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Claude Achille Debussy

By Harriette Brower
"I love music too much to speak of it otherwise than passionately." DEBUSSY

"Art is always progressive; it cannot return to the past, which is definitely dead. Only imbeciles and cowards look backward. Then—Let us work!" DEBUSSY

It is difficult to learn anything of the boyhood and youth of this rare French composer. Even his young manhood and later life were so guarded and secluded that few outside his intimate circle knew much of the man, except as mirrored in his music. After all that is just as the composer wished, to be known through his compositions, for in them he revealed himself. They are transparent reflections of his character, his aims and ideals.

Only the barest facts of his early life can be told. We know that he was born at Saint Germain-en-Laye, France, August 22, 1862. From the very beginning he seemed precociously gifted in music, and began at a very early age to study the piano. His first lessons on the instrument were received from Mme. de Sivry, a former pupil of Chopin. At ten he entered the Paris Conservatoire, obtaining his Solfège medals in 1874, '75, and '76, under Lavignac; a second prize for piano playing from Marmontel in 1877, a first prize for accompanying in 1880; an accessory prize for counterpoint and fugue in 1882, and finally the Grande Prix de Rome, with his cantata, "L'Enfant Prodigue," in 1884, as a pupil of Guirand.

Thus in twelve years, or at the age of twenty-two, the young musician was thoroughly furnished for a career. He had worked through carefully, from the beginning to the top, with thoroughness and completeness, gaining his honors, slowly, step by step. All this painstaking care, this overcoming of the technical difficulties of his art, is what gave him such complete command and freedom in using the medium of tone and harmony, in his unique manner.

While at work in Paris, young Debussy made an occasional side trip to another country. In 1879 he visited Russia, where he learned to know the music of that land, yet undreamed of by the western artists. When his turn came to go to Rome, for which honor he secured the prize, he sent home the required compositions, a Symphonic Suite "Spring," and a lyric poem for a woman's voice, with chorus and orchestra, entitled "La Demoiselle Elue."

From the first Claude Debussy showed himself a rare spirit, who looked at the subject of musical art from a different angle than others had done. For one thing he must have loved nature with whole souled devotion, for he sought to reflect her moods and inspirations in his compositions. Once he said: "I prefer to hear a few notes from an Egyptian shepherd's flute, for he is in accord with his scenery and hears harmonies unknown to your treatises. Musicians too seldom turn to the music inscribed in nature. It would benefit them more to watch a sunrise than to listen to a performance of the Pastorale Symphony. Go not to others for advice but take counsel of the passing breezes, which relate the history of the world to those who can listen."

Again he says, in a way that shows what delight he feels in beauty that is spontaneous and natural:

"I lingered late one autumn evening in the country, irresistibly fascinated by the magic of old world forests. From yellowing leaves, fluttering earthward, celebrating the glorious agony of the trees, from the clangorous angelus bidding the fields to slumber, rose a sweet persuasive voice, counseling perfect oblivion. The sun was setting solitary. Beasts and men turned peacefully homeward, having accomplished their impersonal tasks."

When as a youth Debussy was serving with his regiment in France, he relates of the delight he experienced in listening to the tones of the bugles and bells. The former sounded over the camp for the various military duties; the latter belonged to a neighboring convent and rang out daily for services. The resonance of the bugles and the far-reaching vibrations of the bells, with their overtones and harmonics, were specially noted by the young musician, and used by him later in his music. It is a well-known fact that every tone or sound is accompanied by a whole series of other sounds; they are the vibrations resulting from the fundamental tone. If the tone C is played in the lower octave of the piano, no less than sixteen overtones vibrate with it. A few of these are audible to the ordinary listener, but very keen ears will hear more of them. In Claude Debussy's compositions, his system of harmony and tonality is intimately connected with these laws of natural harmonics. His chords, for instance, are remarkable for their shifting, vapory quality; they seem to be on the border land between major and minor—consonance and dissonance; again they often appear to float in the air, without any resolution whatever. It was a new aspect of music, a new style of chord progression. At the same time the young composer was well versed in old and ancient music; he knew all the old scales, eight in number, and used them in his compositions with compelling charm. The influence of the old Gregorian chant has given his music a certain fluidity, free rhythm, a refinement, richness and variety peculiarly its own.

We can trace impressions of early life in Debussy's music, through his employment of the old modes, the bell sounds which were familiar to his boyhood, and also circumstances connected with his later life. As a student in Rome, he threw himself into the study of the music of Russian composers, especially that of Moussorgsky; marks of the Oriental coloring derived from these masters appear in his own later music. When he returned to Paris for good, he reflected in music the atmosphere of his environment. By interest and temperament he was in sympathy with the impressionistic school in art, whether it be in painting, literature or in music. In Debussy's music the qualities of impressionism and symbolism are very prominent. He employs sounds as though they were colors, and blends them in such a way as literally to paint a picture in tones, through a series of shaded, many-hued chord progressions. Fluid, flexible, vivid, these beautiful harmonies, seemingly woven of refracted rays of light, merge into shadowy melody, and free, flowing rhythm.

What we first hear in Debussy's music, is the strangeness of the harmony, the use of certain scales, not so much new as unfamiliar. Also the employment of sequences of fifths or seconds. He often takes his subjects from nature, but in this case seems to prefer a sky less blue and a landscape more atmospheric than those of Italy, more like his native France. His music, when known sufficiently, will reveal a sense of proportion, balance and the most exquisite taste. It may lack strength at times, it may lack outbursts of passion and intensity, but it is the perfection of refinement.

