The Genius of Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

The genius of Claude Debussy is difficult, but yet important to try to follow. Playing piano provides the pathway to orchestral  composing; as the sound range of the entire orchestra is covered by the span of its 88 keys. Claude Debussy, at age 9, followed this path under auspices of a pupil of Chopin. He was not satisfied, however, to merely play the piano and win honors and prizes; he also wanted to search for a new sound for music.


 The genius of Claude Debussy needed a believer.. Enter Mme. von Meck, the rich patroness of Tchaikovsky.  She took it upon herself to finance Debussy’s trip to Russia and Asia so that he could discover the new sound he was looking for. It worked.  He absorbed  the music of the gypsies, Russian folk music, as well as the musical palettes of  Mussorgsky, Borodin and Balakirev. Thank heavens for those who support composers. They have made much of the music that we enjoy today possible.

Claude Debussy playing at Ernest Chausson salon 1893.
Claude Debussy playing at Ernest Chausson salon 1893.


 The genius of Claude Debussy went on to win the highest European prize for composing- the Prix de Rome. On returning to Paris, he aligned himself with poets and painters who had already partaken of the new impressionistic rage that began in France during 1880’s.  The goal of impressionism was to give a sense of what was seen but for only for a fleeting moment.  In art this resulted in vague shapes and lines which were often blurred.  Musically it gave an “on the spot” impression of how a person feels.  At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, Debussy further grew in scope by studying vases from Japan and the music from Java.


In his quest to find new ways to write music, the genius of Claude Debussy also used the old Medieval modes; as well as the pentatonic and whole tone scales. He heard these novel scales in Russia and at Javanese concerts. Whenever possible, Debussy avoided the old major and minor scales. Debussy especially disliked the music of Wagner. Whenever he felt Wagner’s influence entering one of his compositions, he would strike the notes  and say: “There’s that old devil again.” Wagner had carried the music of the Romantic era as far as it could go. This happened in his opera Tristan and Isolde, produced in Munich in 1865. Almost the entire 2nd and 3rd acts of the three act opera, are an “unending love duet” in which virtually every motion of love from tenderness to grandiose passion are sung. After Wagner’s opera,  music needed a new direction.  Debussy Quote


Debussy added to basic musical triads extensions by 7th, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths.  Suchcomplex chords can be heard in multiple ways. For example, C-E-G-B-D can be heard as containing a C-E-G triad,  E-G-B triad or  G-B-D triad. Like impressionism, the lines of definition are blurred. Impressions of several chords at the time are given. !


I am currently working on one hour of Debussy’s piano music to be available on the website.  It will feature some of his most popular piano works including his Arabesques and the Suite Bergamasque  with Claire de Lune.  One technique that Debussy enjoyed using was a novel approach to the two note phrase.  Often, like in the Prelude from the Suite Bergamasque, he tied the 1st note of the two note phrase over the barline. Then he would resolve it with the second tone on the second beat. I call this technique a delayed two note phrase resolution.  The release date of my Debussy recording will be announced.  My teacher, Mischa Kottler, was part of the Paris scene during the 1920’s.  He studied under Alfred Cortot  who founded numerous musical conservatories in Paris.  Cortot edited Chopin’s music as he studied under one of his pupils.  I’m practicing for the release by working in fleeting and musical blurred moments.  I’m working on  beautiful tone for both melody and counterpoint.  Most important. I’m using shorter and marked phrases. The legato marks of most editors are incredibly long. I feel like they are the lazy man’s way of editing music.

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