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Birthday Of Claude Debussy - The Composer Who Broke All The Rules

   August 22 is the 150th birthday  of  French composer Claude Debussy ,  often described as the founder of impressionism in music  despite the fact that  he did not consider himself to be an "impressionist" and disliked the term  .  He is one of the most important and influential  composers  of the late 19th and early 20th century ,  and one of the  most  original  and forward-looking  musicians of his time .  20th century music  would not be what it is without his bold innovations in harmony and musical structure .  He died  in 1918 , and classical music was never the same . 

   So many great 20th century composers  fell under his influence  and then went on in their own directions ;  Ravel, Stravisnky, Bartok , Messiaen and Boulez to name only a handful .  Debussy was born into  a rather ordinary middle class French family in 1862 , and showed  great talent  as a pianist  from childhood ,  and entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire , where he  grew  tired  of the pedantic teaching of harmony and form  under  tradition-bound teachers .  He  experimented with unconventional  chords  which scandalized his teachers  and began to compose  works ,mainly for piano at first , which broke with all the traditional rules of  harmony  and  musical form . 

   He escaped the early influence of Wagner  , who had been  a  maverick in harmony  and structure himself  decades before , and outgrew  his youthful infatuation  with the  titanic   German master .  After a brief time in Russia  as a young man as musical tutor to  the children of  the wealthy  Russian  wdow  Nadezhda von meck, who had been Tchaikovsky's  enthusiastic patroness  , he returned to France  and  began to write revlutionary works which broke all the academic rules of harmony ; they made  use of  strange  parallel chords which  were made  up of  blocks of notes which  had been considered  anathema  for so long, and made use of  the pentatonic, or five-tone scale  which is so common in Asian music  and  folk music around the  world, and  the so-called whole tone scale  , which consisats of the notes C,D,E, F sharp , G sharp A sharp  instead of the conventional western major scale of C,D,E,F,G,A,B, C .  Instead of the straightforward  major and minor keys , Debussy  made use of  strange ambigous harmonies which  tended to undermine the sense of nmusic being in any key, although he never  used the outright atonality of Arnold Schoenberg and his  school . 

   He abandoned  the use of the traditional sonata allegro form which had dominated Eurpean art music since the time of Haydn and Mozart  and  created works which did not  fall into any  pre-exisitng musical structure .  In his orchestral music , he  used the orchestra as a vehicle for  color for the sake of color and atmoisphere ;  there is a kind of hazy,misty quality to much of his music  .  He used musical color  the way painters use visual color .  In addition, he became interested in  the music of Asia  when  he heard it  played by  asian  musicians visiting France ,in particular  Japan and indonesia ,  and this  influenced his works to a considerable degree .

   Debussy  wrote for the piano in a way that   attempted to de-emphasize the fact that it is basically a percussive instrument  , and  tries to make  it sound  soft and smooth in texture .  Many of his piano works have atmospheric descriptive titles such as  "The wind through the plains","What the west wind  saw",  "The sunken Catherdral" ,  "The girl with the flaxen hair ",  "Footsteps on the snow",  "Gardens in the rain", etc . 

    You may have heard some of his famous orchestral works  such as "Prelude to the afternoon of a fawn", which describes the erotic dream of  a faun in mythical Greece ,  "La Mer", or the sea,  which  makes  you feel as you were right in the water experiencing the waves  , the  wind and  storms  ,  "Iberia", which  evokes  a day in Spain, complete with  the heat ,  color  and  atomosphere of  the Iberian peninsula etc .  Debussy completed only one opera  "Pelleas & Melisande ", based on the enigmatic play by the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck  about a  medieval  prince who  meets a mysterious  young beauty  in the forest by chance , and  makes her his wife, with  ultimately tragic results .

   This opera is supremely atmosperic and brooding , with little  stage action  . There are no conventional operatic arias ,  or other traditional elements of  standard opera  . 

   There are  a great  many recordings of Debussy's music which you can easily order  over the internet at and  other websites .  For his orchestral music ,  try the recordings of such  renowned  champions of his music as conductors Pierre Monteux, Charles Dutoit, Pierre Boulez  and Charles Munch  .  And many of the  world's greatest pianists have recorded his piano works . 

Posted: Aug 22 2012, 07:46 PM by the horn | with no comments
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