Mr. Ernest Newman, in writing of Debussy, warmly praises the delightful naturalness of his early compositions. "One would feel justified in building the highest hopes on the young genius who can manipulate so easily the beautiful shapes his imagination conjures up."

The work of the early period shows Debussy developing freely and naturally. The independence of his thinking is unmistakable, but it does not run into wilfulness. There is no violent break with the past, but simply the quickening of certain French qualities by the infusion of a new personality. It seemed as if a new and charming miniaturist had appeared, who was doing both for piano and song what had never been done before. The style of the two Arabesques and the more successful of the Ariettes oubliées is perfect. A liberator seemed to have come into music, to take up, half a century later, the work of Chopin—the work of redeeming the art from the excessive objectivity of German thought, of giving it not only a new soul but a new body, swift, lithe and graceful. And that this exquisitely clear, pellucid style could be made to carry out not only gaiety and whimsicality but emotion of a deeper sort, is proved by the lovely "Clair de Lune."

Among Debussy's best known compositions are "The Afternoon of a Faun," composed in 1894 and called his most perfect piece for orchestra, which he never afterward surpassed. There are also Three Nocturnes for orchestra. In piano music, as we have briefly shown, he created a new school for the player. All the way from the two Arabesques just mentioned, through "Gardens in the Rain," "The Shadowy Cathedral," "A Night in Granada," "The Girl with Blond Hair," up to the two books of remarkable Preludes, it is a new world of exotic melody and harmony to which he leads the way. "Art must be hidden by art," said Rameau, long ago, and this is eminently true in Debussy's music.

Debussy composed several works for the stage, one of which was "Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien," but his "Pélleas and Mélisande" is the one supreme achievement in the lyric drama. As one of his critics writes: "The reading of the score of 'Pélleas and Mélisande' remains for me one of the most marvelous lessons in French art: it would be impossible for him to express more with greater restraint of means." The music, which seems so complicated, is in reality very simple. It sounds so shadowy and impalpable, but it is really built up with as sure control as the most classic work. It is indeed music which appeals to refined and sensitive temperaments.

This mystical opera was produced in Paris, at the Opéra Comique, in April, 1902, and at once made a sensation. It had any number of performances and still continues as one of the high lights of the French stage. Its fame soon reached America, and the first performance was given in New York in 1907, with a notable cast of singing actors, among whom Mary Garden, as the heroine gave an unforgettable, poetic interpretation.

Many songs have been left us by this unique composer. He was especially fond of poetry and steeped himself in the verse of Verlaine, Villon, Baudelaire and Mallarmé. He chose the most unexpected, the most subtle, and wedded it to sounds which invariably expressed the full meaning. He breathed the breath of life into these vague, shadowy poems, just as he made Maeterlinck's "Pélleas" live again.

As the years passed, Claude Debussy won more and more distinction as a unique composer, but also gained the reputation of being a very unsociable man. Physically it has been said that in his youth he seemed like an Assyrian Prince; through life he retained his somewhat Asiatic appearance. His eyes were slightly narrowed, his black hair curled lightly over an extremely broad forehead. He spoke little and often in brusque phrase. For this reason he was frequently misunderstood, as the irony and sarcasm with which he sometimes spoke did not tend to make friends. But this attitude was only turned toward those who did not comprehend him and his ideals, or who endeavored to falsify what he believed in and esteemed.

A friend of the artist writes:

"I met Claude Debussy for the first time in 1906. Living myself in a provincial town, I had for several years known and greatly admired some of the songs and the opera, 'Pélleas and Mélisande,' and I made each of my short visits to Paris an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with these works. A young composer, André Caplet, with whom I had long been intimate, proposed to introduce me to Debussy; but the rumors I had heard about the composer's preferred seclusion always made me refuse in spite of my great desire to know him. I now had a desire to express the feelings awakened in me, and to communicate to others, by means of articles and lectures, my admiration for, and my belief in, the composer and his work. The result was that one day, in 1906, Debussy let me know through a friend, that he would like to see me. From that day began our friendship."

Later the same friend wrote:

"Debussy was invited to appear at Queen's Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra, on February 1, 1908, to conduct his 'Afternoon of a Faun,' and 'The Sea.' The ovation he received from the English public was exceptional. I can still see him in the lobby, shaking hands with friends after the concert, trying to hide his emotion, and saying repeatedly: 'How nice they are—how nice they are!'"

He went again the next year to London, but the state of his health prevented his going anywhere else. For a malady, which finally proved fatal, seemed to attack the composer when in his prime, and eventually put an end to his work. We cannot guess what other art works he might have created. But there must be some that have not yet seen the light. It is known that he was wont to keep a composition for some time in his desk, correcting and letting it ripen, until he felt it was ready to be brought out.

One of his cherished dreams had been to compose a "Tristan."

The characters of Tristan and Iseult are primarily taken from a French legend. Debussy felt the story was a French heritage and should be restored to its original atmosphere and idea. This it was his ardent desire to accomplish.

Debussy passed away March 26, 1918.

Since his desire to create a Tristan has been made impossible, let us cherish the rich heritage of piano, song and orchestral works, which this original French artist and thinker has left behind, to benefit art and his fellow man.