The Life and Times of Claude Achille Debussy

Debussy and His Piano Works

Claude Achille Debussy and His Piano Works

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The Life and Times of Claude Achille Debussy:

During the period in which Claude Achille Debussy lived, the musicians and writers were influenced by some of the academic institutions of their times in their compositions. In order to understand the piano work of Debussy and why he became more and more attracted to the French music and operas it is necessary to look into the influences that shaped his life to some extent. Thus in a nutshell the biography of the composer would tell us a lot on the way the music evolved. Debussy was born at St. Germain — en Laye near Paris, the birthplace of Louis XIV, on 22 August 1862. His education was outside the Paris environment and at the age of seven he learned to play the Piano from Cerutti and later a friend of the famous musician Chopin — Mme. Cerutti heard him play and took him as her student which led him to be admitted to the conservatory. Later at the height of his young days he moved to Rome. (Halford, 2007, 8)

While he was still a student of the Conservatory at Paris, during 1882, Claude Achille Debussy participated in the Conservatoire competitions in counterpoint and fugue and was awarded a second honorable mention. His colleagues entered for the Prix de Rome and were composing cantatas to the Institut and the public. Debussy at that time worked on a composition which was never made available to the public. This composition has remained unknown to world till the present day. The composition created on 21st June 1882 is an adaptation of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Intermezzo’, and this showed the German influence early on. From the period 1885-1887 and then from 1888 to 1890 there was a stint at Rome. He had won a scholarship and with him were Georges Marty and Gabriel Pierne, the winners of the Prix de Rome in 1882, and Paul Vidal, with whom Claude Achille Debussy had competed in 1883. He was nicknamed the ‘Prince of Darkness’, and did not like any form of restraint. However the students had no exchanges with the society of Rome, which was available for the French students. It was much later in 1888 that the publisher Girod published for Achille Debussy a set of ‘Ariettes’ for voice and piano, two of which were sung by the tenor, Bages, at the Societe Nationale. (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 64)

The Composer:

It is to be noted that the composer in Claude Achille Debussy was present even during his early periods. The earliest compositions of Debussy begins during the period from 1888-93 where in by 1888 Girod, the publishing company had published for Achille Debussy a set of ‘Ariettes’ for voice and piano. These were rendered by the tenor, Bages, at the Societe Nationale. (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 66) Thus the musicians came to be interested in the works of Claude Achille Debussy, but it was yet to be circulated among the public. Only later, much later after fifteen years after the first publication did the first work reappear just after the production of ‘Pelleas’, and was titled ‘Ariettes Oubliees’ (‘The Forgotten Ariettes’). (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 87)

Meanwhile the other works that followed — ‘Chevaux de Bois’, ‘Mandoline’ and ‘Fantoches’, were famous at the Prix de Rome at the Villa Medici by 1885. These six songs did not bring recognition as did ‘Pelleas’. The exploration of the ‘Ariettes Oubliees’ would reveal that there were three ‘Ariettes’ popularly called, a ‘Paysage Belge’, and two ‘Aquarelles’. It may be similar to the same melodic curves of Massenet-which was a great influence on the musicians of his time — and may have also impressed the harmonic style. (Bruhn, 1997, 101)

Thus the composer and the unique piano compositions began to attract the world of musicians. There was the singular fact that the works of the young talent attracted the attention of great critics of music and it was not unusual for them to put down anything that did not stick to the conventional music and rendering of the time. It was therefore a break for Claude Achille Debussy when the critics did not drub him hard, and also recognized the talent that the young musician showed. Thus the works were praise by Menestrel, Julien Tiersot but as it was observed, it took some time before the public came to realize their novelty. In the ‘Chevaux de Bois’ — written by around 1885, when the young composer was twenty-three or twenty-four, his works found mention along with the others like “Paul Dukas’s Overture to ‘Polyeucte’, another Overture by Raymond Bonheur, a symphonic tale, entitled ‘Iris’, by Paul Fournier; several vocal works, such as: Ernest Chausson ‘Poeme de l’Amour et de la Mer’, Pierre de Breville ‘Medeia’ and Henri Duparc ‘Phidyle'” (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 231)

