Research Paper: Debussy and His Piano Works

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Debussy and His Piano Works

Claude Achille Debussy and His Piano Works

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… [END OF PREVIEW]

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