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Debussy: Trailblazing Modernity

Achille Claude Debussy, or Claude Debussy as he’s usually known, was, along with Maurice Ravel, the most prominent French composer of classical music associated with Impressionism. Born in 1862, he died on March 25th, 1918, making this year the centenary of his death. His music is still incredibly popular, and ‘centenary’ recordings are trending in the classical music charts.

Impressionism is a term used to describe both music and art. In music, it indicates works that convey emotion, suggestion and atmosphere, using timbre (texture) harmony (colour) and orchestration (palette) in the same way that impressionist painters such as Monet and Renoir built an overall impression rather than a detailed realistic image.

Children on the Beach at Guernsey, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883

These styles were in keeping with the literary fashion of the time: Symbolism. Symbolism was a reaction against the grittiness of realism. It featured metaphor and suggestion. Individual objects were given symbolic meanings with the intention of representing ‘absolute truths’ that could only be described indirectly.

Debussy rejected the term ‘Impressionism’ when applied to his music. In a letter of 1908 he wrote,

I am trying to do ‘something different’ — in a way realities — what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’ is a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics.

In fact, the composer spent a lot of time, and shared many ideals with symbolist writers, including Mallarmé and Pierre Loüys. Although the label of ‘impressionist’ that was given him in a less than flattering way after he submitted Le Printemps to the Conseil de Art (it was refused by the Académie’s Secretary in a letter warning him about “impressionism, the most dangerous enemy of artistic truth”), he adhered more to symbolism than impressionism, and transcended both.

Debussy at the Piano

Debussy’s musical language marked the era of modernity. His focus was constantly on originality – a genuine trailblazer in the world of music. Experimental from the outset, he was also a brilliant pianist and a fantastic sight-reader. While he applied the techniques of the old masters, he pushed these to their limits. He used whole tone scales, pentatonicism, and unresolved dissonances by removing them from the tonal framework.

Travels to Russia in his youth had interested in non-European music. These trips possibly also prepared him for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, where he discovered the Japanese gamelan and Annamite theatre. By integrating these elements into his language, he created a sound that was previously unknown and was to spark modernism in music.

Russian music itself made a strong impression. Influences from late nineteenth-century Russian music, including that of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Borodin can be heard in Debussy. There was increasing cross-cultural flow during the period of the Franco-Russian alliance in the late nineteenth century, and Russian music was also performed and popularised by musicians including Liszt and Saint-Saëns.

As winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L’enfant prodigue, Debussy had received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887).

In his letters to Marie-Blanche Vasnier (a singer with whom he went on to have an eigth-year affair) he complained that he found the artistic atmosphere stifling. He didn’t enjoy the culture in Rome either. The operas of Donizetti and Verdi were distinctly not to his taste. He was often depressed and unable to compose. He was, however, inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.

In June 1885, he wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying,

I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas.

It was Debussy who can to some extent be attributed with the development of modern music in the United States in the early twentieth century. American music critics showed mixed reactions to the composer’s highly original harmonic language and style, but his modernistic musical language and symbolist ideals soon evoked enthusiasm. In the early decades of the century, Debussy’s orchestral music was championed more than that of any other contemporary composer by the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, and New York. His work is also thought to have influenced American jazz long after his death.

Debussy died of rectal cancer at home in Paris home at the age of just 55. His death occurred in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I.

His funeral procession passed through deserted streets to Père Lachaise Cemetery as the German guns bombarded the city. The military situation in France was grave, and the public funeral he would otherwise have received, with its pomp and ceremonious graveside orations, was impossible. The following year, his body was reinterred in the small Passy Cemetery  behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling his wish to rest “among the trees and the birds”.

Further Reading:

Debussy: The first ‘modern’ composer (a New York Times article by Pianist Stephen Hough

Five pop-ish musicians who owe a debt to Debussy 

Debussy’s influence on jazz

And check out our MWC ‘Debussy’ Spotify playlists:

Debussy’s Piano Music

Debussy’s Orchestral Music

The Piano Music of Chopin – Topping the Charts for 200 Years

For our guest blog in May, we’re looking forward to an update from AQA. We heard from the exam board last year and they’ll be updating us on recent GCSE, AS and A level developments.