In 1894, Claude Debussy finished the symphony to Mallarme “Apres-midi d’un Faune.” So far the public had only been able to judge his orchestral talents from ‘La Damoiselle elue’, a work which was at the same time vocal, choral, and instrumental. The principal conductor and musical director at the OperaComique was Andre Messager, a highly sensitive and intelligent musician. Of the Debussy’s compositions he had been the first to perform ‘ L’Apres-midi d’un Faune’ at the Vaudeville concerts immediately after the ‘Prelude’ was produced by the Societe Nationale. Though Debussy developed the musical drama, even he never imagined that it would one day become a part of the regular performances. (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 234)

Later it was through the request of many friends and theatre managers that Claude Achille Debussy and his publishers allowed the symphonic works as ballets. In 1913 Loie Fuller performed a ballet to the music of the Nocturnes. It was an adaptation of ‘Nuages’ and ‘Sirenes’. Following that the Russian Ballet desired to adapt Debussy’s works. It was the Serge de Diaghilef’s famous artistic enterprise and they had the dancer, Nijinsky, play for the adaptation of the ‘Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un Faune’. However Diaghilef was criticized by critics and thus the Russian Ballet experiment was considered a blunder. (Lockspeiser, 1979, 117) The proper analysis of the piano works need to be analyzed in detail regarding the theme within which they were created .They were not for the most part made for the theatre but for the music lovers — in colloquy and not for the ballet or play.

The Thematic Views:

The keynote regarding the personality of Claude Achille Debussy is “struck at the outset of a sketch of his life and work by recording his intrinsic love of liberty and freedom.” (Liebich, 1908, 1) There are many sides of the composer that seem to have created his views about music. There was no negation of faith and Claude Achille Debussy was a mature musician who wanted the flow of music more than any other convention. He wanted it to be light, connected and within the rhythm and at the same time not bound by conventions. Thus Debussy was a professional musician. To avoid criticism the young musician spelt out his philosophy as ‘sincere impressions actually experienced’. (Vallas, O’Brien, 1929, 15)

There is a definition that ‘music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.’ (Vallas, O’Brien, 1929, 17) This was a statement that Claude Achille Debussy wrote in 1903 and like wise Debussy’s interest in the musical education of composers was always keen and this led to the winning of the Prix de Rome, the highest award of the time. Though he was immersed in the conservative traditions during his training, his ardent study of fugue, and composition harmony and of course the piano at the yearly years of his student days at Villa Medici, and learning the traditions made him despise the traditions and seem to have made him a rebel from within, daring to oppose his masters, who were at that time immersed in German or Germanized pedagogues. (Vallas, O’Brien, 1929, 17)

The criticism of Claude Achille Debussy that he has no national feelings is rebutted and can be seen reflected in Debussy’s articles which speak of his sense of national feeling, wherein he declares that copying of other’s national music was a shame and it was time that the French have a music of their own. According to him each race was endowed with “musical instinct, customs, forms and spiritual needs peculiar to itself. Frontiers are not purely geographical fictions. They exist, musically, in a very real way; and to try to abolish them would be as futile as it is idealistic.” (Debussy; Banowetz, 34) Another instance was that “during World War I when France was struggling against her most formidable foe, when heroic deeds on the battlefield and civilian contributions to the war effort were being rewarded with medals, citations and patriotic acclaim, Debussy, too old and ill to take part in the national defense, proudly signed his compositions “Claude Debussy, musicien francais.” This he maintained was the highest honor he could claim. ” (Seroff, 1956, 113)

