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Royalty Free Music > Public Domain Music > Composers > Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Claude Debussy Claude Debussy was a French composer responsible for helping to define European classical music. He is acknowledged as the creator of the impressionist music style, although he did not believe in the existence of this type of music. Debussy was a critical force in music at the turn of the last century, and his music is a bridge between the late romantic period and 20th Century modern music.

Debussy started studying music at age nine, and by age ten he was accepted to the Paris Conservatory, where he developed his musical abilities from 1872-1884 under the tutelage of Ernet Guiraud, Cesar Franck and many other figures instrumental in music during that time. He won the Prix de Rome while at the Paris Conservatory and got a scholarship to the Academy of Beaux-Arts. Under this scholarship he fulfilled a four-year residency at the Villa Medici in Rome where he remained for just two years. His own writings during this period indicate that he was incredibly depressed and could not compose anything significant. Still, his meeting with Franz Liszt during this time sparked him to create four pieces of music that were sent to the Academy including symphonic ode "Zuleima," a piece for orchestra, "Printemps" and the cantata "La damoiselle elue." Some of this work was called "bizarre" by critics and teachers, but it was in these pieces that many of his later stylistic innovations would first take shape. The fourth piece he composed was a piece for piano and orchestra that paid homage to Cesar Franck's style. Displeased with this piece of music, he eventually destroyed it.

In 1888 and 1889, Debussy visited Bayreuth and learned about the operas of Wagner, which were highly influential in his compositional style. When he returned to Paris in 1889, he heard different types of music and started to blend light-hearted styles with the seriousness heard in Wagner in his own compositions.

In the 1890's, Debussy began to truly find his musical voice apart from the styles he borrowed from other Romantic composers. As a response to the complex, heavily emotional music of late romantic period composers like Wagner and Bayreuth, Debussy decided to explore the use of smaller and simpler musical structures. His String Quartet in G minor, written in 1893 was a simple introduction to the composer's later works. He used many standard musical forms of expression in this piece in order to create melodies that drifted and felt other-worldly.

Debussy's work as he attempted to find his true form of expression used many of the elements of symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme. Many of the composer's most famous works, including his renowned Prelude paid homage to the simplistic poetic structure of symbolism. His work was a direct argument against the full-bodied sound of orchestral works of that time. Written for a small ensemble, it highlighted the unique tones of different instruments. Debussy's contemporary Paul Dukas was blown away by the Prelude, but it provoked a negative response at its premiere from other composers. French composer Camille Saint-Saens described the piece as being pretty, but without style. Still, the piece began Debussy's career and thrust him into the limelight.

Because he was so influenced by Wagner's operas, Debussy decided to write a symbolist-style opera entitled "Pelleas et Melisande." His only opera, it brought opera to a new level and appealed to a younger generation of French composers, among them Maurice Ravel. The opera featured very simple melodies and very little ornamentation, along with a general style that was impossible for other composers to repeat. Still, the work of music changed explorations of the operatic genre and brought new possibilities to the world of Western music.

Debussy's greatest contributions to orchestral work includes three "Nocturnes," written in 1899, "La Mer," completed 1903-1905 and "The Three Images" (1905 - 1911). The "Nocturnes" studied the use of harmony and different instrumental textures. "The Three Images" explored a much more vivid and lively style than is typical for impressionist Debussy's pieces. "La Mer" is highly influenced by symphonic orchestra pieces even though it varies slightly in places.

Debussy is most well-known for his compositions for piano, and his greatest contributions to the genre came in the late 1890's. Many of his works played upon old musical styles and techniques. The "Suite bergamasque," written in 1890 contains the most beloved piece of Debussy's music, "Clair de Lune." All of his works of music for piano combine the composer's love of poetry with his gift for harmonies. A great deal of Debussy's piano music shows heavily improvisational and experimental characteristics that can be found in jazz music, including plays on dissonance and other qualities.

As Debussy reached the end of his life, he became far more experimental, and his melodies and harmonies more bizarre. Still, he continued to borrow from poets and artists of his day. Several of his ballets and other stage compositions were incomplete, but later finished by Charles Koechlin and Andre Caplet who had helped him orchestrate some of his earlier works. Piano compositions he created during this time featured very avant-garde characteristics, and he began to use many composition techniques that became standard in modern composition. His second Preludes for piano, completed in 1913 are considered by many pianists to be his best work. Debussy died on March 25, 1918.

While Debussy's style is considered by many to be impressionist, this label is often debated in the music community. Debussy himself asserted that he was doing something different, and that his work was not related at all to the work of impressionist painters of the time. The characteristics of Debussy's style include the following items: frequent use of piano pedal; long and flowing passages that can disorient listeners and eliminate the confusion of standard tonality; use of chordal melodies; use of scales; modulations in key. Despite the seemingly free structure of his music, Debussy was grounded in the mathematics of music and very mindful and knowledgeable of different forms.

He is considered to be the bridge between romantic and modern music and continues to influence emerging styles of music, including jazz and even pop music.


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