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Debussy: A Pioneer in the World of Music

As a pianist sits down to practice Reflections in the Water by Debussy, he feels a sense of nostalgia before the he even starts playing. He drifts into the piece, and falls unconsciously into an ethereal world. The music paints a rich and charming picture of rippling water-so simple, yet so beautiful. In Reflections in the Water, notes are not just notes. The broken chords become a ripple of water flowing up and down the keyboard. The simple one note melody in the left hand transforms into droplets falling into the water. Slowly, the music accelerates. The ripples become more intense, their charm and power swirling in the air. The rain is pouring onto the water, creating frenzied yet serene reflections of autumn trees and drifting clouds, radiating pastel splashes of scarlet, indigo, blue, orange, and magenta. Then the reflections slow down in a hushed diminuendo. The ripples are once again peaceful. The pianist is drawn into the mysterious scene that the piece paints. Who is the composer behind this masterpiece? He is the one and only Debussy, whose compositions float on the border between daydream and reality. Debussy was a pioneer in a whole different genre of music. He strayed away from the strict musical conventions of his time, such as the ABA form, venturing off into an undiscovered world of bizarre musical forms and styles. Debussy also composed many songs drawn from Symbolist poems and Impressionist paintings (Halliwell 90). Critics did not understand or appreciate his strange formless music. Renowned composer Massenet declared, "He is an enigma" (Henry-Lang and Bettman 238). One of Debussy’s teachers told him “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd” (Kamien 440). Fellow musicians cast off his works, but modern musicians have come to idolize Debussy. Debussy’s experimentations and unconventional ways have revolutionized the art of music, influencing many later composers to seek new styles and sparking new forms of music such as jazz.

Debussy’s music can be understood through two important aspects-Impressionism and Symbolism. Impressionism, the main style that critics categorized Debussy’s works, “marks a crisis-point in nineteenth-century art” (Lucie-Smith 8). Paris was the hub of the revolution in art. Until then, art followed strict conventional methods. Paintings were drawn as realistically as possible. A group of artists in France sprang up in opposition to the detailed conventional styles of art. After photography was invented during the mid-1800s, painting realistic pieces was no longer ideal (Lucie-Smith 8). Why work meticulously for detail when a camera could capture nature and society in exact form? This new art form called Impressionism was different, unlike anything ever seen before. Impressionists sought to develop innovations in color and light-one thing photographs lacked. Impressionists manipulated color by “painting in small, pure touches that coalesced to create the required hue only when the spectator stood at a certain distance from the canvas” (Lucie-Smith 9). In the same way, Debussy sought to implement colorful and illuminated harmonies in his work. Moreover, Impressionists believed in creating their artworks in the open air to capture the essence of nature and “achieve a perfect reproduction of what the eye really perceived” (Lucie-Smith 9). Any other aspect of art was “pushed aside as an irrelevance” (Lucie-Smith 9). One excellent example of Impressionistic art was Sisley’s Le brouillard. This landscape painting consisted of random colored dots. However, when viewed at a certain distance, Le brouillard seems to transform from capricious colored dots to a painting capturing the playful effects of light. Not surprisingly, many art critics considered the paintings by the French Impressionists threatening to the “perfect” conventional form of art. Debussy, who lived in Paris (the birthplace of Impressionism), was considered an Impressionist for his formless music that contained unconventional harmonies. Like the Impressionists, his music did not state a precise story or idea, but suggested the beauty and color of nature. Many of Debussy’s works are musical forms of Impressionist paintings.

Debussy is generally viewed as an Impressionist, but many art historians claim that Debussy was also a Symbolist-with good reason.Symbolism sprang from Impressionism. The two are very similar. Symbolism focused on “the richness offered by the life of the senses” (Lucie-Smith 13), which included the effects of light as in Impressionism. An obvious difference between the two was that Impressionism dealt with painting, while Symbolists applied their ideas to poetry. The Symbolist takes what he observes with his senses and transforms the image into something otherworldly. Similarly, Debussy depicted ethereal images in his pieces with his unconventional and mysterious harmonies which charmed the senses. Renoir, a famous Symbolist, acknowledges the sensual aspect of Symbolism: “What the world brings to us through our most basic perceptions is also, necessarily, the material from which we build our dreams” (Lucie-Smith 14). Just as he composed music based on Impressionist paintings, Debussy also composed music for Symbolist poetry. One of his most famous piano pieces, Clair de Lune (Moonlight), is based off a poem with the same name by Verlaine (Medea). His dreamy music enriched the senses of the listener. “One can actually imagine the snow dancing and feel the touch of the chilly evening air in The Snow is Dancing” (Medea), a piece from his album The Children’s Corner. Regardless of whether Debussy is seen as an Impressionist, Symbolist, or both, he will always be remembered as the pioneer who altered the course of music.