Some of the melodies that Claude Achille Debussy created for example the C’est l’Extase’ — based on the ninths and series of common chords has continuous modulations which are embedded with a lot of changing tones and may have been symbolic of a breeze and the sounds of small voices. Like wise the use of rhythmic characteristics and melody in ‘Spleen’ is like Chabrier the ‘L’Ombre des Arbres’ which modulates differently. This was at that time a very daring attempt in music during the 1880’s. The performance of La Damoiselle Elue’ by the Societe Nationale, was conducted by Gabriel Marie competed by the works of Paul Dukas – Overture to ‘Polyeucte’, Raymond Bonheur, ‘Iris’, and many by Paul Fournier; Ernest Chausson ‘Poeme de l’Amour et de la Mer’, Pierre de Breville ‘Medeia’, Henri Duparc ‘Phidyle’. Played at that hall the La Damoiselle Elue’, in which the solo parts were taken by Julia Robert and Therese Roger drew attention to what was hitherto seen only in print. The critic of the performance and the book that was later published was reviewed by Julien Tiersot and Charles Darcours, and Tiersot says that Claude Achille Debussy is lacking in principles of music — “although his work gives evidence of a skill which is the result of deep and serious study.” (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 201)

By 1894 Claude Debussy finished the symphony to Mallarme “Apres-midi d’un Faune.” He had reduced it to the form of a simple ‘Prelude’, which was produced by the Societe Nationale and played in December 1894. It was then that the public came to know of the orchestral talents of which the audience was aware from the ‘La Damoiselle elue’, famous for being simultaneously vocal, choral, and instrumental. It was thus for the first time that the Societe Nationale allowed the general public to attend the concerts and this made the ‘Petite chapelle’ a temple of music. It was a composition that the public understood at the first hearing — something that was not normally possible. The public made the conductor, Gustave Doret. This was later taken on by eminent musicians like Andre Messager and Edouard Colonne that placed it in their own programs of Vaudeville and Chatelet concerts. (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 80)

There is also the fact that Claude Achille Debussy made great changes to piano music. The innovator in Debussy- seen in the piano music and the audacities of harmony have been the subject of discussion and has thus proven to be a special style of writing that has not stuck to the conventional methods of modulation, resulting in a nearness or relation between distantly related keys, which has brought in a modern method of art, matter and style at one stroke. Thus Claude Achille Debussy was able to create a harmonic balance for the music that arose in his imagination — thereby making the audiences to experience novel music. At the same time his piano music with the new piano techniques had a high lyrical quality — a harmony that was far different from the general French which had a combination of austere and traditional view of composition. This uncanny genius for using an instrumental resource, in a novel way to create a lasting impression can be seen in Debussy’s orchestral works which always consist of quartets or in the three sonatas. (Cortot, 1932, 10)

The Mystique:

Claude Achille Debussy’s works can be compared with the works of contemporary novelists’ poets, and painters and other composers who had a mutual influence on one another. His new harmony is also found described by some of his pupils who have also meticulously recorded his pedaling and fingering techniques. (Halford, 10)

Claude Achille Debussy had created an expanded Piano technique. His idea was to see to it that the audience never realized that the Piano was a percussion instrument and was generating music without hammers. Thus he trained people to play with lighter fingers called the slap touch wherein the key is abandoned mid way caressing or wiping the key creating a very resonant tone which is devoid of harshness, and the instructions from Debussy were that the hands must be held low, and fingers must crawl across the keys and the chords too must be played with the pressing motion than with force of weight. The phase has to be legato. The person who wishes to pursue Debussy’s music must in effect remember these basics which he insisted that his pupils learn by way of handling the piano. (Halford, 10)

The pedal appears to be important but is kept confined to a particular method of use for the compositions of Claude Achille Debussy. Debussy’s handling the pedal was what the musician Llizst called a ‘breathing pedal. The pedal thus was a very much needed thing. The solution for the compositions therefore is half pedaling, that is after the damper pedal is fully depressed, the soft pedal is used with the foot having moved up and down once or twice raising the dampers fast thus bringing harmony while the soft pedals are used. The damper pedal can also be depressed to a good effect but always before playing the chord. Damper and soft pedals may be used together. (Halford, 11) This can be understood in detail by way of the figure 1 shown below:


