Episode #9 of the course “Famous classical music composers”
Claude Debussy was a late 19th- and early 20th-century French composer, often called the first “impressionist” composer, although Debussy himself denied the term. Claiming he was only trying to do “something different,” Debussy was one of the pioneers of atonal experimentation. Debussy’s work includes hundreds of piano pieces, vocal works, and even half a dozen ballets. He was heavily influenced by the Symbolist movement in European literature, and his works often exhibit dreamy, romantic qualities.
Debussy’s legendary atonal qualities come from several factors, including that he disguised other musical arrangements (such as bitonal chords) as melodies. His work is dramatic and elaborate, which can detract from its atonality. Sometimes, Debussy shocks the listener with unprepared modulations without softening the change by using a harmony to transition. He placed special emphasis on instrumental timbre, especially utilizing the piano for its range and diversity. Debussy composed over 100 pieces for the piano, including it in chamber music and orchestras, as well as featuring it with voice accompaniment and as a solo instrument. He even composed pieces for two pianos to duet with one another.
When Debussy’s La Mer (“The Sea”) was first performed, it was immediately a controversy. Critics claimed, “I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea,” while supporters praised Debussy’s brilliance for focusing a piece of music on a natural scene—such as waves and wind—without a human element.
One of the first works to have an “open” form, it has been called a European precursor to jazz. Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair is a short piano piece, one of his longer Preludes collection. Although all these pieces are short and highly descriptive, this one has become popular for its name taken from a poem by Leconte de Lisle, as well as its alternating melodies.
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