“The colour of my soul is iron-grey and sad bats wheel about the steeple of my dreams.”
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a radical from the outset. As a student, he continually failed his harmony exams because, like Beethoven over a century before him, he refused to accept the totalitarianism of the text book. A brilliant pianist, he would irritate and shock his contemporaries by inventing harmonies and chords that effectively were re-interpreting tonality; already he was moving towards Impressionism.
By reason of his influence, Debussy could be classified as perhaps the most important composer of the twentieth century; figures as diverse as Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, Webern, Messiaen, and Boulez all admitted a debt to him. He is also one of the most approachable. However abstract and ambiguous his works may seem, Debussy believed fervently that music should be communicative. As he once wrote: “Love of art does no depend on explanations, or on those who say “I need to hear that several times.” Utter rubbish! When we really listen to music, we hear immediately what we need to hear.”
In the summer of 1904 Debussy left his wife for another woman, provoking his wife into a suicide attempt by gunshot to the chest. This caused outrage in France. Debussy fled, mistress in hand, to Eastbourne in Sussex, and there, in his emotional maelstrom he composed his finest orchestral work, La Mer. His first performance in 1905 excited hostility in some quarters that seems scarcely credible today, with the critic from The Times remarking: “As long as actual sleep can be avoided, the hearer can derive great pleasure from the strange sounds that enter his ears if he will only put away all ideas of definite construction or logical development.”
|Hokusai's Wave was used as the cover of the 1905 edition of La Mer|
Debussy’s use of block chords, of harmony with a modal flavour, and based on the whole- tone scale, the delicate colours of his orchestration, his technique of ‘layering’ sounds, the declamatory yet wholly lyrical style of his writing, all proclaim him as an innovator of the first degree who revolutionised composition for the piano and orchestra. In general, Debussy’s effects are understated, his aim being for a ‘sonorous halo’ of sound. But the label of ‘impressionist’, while accurate, has tended to obscure the strong sense of form which underlies all his works.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music
Classical Music: The Rough Guide
By South Utsire