Debussy - An Appreciation

Debussy was the creator of new and seductive soundworlds that loosened the stranglehold of tradition.

Is it true that Debussy heralded a new musical age? 

If the Romantic era was essentially the age of dreamworlds, with Debussy’s epoch-making Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune (1892-4) we experience for the first time the sensation of dreaming itself. Phrases float past with a liquidity and malleability that cocoon the listener in a magical world of half-lit sounds, sights and happenings, reflecting Debussy’s aim “not to reproduce nature to a greater or lesser extent, but to create a mysterious harmony between nature and the imagination.” 

So was Debussy a revolutionary like Stravinsky or Schoenberg?

Although it may sound less radical on the surface, the implications of Debussy’s music were just as far-reaching. As he so aptly put it: “Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity.” 

What’s all this about putting titles at the ends of pieces? 

This was a trick that Debussy played only once in the case of his solo piano Préludes. The idea was that the performer should form his or her own impressions before discovering the true source of Debussy's inspiration. 

Is it true that he also wrote for newspapers on the side? 

Debussy wrote for a variety of publications as Monsieur Croche (literally Mr Quaver). Beethoven was derided as a “deaf old man”, Franck dismissed as merely “Belgian”, and Grieg’s music described rather affectionately as “pink bonbons filled with snow.” 

Why does the orchestra sound so different in Debussy’s music? 

The one main feature is that the string family is no longer the heart and soul of the orchestra. Debussy insisted: “You learn more about orchestration by listening to the leaves blowing in the wind than by studying treatises.” 

But was he a natural? 

By comparison with Mozart, for example, Debussy found composing an exhausting challenge. He left countless works incomplete, many others never got beyond the drawing board, and those that have survived were often developed over a period of years.