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Music / Claude Debussy

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Music is the space between the notes.

First of all, ladies and gentlemen, you must forget that you are singers.
—Instructions to the performers of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande
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Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 –- 25 March 1918) was a French composer. A noted trend starter in the history of music, his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) is considered as a turning point of classical music, starting the Impressionist movement and in many ways the antecedent of Modern and Contemporary Classical music. Needless to say, he was, and still is a highly important and inspiring figure in classical music. His influence on music is as much as Claude Monet's influence on painting. Modern music historians and critics consider him as the ultimate example, along with his fellow composer Maurice Ravel, of the Impressionist movement. (However, Debussy himself hated the label "Impressionism" for his music, believing it to be better suited for the visual arts.)

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Outside of his musical success though, his life was kind of turbulent. He had an affair with another's wife although already married, his ex-wife attempted suicide (unsuccessfully) and produced a huge scandal, so much that he had to flee to England. He had a child with his mistress after they married, but she sadly only outlived her father by a year, dying in the diphtheria epidemic of 1919. The whole family was buried together.

Inside of the classical circle, his notable pieces include Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), La Mer (The Sea), the Préludes for piano, Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelléas and Mélisande)... The popular listeners might have heard of Clair de Lune (Moonlight), Arabesque No. 1, Children's Corner...


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Debussy's music and life provide examples of:

  • Awful Wedded Life: Debussy's private life was as sordid as any soap opera, mainly of his own doing.
    • He had a live-in relationship with Gabrielle Dupont, but a year later cheated on her with singer Thérèse Roger. He proceeded to dump Gabrielle and became engaged to Thérèse.
    • He broke off his engagement with Thérèse when he became infatuated with Marie-Rosalie Texier (known as "Lilly"), a friend of Gabrielle's, threatening to commit suicide if Lilly refused to marry him. She became Debussy's first wife.
    • Debussy's marriage to Lilly became increasingly strained, as the two proved incompatible. Four years in, Debussy began an affair with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker. He abandoned Lilly and ran off with Emma the following year, informing the former by letter that their marriage was over. Lilly unsuccessfully attempted suicide by shooting herself. The Bardacs divorced and Debussy and Emma lived together and had a child out of wedlock; four years later, the couple married.
    • Debussy's marriage to Emma lasted until his death ten years later, but the marriage proved turbulent and unhappy.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography to Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was considered scandalous at the time and likely would prove so today. In it, Nijinsky portrayed a faun who hopes for a dalliance with one of several nearby parading nymphs. He isn't successful, but manages to get hold of one of the nymph's veils, which serves as a... substitute.
  • Ethereal Choir: Atmospheric choral music pervades "Sirènes," the final movement of Nocturnes.
  • Ocean Awe: Debussy's La Mer depicts the sea in three contrasting moods.
  • Older Is Better: While Debussy generally avoided standard 18th and 19th century structures, he did write pieces patterned on Baroque forms such as the suite (see Pour le piano, consisting of a "Prelude," "Sarabande," and "Toccata"). Like Fryderyk Chopin, Debussy wrote sets of Preludes for piano solo, essentially modeled after Johann Sebastian Bach's Well Tempered Clavier minus the fugues.
  • Orientalism: Debussy's works show influence of Asian music such as Indonesian gamelan timbres and pentatonic scales.
  • Song Parody: "Golliwog's Cakewalk" from the Children's Corner Suite quotes the iconic opening of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde only to poke fun at it in the following measures.
  • Travelogue Show: Or travelogue work in this case. Debussy found Spanish culture exotic and alluring, and this is reflected in such works as the "Ibéria" section from Images Pour Orchestre and the solo piano movement "Evening in Granada" from Estampes.
  • Velvet Revolution: Debussy's music is truly revolutionary in the history of Classical Music. With its unusual scale usage (such as the whole tone scale), avoidance of standard 18th and 19th century forms (such as sonatas and rondos), and employment of non-functional harmony based progressions, his music marks a clear break with the past. At the same time, his pieces have an alluring atmospheric sheen and still rely on triadic aggregates — to the point where a casual listener won't usually find the music confrontational in feel.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The composer's checkered love life was marred by infidelities, a broken engagement, his breaking up another couple's marriage, an illegitimate child, and a messy divorce that featured a suicide attempt by his first wife.
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