ChopinThis month we focus on the wonderful piano music of Fryderyk Chopin, whose birthday was on March 1st. Chopin’s piano music, which features on the AQA GCSE syllabus, is perhaps less immediately familiar to students than the music of their favourite pop band, but his influence on other musicians and composers was enormous. Most students will have heard the music of Chopin in one form or another.

Fryderyk (or Frédéric) Chopin was born in March 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, about 30 miles from Warsaw, Poland. He was just 39 years old when he died, but had established himself as a leading expert on the piano as a composer, teacher and performer.

Chopin’s entire body of work focuses on the piano. All his compositions include the piano, and many of his works are for solo piano. In fact, Chopin is the only great composer whose work all involves the piano –  He didn’t write any symphonies, operas or choral music, and he produced only a small number of pieces compositions that involve other instruments. He wrote around 200 works, 169 of which are for solo piano!

Chopin was hugely influential in the development of modern piano technique and style. He was the first composer to overcome the percussive nature of the physical instrument and produce truly lyrical sounds. He created new colours, harmonies and means of expression, exploiting every facet in the new developments in piano construction. The seven-octave keyboard opened up new musical possibilities and the improved mechanism aided virtuoso techniques. But more than this, Chopin possessed a poetic touch that makes his compositions unique. His influence on harmony was monumental, with composers including Wagner following his ideas.

PianoChopin’s connection with the piano was particularly important for his compositions. He is the first composer to write purely in terms of what the piano could do, with no attempt to echo the sounds of the choir or orchestra. His inspiration, unlike that of composers such as Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann, never came from paintings or literature.

Chopin’s performances of his own works were often slightly different from the written versions, suggesting that composition and improvisation were linked in his creative process. Many of his compositions were linked to his teaching, with a number of works composed for and dedicated to his students, or written for friends, including Liszt.

Whether or not Chopin can be credited with bringing Nationalism to music, it is true that Polish tradition influenced his work. The musical forms he used, alongside the modes and rhythms, demonstrate his Polish heritage. Other influences came from time spent in Vienna and Paris, and other master composers including Mozart, Field, Paganini and Bellini.

Chopin spent time with a number of key composers of the Romantic period including Liszt, Berlioz, Schumann and Mendelssohn. He travelled around Europe, like most of his contemporaries, touring England and Scotland in 1848.

A master of piano music, most of his works were written for the smaller piano forms: Ballades, Études, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Polonaises , Preludes and Waltzes. He was a master of the miniature, and many music historians accept his piano writing technique as a model.

Chopin is perhaps best known for his Mazurkas and Polonaises. Both are Polish dances, reflecting the composer’s roots. He also developed the Nocturne. The term nocturne was first used to describe a piece of music by the Irish pianist and composer John Field in 1814, but Chopin, in the words of critic James Huneker, “invested it with an elegance and depth of meaning which had never been given to it before”.

The Mazurka became the national dance of Poland in the later 18th and early 19th Century, developing into a highly stylised dance piece. Chopin drew on the traditional rural Mazurka in his piano pieces, retaining the energy of the style while adapting it into a sophisticated art form, which it retained in European music.

Chopin’s Polonaises were written after the November 1830 Warsaw Uprising, when Chopin was living in France. The dance had long been out of fashion, but he perhaps used the form as a symbol of Poland. He used the familiar rhythmic and melodic formulae of the traditional Polonaise, keeping many of the dance elements even though the works were for the concert hall rather than the ballroom.

Polonaise_Op._53Chopin’s dances were written for concert performances and have been described as dances for the soul, not the body.

Chopin’s piano works keep his music near the top of recording sales even today.

His music also frequently appears in popular culture, as integral and familiar as the most famous Beatles song. From 1945, Perry Como’s song Till the End of Time is based on Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise, and Barry Manilow’s Could it Be Magic is based on the C Minor Prelude of Opus 28. Alicia Keys’ album As I Am opens with an adaptation of the Nocturne in C sharp Minor No. 20, and the Raindrop Prelude was used in a commercial for the video game Halo 3.

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