Or this:

(Halford, 11)

The technicalities of the music are much more complicated than the concept itself. For example the composition of Claude Achille Debussy if technically discussed and explained is complicated, not only for the application of the notes and music but also with regard to the use of notes, the pedal and the way emotions and freedom is expressed by the player moving the left and right hand. The descending progress can be observed from C. To B. In measures 1-4 though it is insisted that this must be homogenous and even. This is a pattern in arabesque that can be found continuously repeating and the rhythm may appear at times not metric and in the four beats 1-2 and the arpeggio for 3-4-5 apexes of the melody does not adhere to the first beat. (Schmitz, 1966, 45)

This leads to the fact that the compositions do not allow the use of pedals just as in Bach in the case of these patterns. For example at 7# the appoggiatura D# must be stressed and the decrescendo must find a link to measure eight. Like wise in the 13-16 measures the stringendo and ritardando are slow, gradual and must not be broken. Thus during these phases a great player can use the pedal may also enhance the quality but only for these phases. For the measures 22-24 ritardando relates to the slow opening of the seventh chord phase, but must be regular with the tempo being resumed and contracted at the 23rd and through 26. The dormant harmony at the end of the phase is a natural G. (Schmitz, 1966, 45)

For the measures 29 to 46 there is more emotion involved as it abandons the earlier system to become swaying impulsive and tender. At this point the harmonic tensions must be at their proper value and the appoggiaturas must not be separated from the previous resolutions which must continue to be lightened while the appoggiaturas are being stressed to show the abandonment of tension. The second Arabesque is not as lyrical as the first one. The rhythmic pulsatlions in this case become more active. The ornaments on the right hand side require proper timing and the triplets and the others must balance properly with the ensuing eight notes. For measures 66-71 there would be unevenness of consecutive eight notes which might blur the effect of the most carefully used pedal. The left hand should be used carefully in playing the note. (Schmitz, 1966, 46)

Claude Achille Debussy in the song Ariettes oubliees used the verse of the French composer and poet Favart for the preludes -Le vent dans la plaine, suspend son haleine (wind and water, fog and snow) (Debussy, Preludes, vol. I, no. 3). He here has a third piece built entirely in a row on a B# pedal-note. He thus successfully tied consecutive preludes together musically. In comparing the tonal aspects of the three preludes the first is in Bb major. The second is also in B major with some pentatonics while the third piece has the same pitch; and begins with B. But is an essayed into many of the Phrygian modes on B — which on B# is B#, C# D# E# FG# A# B#. The “wind” pattern it may be noted that does not have F. And #5. The insistence of pedal movements can be illustrated with the reverie. The reverie is a composition that Claude Achille Debussy sold to choudens publishing company in 1891. (Debussy; Banowetz, 2000, 80) It is the most popular work for the piano because it has an elegant melody that resembles the work of Chappin. The change of the pedals is illustrated by the snippet below:


(Debussy; Banowetz, 2000, 80)

Claude Achille Debussy insisted that theatrical (drama) and music cannot correlate in the Revue Blanehe and in Gil Blas. He made it clear that the music of the drama theatre was to him a false and inferior type of art. Music thus could not be blended with the stage. Debussy’s argument was that the music must be supreme than the other performances on the stage. By 1911 Debussy’s love of pure music had prompted him to compose several poems that could be used for the adaptation of music. Some composers at this time were trying to set the music to poems that were already composed without the idea of music behind them. (Vallas, O’Brien, 1929, 62) The second was the blind side that this theory created in Debussy. As a result of the fixation with music he could not appreciate many other musicals, operas, tragedies and plays that were then made popular with Wagner music. (Schmitz, 1966, 76)

It is to be noted that in his younger days Claude Achille Debussy was an admirer of Wagner. At the time he won the Prix de Rome, he had the opportunity to hear ‘Tristan and Isolde’. However he put off Wagner saying that the style could suit only to Wagner’s geniuses. However as time passed the Germanic influence and that of Wagner waned so much that he became a professor of anti-Wagnerism. Not only was that an attempt to build nationalism but also was a result of the influence of Russian music especially Mussorgsky’s works. (Vallas, O’Brien, 1929, 112) We see that the same stand was taken by the composer in the later part of his life too.


