Non-Western Scales - Scales such as the Whole Tone Scale and the Pentatonic Scale
  • Use of Static Harmony - Acquired from from Javanese Gamelan
  • Use of Chromatic Mediants - Acquired from Richard Wagner
  • Use of Harmony as Pure Color - Chordal Planing and using chords without the conventions of traditional harmony
Summary of Debussy's Music that Developments 20th Century
  • Change of Musical Aesthetic
  • Non-Directional Music - Developed from Javanese Gamelan
  • Use of Silence - Contributes to the style of Anton Webern and John Cage
  • Rhythmic Complexity - Contributes to the style of Igor Stravinsky
Debussy's Death:
   Debussy dies to rectal cancer in 1918. He was diagnosed with it in 1909 and spent nearly ten years of misery which included almost daily hemorrhages and the use of morphine and cocaine.

Quotes by Debussy:
   "I love music passionately, and because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art, gushing forth - an open-air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea! I must never be shut in and become an academic art."

   "We are bound to admit that nothing was ever more dreary than the neo-Wagnerian school in which the French genius had lost its way among the sham Wotans in Hessian boots and the Tristans in velvet jackets"

   "The title Nocturnes is to be understood with a generalized and decorative meaning. So, we should not bother with the usual form a nocturne takes, but with its entire meaning by way of impressions and particular light effects. Nuages: this represents an unchanging view of sky, with a cloud procession that is melancholy and slow, but concluding with an anguished grey softly fading into a white tint. Fetes: here there is the movement in the dance rhythm of the air, with sudden flashes of light. Sirenes: the sea and its countless rhythms, then the mysterious siren song is heard across waves turned silver with moonlight. It laughs and fades away."

   "I have still so much to say. There are so many things in music which have never been done yet - for example, the human voice - I don't think it has been fully exploited up to now."

   "I should like to have someone achieve, I would achieve myself, a music truly free from motifs, or formed out of a single continuous motif that nothing interrupts and which never repeats itself. Then there would be logical, tight, deductive development."

   "Music should humbly seek to please: within these limits great beauty may well be found. Extreme complication is contrary to art. Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us to insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part."

   "Wagner's art can never completely die. It will suffer that inevitable decay, the cruel brand of time on all beautiful things; yet noble ruins must remain, in the shadow of which our grandchildren will brood over the past splendor of this man who, had he been a little more human, would have been altogether great. Teh musical beauty of Parsifal is incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong. Parsifal is one fo the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music."

   "I have made use of a device which I think has been rarely used, namely silence (don't laugh!) as a means of expression - and perhaps the only way to give emotional value to the phrase... Ah! If only the times we were living in were less depressing, if only young people could be expected to take an interest in anything but the latest form of bicycle! Of course I've not the slightest intention of ruling over or shaping the tastes of my contemporaries, but, all the same, it would be nice to found a school of "neo-musicians" where an effort would be made to preserve intact the admirable symbolic qualities of music."

   "I have tried to obey the law of beauty which seems to be singularly ignored when dealing with dramatic music. The characters in this drama (Pelleas et Melisande) endeavour to sing like real persons... I do not pretend to have discovered anything in Pelleas, but I have tried to mark out a path with others may follow and make broader with their own discoveries, in such a way, perhaps, as to liberate dramatic music from the heavy yoke it has been wearing for so long."

Important Works in Detail:
   Click the links below to see blog posts on selected works.

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