xxxxxThe leading French composer Claude Debussy, best known today for his piano piece Claire de lune, was a revolutionary in the musical world. Determined to go his own way and create the “unusual”, he discarded the restrictive theories of the past and, by his innovations in harmony, rhythm and tone, paved the way for the modern music of the 20th century in all its genres, including jazz. His mould-
CLAUDE DEBUSSY 1862 -
Debussy: by the French photographer Paul Nadar (1856-
xxxxxClaude Debussy, the greatest French composer of his time, is particularly remembered today for his piano piece Claire de lune (Moonlight) from the Suite Bergamasque of 1890, but his wide-
xxxxxHe was born in Saint-
xxxxxOn his return, he won the coveted Grand Prix de Rome in 1884 with his cantata The Prodigal Son, but he found nothing to his liking in the Eternal City and became depressed. He found the atmosphere there stifling, and the people boorish. Having had a number of his compositions rejected, including the symphonic suite Printemps and his cantata La Demoiselle élue, based on a work by the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he left in 1887, determined to go his own way. Reserved and somewhat surly and touchy by nature, he argued that the teaching at the Academy was far too rigid and amounted to slave labour. He wanted his freedom so that he could break away from the restrictions imposed by Western harmony and form, and concentrate on the “unusual”. There was no such thing as theory, one only had to listen. Music was sound for sound’s sake.
xxxxxTrue to his word, he rejected the Wagnerian currents in the music of his day, regarding the German composer as “a beautiful sunset mistaken for the dawn”. As from the 1890s he introduced radical changes in the treatment of chords, introducing thereby new, unfamiliar forms of melody and harmony. Thus his music led to the break up of scale as used in the 19th century, and became, in essence, an experiment in continuous improvisation, devoid, so it seemed, of any prior thought as to the development of a theme. Music was simply a personal sensation, with inspiration taken from the past or the present, be it from poetry, painting, the love of the Orient, or the art of antiquity. This revolutionary new approach had been hinted at in his La Damoiselle élue of 1888, but it became clearly evident in his String Quartet in G Minor in 1893 (a work which paved the way for his more unorthodox experiments in harmony), and in his first important orchestral work L'Après-
xxxxxIn style, some regarded his music as akin to impressionism, comparing his works with the paintings of Monet, Renoir and Degas. His new musical form was seen as giving light and colour to a fleeting impression or mood. Debussy certainly knew the leading impressionist painters of the day, and he vigorously maintained that music could not be cast into a fixed form, but was “made up of colours and rhythms”. Nonetheless he did not like the term “musical impressionism” as applied to his compositions. Others saw Debussy as a “musical symbolist”, and perhaps this is a more fitting description. He admired the works of the French symbolist poets Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Verlaine, and he was fascinated with the writings of the American mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe. It could be argued that his compositions stirred the dream-
xxxxxAmong his other major works were his Three Nocturnes of 1899 (inspired by the paintings of the American artist James Whistler), his orchestral poem La Mer of 1905, and his ballet Jeux, written for the Ballets Russes in 1912. His many piano pieces included his Trois Estampes (Engravings) of 1903 and his Double Preludes of 1910 and 1912, the unfamiliar harmonies of which were to pave the way for the advent of jazz. Among his pieces of chamber music, likewise significant for their harmonic originality, were sonatas for cello and piano and violin and piano, and his many songs included two sets of Fêtes galantes, three ballades based on texts from the 15th century French poet François Villon, and works based on poems by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
xxxxxDebussy was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1909, and this seriously affected the volume and quality of his composition during the last ten years of his life. He had other works in mind, including an opera based on Poe’s famous story The Fall of the House of Usher, but he lacked the time and energy to complete them. He died in March 1918 during the bombardment of Paris, carried out by long-
xxxxxIncidentally, Debussy’s private life was somewhat turbulent. For nine years he lived with his mistress Gabrielle Dupont (Gaby), but in 1899 married a dressmaker named Rosalie Texier. Five years later, however, he abandoned her for Emma Bardac, the wife of a Parisian banker. As a consequence Rosalie attempted to commit suicide -
xxxxx……xxIn 1908 he dedicated Children’s Corner, his delightful suite for solo piano, to Chou-
xxxxx……xxA number of other French composers were also making a name for themselves during the closing years of the 19th century. As we have seen, the talented pianist and organist Gabriel Fauré, taught and supported by Saint-
and Eric Satie
xxxxxThe Frenchman Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-
xxxxxThe French composer Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-
xxxxxIn 1880, at the age of 39, he quit his job at the ministry and produced his piano cycle Pièces pittoresques, ten varied miniatures that, by their unconventional rhythms and harmonies, plus their lack of development, foreshadowed the revolutionary music of Debussy. Then, following a visit to Spain in 1882 he produced his famous España, a rhapsody for orchestra that captured in scintillating form the lively rhythms and melodies of a sunny, vibrant land. He once claimed that he was “more temperament than talent”, but in this work he showed an abundance of both. Later works included his light-
xxxxxIn Paris, Chabrier moved freely in musical and artistic circles. He was a friend of the composer Fauré, knew the poet Verlaine, and was on especially good terms with the major artists of his day, particularly the Impressionist painters Renoir, Monet and Manet. (The portrait above is by the last named.) A keen art lover, during his career he bought a large number of Impressionist paintings -
xxxxxIncidentally, in 1886 the French composer of dance music, Émile Waldteufel (1837-
xxxxxOn a visit to London in 1874 he played before the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and later his music was played at Buckingham Palace in front of Queen Victoria. It was while in London in 1882 that he composed his best known waltz Les Patineurs (The Ice Skaters). He gave concerts in a number of European capitals during the 1880s and 1890s, and continued to conduct and write dance music until his retirement in 1899.
xxxxxDuring his career he composed some twenty waltzes and a number of polkas. His waltzes have been likened to those of Johann Strauss the Younger, but they were far less robust and earned the title “Hymn-
xxxxxThe French composer Jules Massenet (1842-
xxxxxJules Massenet (1842-
xxxxxAmong his major operas, each composed to suit varying tastes, was Le Roi de Lahore of 1877, designed to meet the public liking for the exoticism of the Orient, