Charting Debussy’s education tells us little about his roots. His rebellion against his teacher’s admonishment of his delight in a series of ‘forbidden’ harmonies resulted in his conclusion that ‘mon plaisir’ was the only rule: individuality and hedonism were all that mattered. His real teachers were close friends, lovers (sometimes), literature of many sorts and, perhaps, painting.
In his youth he was introduced to contemporary French poetry – particularly that of Banville, Verlaine and Mallarmé – through a relationship with an older woman. From song-writing he moved on to cantatas such as La damoiselle élue, a setting of a poem by the English Pre-Raphaelite poet-painter Rossetti. Debussy’s one outstanding operatic venture, Pelléas et Mélisande, occupied him for much of the 1890s, but in this decade he also deepened his ability to parallel the work of contemporary poets, both in songs and in the purely orchestral Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune.
Another side of his output has often been compared to Impressionist painting. But the painter whose work is closer to Debussy’s ideas was James McNeill Whistler, whose series of works entitled Nocturnes may be connected to the composer’s orchestral triptych of 1897–9.
Never complacent and always seeking new challenges in every aspect of composition, in the new century he would turn to the evocation of entirely different places. Most celebrated is his only piece that resembles a symphony: La mer. It captures not only the sounds and rhythms of the sea, but also the changing weather and time of day. Further exploits – including the orchestral Images – would take Debussy to Spain.
Alongside these masterpieces of orchestral evocation, Debussy also developed a highly personal piano style. Perhaps the first piece to show a marked difference from his earlier piano music was the first piece from the two books of Images for piano, ‘Reflets dans l’eau’. Its rippling arpeggios, bathed in pedal, pioneered a new Impressionist piano style.
In the two books of Préludes for piano Debussy showed the infinite variety of his imagination. Enigmatically printed with the titles at the end rather than at the beginning, almost all the pieces have some kind of extramusical association: perhaps with a place, or a literary idea. The sequel to the Préludes was a set of pieces with no associations other than to themselves: a set of 12 piano Études.
Among the composer’s last works, the ballet Jeux is regarded as a highlight, and of the six planned late sonatas only three were written. Of the three unwritten sonatas, that for the extraordinary combination of oboe, horn and harpsichord must rank among the most lamented of planned works never to have reached fruition.
Profile © Richard Langham Smith
- Clips (19)Latest ClipDebussy's Chamber Works
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- Debussy's Chamber Workshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p028sk8p.jpg2014-10-17T12:00:00ZDonald Macleod explores the chamber music of Claude Debussyhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p028skn7Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 55 mins
Debussy's Chamber Works
- Watch an analysis of Debussy's La merhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p024858g.jpg2014-08-05T15:56:00ZStephen Johnson examines Debussy's La Mer with the BBCSO conducted by Tito Ceccherini.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p024858mSelected ClipSelected ClipVideo 42 mins
Watch an analysis of Debussy's La mer
- Debussy: Jeuxhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01sp83s.jpg2014-07-11T10:00:00ZIn this Proms Music Guide, Suzy Klein talks about Debussy's Jeuxhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p022mrfkSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 3 mins
- Debussy: The Martyrdom of St Sebastianhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01t19bh.jpg2014-07-11T09:53:00ZProms Music Guide: Suzy Klein on Debussy's The Martyrdom of St Sebastian.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p022mqsfSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 3 mins
Debussy: The Martyrdom of St Sebastian
- Debussy: Pelléas et Melisandehttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01t1y1c.jpg2014-07-11T09:47:00ZIn this Proms Music Guide, Suzy Klein talks about Debussy's Pelléas et Melisande.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p022mq2bSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 3 mins
Debussy: Pelléas et Melisande
- Debussy: La merhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01tn3p4.jpg2014-07-11T09:42:00ZIn this Proms Music Guide, Tom Service talks about Debussy's La mer.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p022mpjmSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 3 mins
Debussy: La mer
- Melodyhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01zv2c9.jpg2014-05-27T09:26:00ZLeonard Slatkin explores a basic element of music: melody.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01zv2cpSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 39 mins
- Impressionismhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01ztf1w.jpg2014-05-26T20:10:00ZStephen Johnson and the BBC NOW investigate the origins of impressionism.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01ztf21Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 58 mins
- Debussy: La merhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01vwtfk.jpg2014-05-23T10:20:00ZStephen Johnson explores Debussy's La mer assisted by the BBC NOW.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01zn136Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 30 mins
Debussy: La mer
- Claude Debussy - life, loves and passion for the pianohttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01yng0q.jpg2014-05-07T15:23:00ZDonald Macleod focuses on French composer and pianist Claude Debussy, examining his life, loves and passion for the piano.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01yng0rSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour
Claude Debussy - life, loves and passion for the piano
- Claude Debussyhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01ynffd.jpg2014-05-07T15:10:00ZDonald Macleod examines the life and work of Claude Debussy.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01ynfjpSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour 5 mins
- Debussy: Estampeshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01w65pp.jpg2014-03-25T11:14:00ZHoward Goodall and Suzy Klein discuss Pagodes from Debussy's Estampes.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01w65psSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 5 mins
- Debussy: Images For Orchestrahttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01w3nhw.jpg2014-03-23T14:32:00ZJonathan Swain with a personal recommendation from recordings of Debussy's Images for orchestra.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01w3nj2Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 48 mins
Debussy: Images For Orchestra
- Debussy: Pelleas et Melisandehttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01sqx3n.jpg2014-02-22T14:21:00ZChristopher Cook provides a personal recommendation from the recordings of Debussy's opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01sqx4ySelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 34 mins
Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande
- Debussy: Imageshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01vwqg1.jpg2014-01-25T12:12:00ZStephen Walsh with a personal recommendation from recordings of Debussy's Images.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01qcylvSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 48 mins
- Debussy: La mer - Preview Cliphttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01g8lp9.jpg2013-12-16T15:58:00ZListen to an excerpt from Debussy's La mer.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p01nhmd7Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 min
Debussy: La mer - Preview Clip
- Debussy: La mer (Preview Clip)http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p017rsr8.jpg2013-04-18T13:00:00ZA preview clip of Debussy’s La mer.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p017s7fvSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 min
Debussy: La mer (Preview Clip)
- Elizabeth Appleton sings soprano Ladies of Parishttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02clwky.jpg2013-02-12T12:00:00ZElizabeth Appleton sings soprano Ladies of Paris from Trois Ballades de Villon by Debussy; conducted by Boulez with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p014yh4sSelected ClipSelected ClipVideo 2 mins
Elizabeth Appleton sings soprano Ladies of Paris
- Classical Icon: Debussy's Clare de Lunehttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p00vzl16.jpg2012-07-12T09:53:00ZHugh MacDonald explores the magical world of Debussy’s best-loved masterpiece.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/be50643c-0377-4968-b48c-47e06b2e2a3b?clipfocus=p00vzy1kSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 6 mins
Classical Icon: Debussy's Clare de Lune
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