A variety of events in Debussy’s life helped to inspire his music. By looking at Debussy’s life, one can see Debussy’s road of maturation in becoming a composer that sparked a musical profusion. Achille-Claude Debussy was born in Paris on August 22, 1862. Debussy’s father soon realized the boy had talent and sent him to be trained with Antoinette-Flore Maute, a family friend. In 1872, Debussy continued his studies at the Paris Conservatory as a full-time student. It was in his three years at the Paris Conservatory of Music that Debussy began to experiment with new musical ideas that challenged existing musical beliefs. Many of the teachers criticized his bizarre music. They couldn’t understand why Debussy would experiment with unusual tones, and compose formless music that didn’t center on a certain key (such as the key of C). One of his teachers at the Paris Conservatory asked: “Whose rule do you follow?” (Thompson 5). Debussy responded, “My own pleasure” (Thompson 5). Saint Saens, a well-known composer at the time, stated his view in a letter to fellow composer Faure: “I advise you to look at the pieces for two pianos…It’s incredible, and the door of the Institute must at all costs be barred against a man capable of such atrocities” (Sadie 310). These are only two examples of the numerous criticisms that Debussy received throughout his career. Luckily, Debussy studied in Paris, the birthplace of Impressionism. Debussy soon met likeminded writers and artists. He had many discussions with the talented artists and poets. Debussy became close friends with a poet by the name of Verlaine. The Symbolist poet Verlaine would later inspire much of Debussy’s music. In 1884, Debussy entered the Prix de Rome competition with lofty expectations, but won only won second prize. “The Conservatory condemned the piece” (Halliwell, 88) for having shifting harmonies and its unconventional style. He won first prize the following year and was awarded a four-year study in Rome. It was in Rome that Debussy met Liszt, a famous composer and pianist that would widely influence his later works. “Liszt encouraged Debussy to seek out Renaissance music” (Halliwell 88), especially the music played in Rome’s churches. This type of music was commonly based on the ethereal whole tone scale, which Debussy utilized in many of his mature imagery works, as in Suite bergamasque. After his study in Rome, Debussy returned home to Paris, where his parents disparaged him for failing to become an exceptional pianist, and in particular, for not bringing home any money. With spare time on his hands, Debussy frequently visited cafes where he listened to artists and writers discuss things. It was at the Bookshop of Independent Art where Debussy met with the group of poets known as the Symbolists. The Symbolists would leave a lasting imprint in Debussy, who later wrote songs based off of Symbolist poems and style. The Symbolists and Impressionists influenced Debussy to break away from traditional harmonies. Debussy started to utilize the whole tone scale, which didn’t have a definite tonality or key. “The whole tone harmonics” gave “his music its distinctive blurred, sonorous effect” (Thompson 10). The 1889 Paris World Exhibit introduced Debussy to a whole new world of music: Orientalism. Debussy was fascinated by the exotic tones of eastern music. Especially appealing to Debussy was Javanese gamelan music, which included many delicate and non-conventional instruments such as “tuned gongs, bells, xylophones, and tiny cymbals” (Thompson 12). The Oriental music changed his perspective on tones and harmonies. Debussy increasingly utilized dissonances, which are chords that are “jarring to the ear” (Halliwell 91). The pentatonic scales of Oriental music also attracted him. Debussy made several remarks about Oriental music after his visit to the fair: “Do you not remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning?” (Kamien 437) I am more and more convinced that music is not, in essence, a thing which can be cast into a traditional and fixed form. It is made of colors and rhythms” (Kamien 439). As the years passed, Debussy’s music became more mature. His music focused on imagery. He said of his work: “My music has no other aim than to become identified with certain scenes or objects” (Halliwell 88). One can see from Debussy’s life that friends and family greatly impacted his output. Debussy tended to write more songs when his relationships with his wives were great (he married several times). Between 1906 and 1908, Debussy churned out piano music. He dedicated a “set of six little piano pieces called Children’s Corner” (Thompson 36) to his dear daughter Chou-Chou. The piece in that set called Golliwog’s Cake-walk was one of the earliest music that included jazz elements (Kamien 424). His works encompass a surprising variety ranging from piano to orchestra. In 1909, Debussy was diagnosed with colon cancer. During this time, he composed two books of piano pieces, mainly dealing with imagery. The cancer gradually worsened, and Debussy died on March 25, 1918, leaving behind an everlasting legacy.

