Scholar Groups – Composer Profiles, Part 6

Our penultimate composer is a French innovator with a penchant for Indonesian gamelan music. Claude Debussy was the composer of choice for Miss Channon’s scholar group.

Born in 1862, Debussy began piano lessons aged seven, and by the age of ten, he had gained at place at the Paris Conservatoire. Over the next eleven years, Debussy studied composition, music history, music theory, harmony, piano, and organ, but his heart always lay with composition even though he could have easily become a professional performer. After leaving the Conservatoire, Debussy travelled Europe, gave lessons, accompanied performers, and gave private concerts. By 1884, he had won the prestigious Prix de Rome and earned scholarships and compositional residences. While studying in Italy, he found no enjoyment in Italian opera, but was won over by Wagner when he visited Bayreuth.

One of the most prominent influences on Debussy’s work was Javanese gamelan music, which he first encountered at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889, a grand celebration of the world’s cultures. After this experience, Debussy began to use various scales, melodies and rhythms from the gamelan genre in his works, a style that he has since become well-known for.

After a turbulent personal life and a bountiful musical career, Debussy succumbed to cancer in the middle of an intense bombardment of Paris during the First World War. His funeral took place while the bombardment continued, with no mourners lining the streets in spite of his great reputation. Debussy is one of the many composers, particularly within the Romantic period, who fulfil the stereotype of the impoverished musical genius.

Musically, Debussy’s compositional voice can be seen as one of the most recognisable of all Western composers. Hallmarks of his style include passages of parallel chords, unusual scales (like the pentatonic or octatonic scales), unprepared modulations, feelings of tonal ambiguity, and impressionistic passages that focus on tone colour and image rather than a conventional melody line. Listening to Debussy’s music is a colourful experience: his compositional technique rarely fails to conjure an image in the listener’s head, and is often seen as the kind of “modern music” that is not only satisfying, but also easy, to listen to. Here a few recommendations:

Prelude à l’après midi d’un faun – every flute player’s dream (and nightmare), this orchestral work has one of the most famous openings of all music. Painting an intoxicating scene of a dreamy summer’s day, this work was seen as controversial upon its premiere for its sensual overtones.

Golliwog’s Cakewalk from ‘Children’s Corner’ – another work firmly in the canon of first Debussy pieces to listen to, this short piano work has clear links to the ragtime music craze that was sweeping across the USA. Unlike much of Debussy’s more melancholic music, this piece is great fun for performer and listener.

Images pour orchestra – a more unconventional pick for Debussy novices, this series of short orchestral pieces is not as famous as La mer or the Nocturnes, but deserves a listen. Each movement has a different subject: Gigues is based on Debussy’s memories of England, Ibéria has a distinctly Spanish flavour, and Rondes des printemps is based on two French folk tunes.

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