Claude Debussy’s music is some of the most beautiful and enduring ever created. The French composer, who lived from 1862 to 1918, composed music that everyone seems to know and many young piano students use to show off, including “Clair de Lune” and “Beau Soir”. His music is so enduring because Debussy’s sense of the beautiful was so universal and acute, translating across countries, cultures and centuries.
Debussy uses a lot of symbolism, or something that suggests a real thing in the world, but it only suggests it and is subject to the creator’s interpretation. Debussy does this in a way that is not like sound effect, but instead makes connections that could be interpreted as being symbolic if told what the particular part of the music was symbolizing, but would not necessarily be interpreted in that way without the given connotation.
For example, Debussy suggests clouds in his famous “Nuages.” He uses parallel ninth chords and undulating melodies to symbolize the moving and ominous clouds, but at listener would not necessarily know he wished to symbolize clouds without the title of the work.
Perhaps lesser known than his piano and symphonic compositions, Debussy also composed opera. His most famous, Pelléas and Mélisande, tells the story of a mythical love triangle.
When speaking about opera composition, Debussy rebuffed many of the traditional elements used in its composing, most specifically referring to the epic Wagner. He said, “I also tried to obey a law of beauty that seems notably ignored when it comes to dramatic music: the characters of this opera try to sing like real people, and not in an arbitrary language made up of worn-out clichés.” He doesn’t really bash Wagner—saying that he was truly a genius—but also says how Wagner’s operas were the end of an era.
This statement seems to follow his ideals for composition. He does things because he thinks they’re beautiful, rather than doing what is traditional or correct. So this quotation follows that idea in the same way, he doesn’t follow this “arbitrary language” of traditional opera, but instead does what he wants to do. I also found this quote interesting because Debussy seems to be a composer who gets an idea in mind and then follows that idea through in his composition—in “Nuages” his music followed his idea of clouds and in this example his music follows the idea of characterization as a primary factor.
Are you a fan of Claude Debussy?