At the old age of fifty two, war seems to have affected Claude Achille Debussy, who was given in to the French outlook, and total dislike of the German music and he did proclaim this by writing. ‘Let us retrieve our own good taste’. Further he wanted to use the French system as a method of warfare ‘against the Barbarians, who have become much more dangerous since they have taken to parting their hair in the middle.’ (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 250)

It was also retribution to the German tyranny in the arena of music to which the country was so long subjected. He wrote on French music stating that the free forms were French inventions, which ought to be revered and rekindled. (Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, 1933, 251) Thus to sum up it can be said that Claude Achille Debussy who lived from 1862 — 1918 was a chief figure in the development of 20th century music. His characteristics are a keyboard style for the piano with chord and refining of sound pure and unresolved harmonies and special pedal effects. The French composer Liszt was daringly tried by him on the Piano thus creating a tradition. There are no fingerings and very subtle pedal movements making the music difficult. For example, there are only 20 known pedal marks in his music. (Hinson, 2000, 243) In some of his works this is evident from the snippets shown in the figure below.


(Debussy, 1992, 144)

Claude Achille Debussy has no copyright to his music and has not left behind any heirs who may own his works, and hence the music is today being published by a number of companies and there are errors that have crept in. (Hinson, 2000, 244) There are thus many unauthenticated versions today, which is a sad truth.


Claude Achille Debussy was not influenced by the academic institutions or by the then popular German musicians — having given his whole life in the expansion of French music and operas, probably because of the fact that early in life he was influenced by Chopin — through Mme. Maute. His first adaptation of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Intermezzo’, shows that the German influence caught him early on in his life. His debut work was much acclaimed and it made him travel long in search of the perfect keys and pedal for the composition, a thing which pianists today have to spend time to master.

The piano music with the new piano technique brought a new genera of music to the other wise traditional composition. Using the pedal and the distinct movements of what can be called as key stokes and the use of the damper pedal and soft pedal is itself the single most unique composition of Claude Achille Debussy. Added to that the use of special notes as in the descending progress and the required rhythmic pulsations and tonal aspects has made the piano works even fit for the emotional theatre.


Bruhn, Siglind. Images and Ideas in Modern French Piano Music: The Extra-Musical

Subtext in Piano Works Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen. Pendragon Press: Stuyvesant, NY, 1997.

Cortot, Alfred. French Piano Music. Oxford University Press:

London, 1932.

Debussy, Claude; Banowetz, Joseph. Piano works.

Alfred Music Publishing, 2000.

Debussy, Claude. Works for piano four hands and two pianos.

Courier Dover Publications, 1992.

DeVoto, Mark. Debussy and the veil of tonality: Essays on his music.

Pendragon Press, 2004.

Halford, Margery. Debussy: An Introduction to His Piano Music.

Alfred Music Publishing, 2006.

Hinson, Maurice. (2000) Guide to the pianist’s repertoire.

Indiana University Press, 2000.

Liebich, Louise. Claude-Achille Debussy.

J Lane: London, 1908.

Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life & Mind.

Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Schmitz, Elie Robert. The piano works of Claude Debussy.

Courier Dover Publications. 1966.

Seroff, Victor I. Debussy: Musician of France.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1956.

Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, Grace. Claude Debussy: His Life and Works.

Oxford University Press: London, 1933.

Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie. The Theories of Claude Debussy: Musicien Francais.

Oxford University Press: London, 1929.

Vallas, Leon; O’Brien, Marie; O’Brien, Grace. Claude Debussy: His Life and Works.

Oxford University Press: London, 1933.

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