Claude A. Debussy

A different kind of music

by Keith Purtell

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

It is difficult enough to be a successful musician, but a few have taken upon themselves the Herculean task of reinventing music. Some of these innovators attain both commercial and artistic success. Most are overlooked.

Debussy was a French composer active in the same era (1862-1918) as the Impressionist painters, with whom he socialized and with whom his musical style is often associated. Using unusual music scales, concepts gleaned from Far Eastern music and a bit of stimulation from early jazz, Debussy moved beyond classical music to craft exquisite tone poems that seemed to drift from a spiritual garden.

Even some of the titles themselves convey the sense of wonder Debussy aspired to convey: “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” “Gardens in the Rain,” “The Sunken Cathedral,” “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” and “Footprints in the Snow.”

“Clair de lune,” has become world-famous for its transcendent romanticism, but just as memorable is “Reverie,” which carries a childlike introspection across time and into the adult mind. Only a stone-dead heart could resist the call of its gradually unfolding spell. Other Debussy tone poems convey innocence or mischievous humor: “Arabesque No. 1,” “Passepied,” and “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.”

The sense of Debussy’s music is not that he sought to objectify natural beauty, or to describe it via some kind of musical journalism, but instead that he sought to transmit to his listeners the wonder and gentle musing associated with consciousness of beauty. Whatever his goals, Debussy succeeded in translating his human resonance with nature into musical form; something no one else had even considered.

It’s difficult to understand why Debussy isn’t better known. Certainly he was as talented as any of the superstars of “classical” music. In many ways what he wrote was the logical culmination of the composers who went before him. The problem may be with the complexity and sensitivity of his music; the very qualities that make it so valuable.

Song sample (pianist: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli):