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Claude Debussy: Rebel

Behind the charm of Clair de lune lay a harmonic dissenter


You wouldn't necessarily associate the Impressionist composer Claude Debussy with being a radical. But like Beethoven before him, he was always looking to change the status quo and refused to accept the existing rules of harmony as the standard by which he was bound. As a student, he apparently failed his harmony exams many times because he was always trying out new ones that were not accepted; the chord progressions of Johann Sebastian Bach which formed the basis of much conservatoire teaching did not exactly thrill him. This experimentation of the sonic landscape also extended to his piano playing and he would create new, somewhat jazzy sounds to deliberately get under the skin of his contemporaries. Already from a young age he was moving towards the sounds of Impressionism that he would eventually be known for.

Debussy was aware of the great operatic works of Wagner, and while they were both alike in that they realised that the harmonic framework of the previous centuries had to change, Debussy felt that the move towards a new sound not only had to extend harmonically, but also formally beyond the Western influences of past. Western music of the previous centuries had focussed on thematic development and structures; the rebel in Debussy sought a compositional process that was less regulated by ideas and themes and hence governed from the outset. He saw Wagnerian opera as still governed by melody, and the "governance" or pre-determination by musical elements from the start was what he sought to move away from. Instead he looked towards creating impressions and ideas, and using these to direct harmonic sounds and thematic development - the latter would still be present in his music, but secondary to the impression.

His early works, such as Pelleas et Melisande in 1892 and Prelude a l'apres - midi d'un faune (1894), which would later turn out to be among his memorable works, were criticised by an unprepared audience for their apparent lack of form. Audiences at that time were not quite prepared to "let go" and be directed by the ideas and emotions that the music was trying to convey, and hence the lack of structure, through which they mentally charted the progress of the piece, was slightly unsettling.

One of Debussy's greatest works for orchestra, La Mer (The Sea), was inspired by Eastbourne - yes, Eastbourne in Sussex, where he lived briefly in 1904. The reception of the piece demonstrated how audiences were still unprepared for the shift in music. One critic wrote: "As long as actual sleep can be avoided, the hearer can derive great pleasure from the strange sounds that enter his ears if he will only put away all ideas of definite construction or logical development."

Debussy wrote many works for orchestra, using the tone colours of different instruments to paint different settings, scenes and emotions. But he also demonstrated his skills in doing the same for the piano. His Images convey moments that have been described as "the sound of bells through leaves" or "sunlight reflected off the scales of fish". In his two books of Preludes, titles such as La cathedrale engloutie (The Drowned Cathedral) and Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) hint at the range of subjects that Debussy was trying to convey.

The rebel in Debussy can also be seen in his Children's Corner suite. They are the only pieces of his to be given English titles. The six pieces, written for his daughter, have quaint titles such as The snow is dancing, Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (a joke at the finger exercises of Muzio Clementi). Unfortunately, he made a mistake with one of them - which is why the evocative song for a baby elephant came to be known as Jimbo's Lullaby. Or perhaps, like the composer Francois Couperin, who was known for the strange titles to his works, he was looking for yet another opportunity to be different!

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