Renowned for his evocative orchestral music, Debussy was an innovator who was just as interested in the past as the present. Christopher Morley examines his influence 150 years on from his birth.
Last week marked the 150th birthday of a composer, who, however modest his own aims, became a major influence on the music of the first half of the 20th-century.
Claude-Achille Debussy was born in the Paris dormitory town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on August 22 1862, and entered the Paris Conservatoire ten years later, where he proved a somewhat erratic student.
Among his summer jobs was employment in Russia as pianist to Nadezhda von Meck, patroness of Tchaikovsky; it is fascinating to ponder whether an awareness between these two great composers ever developed, though Tchaikovsky never darkened Meck’s doors.
Debussy mixed with all the great and good of the time, Liszt and Verdi among them, but a huge influence upon him was the Paris Exposition of 1889, where he heard the Javanese gamelan, ritualised performances upon a fascinating array of bell-like cymbals and gongs arranged on carved wooden supports. He was not the only composer to fall under this spell; Britten, among many others, did so too.
These shimmering, far-reaching resonances were to inform much of Debussy’s music, not least the evocative works for piano, an instrument whose sustaining pedal would support such timbres.
Many of the titles of movements from the ‘Preludes, Estampes’ and ‘Images’ have oriental evocations, and many of the orchestral works glitter with an almost nostalgic evanescence derived from these mysterious sounds which seem never to end.
Composing at the same time as the Impressionist painters were at their height, Debussy, with his veiled, allusive, almost fey compositional style has been labelled under the same banner.
But he could equally be taken under the Symbolists’ wing, with the implied imagery of his symphonic poem drawn from Mallarme’s ‘Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un faune’ (which was to cause a huge scandal when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes asked Nijinsky to choreograph it, the great dancer ending it with a scene of languid masturbation), and the enigmatic non-events of his one completed opera, and what a great one that is, setting Maeterlinck’s ‘Pelleas et Melisande’.