Debussy’s music was unique to that of any other composers before him. He was one of the first composers to stray away from the traditional diatonic scale and experiment in music with the whole tone and pentatonic scales. He tried to avoid traditional harmonies and styles. The whole-tone scale, a scale where every note is a whole step apart, was a major element in his music. Because every note is a whole step apart, there is no set key of which a whole tone piece lies in (Hoffman 212). The whole tone scale suited Debussy’s works because it gave his works a blurred, dreamy, and faraway effect. The other scale that Debussy’s often used in his compositions was the pentatonic scale. It was at the Paris World Fair that Debussy was mesmerized by the pentatonic music of the Orient (Thompson 12). The general pentatonic scale that Debussy uses consists of the five black notes on the piano. Debussy implemented this scale to give his music a distinct Oriental effect. Debussy’s use of the pentatonic and whole tone scales was unprecedented in Western music. The use of these scales gave his compositions a blurry, dreamy and faraway effect. It wasn’t the use of the scales that revolutionized music, however-it was the experimentation of exotic and unorthodox scales that imprinted Debussy in musical history. Debussy breakthrough of traditional musical conventions was revolutionary. My piano teacher Toumadjanov asserts this statement in a recent interview.

Debussy experimented with the whole tone and pentatonic scales and implemented them in his music. This implementation of exotic scales was revolutionary in that it served as a role model for succeeding musicians. We can see his influence in Jazz. The jazz scale was a pretty new scale in music in Debussy’s time. Debussy set an example in the musical world by using uncommon scales and techniques in his music. He was a role model for jazz. We can attribute a portion of the increasing popularity of Jazz in Europe and the rest of the Western world to him (Jazz was exported from America, but was not popular in Europe at first)... He set the standard for unorthodox music, and helped people to see that even though Jazz was not traditional, it was beautiful. Debussy also played a role in contemporary music. The scale used for contemporary music was discovered after Debussy’s death. Debussy encouraged the musical world to seek out new forms of music and not follow traditional ideals. The contemporary scale was discovered as an indirect result of Debussy’s precedent in music. In fact, musicians can find traces of the contemporary scale and style in some of Debussy’s works, whether Debussy realized this or not.

Many sources also indicate the new ideas Debussy brought to the orchestra. Halliwell stated in her book: “Debussy broke conventions in his music. This involved giving new roles to instruments like the harp…Debussy is famous for rethinking the normal roles assigned to each section of the orchestra in order to allow him to create the exact sound he wanted” (88). Debussy’s orchestral piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, was “a revolutionary piece, which critics claimed had no form, and altered the course of French music, leading the way into the 20th century” (Halliwell 89). Another instrument that Debussy brought out of obscurity into popularity was the flute. “It was neglected during the 19th century, but found favor with French impressionists such as Debussy, and many modern composers have since written for it” (Wade-Matthews and Thompson 80). Debussy’s rebellion against traditional music inspired many later composers. The great Stravinsky said, “I and the members of my generation owe most to Debussy” (Kamien 442). Even though Debussy wasn’t one of the most prolific composers, he was clearly one of the most influential composers in the history of music.

Normally when pianists hear the name Debussy, they recognize him for the surreal quality that floats about his compositions; they recognize him for the pieces that paint a magical picture in the listener’s mind, but miss his real significance to music. Throughout the 20th century, Debussy was leading a quiet revolution in music. He was the pioneer of non-traditional music. He was the role model for other composers that ventured into new forms of music such as contemporary. Debussy pushed the boundaries of music and made music be simply music. He revolutionized the orchestra, and its instruments. He opened the world’s eyes to music’s true purpose-pleasure. Debussy was the painter of mystery, silence, the infinite, the sunlit shimmer of the waves. He was the painter of a cheery fragrance in the air, of nostalgia, and of dreams. Is it a coincidence that jazz exploded in popularity after his death; is it a coincidence that the flute, cymbals, and harp play a major role in current orchestras? Is it a coincidence that Stockhausen’s famous orchestra Stimmung, features the major 9th, Debussy’s favorite chord, throughout the whole work? (Sadie 310). Debussy’s name has been obscured in history over the past century, but there is no doubt of his immeasurable imprint in music throughout the 20th century. Debussy should have the last word: ‘We must agree that the beauty of a work of art will always remain a mystery, in other words we can never be absolutely sure “how it’s made”. We must at all costs preserve this magic which is peculiar to music and to which, by its nature, music is of all arts the most receptive’ (Sadie 310).


sorry for the ambiguous paragraph breaks. Thesis is: Debussy's experimentations and unconventional ways have revolutionized the art of music, influencing many later composers and sparking new forms of music such as jazz.

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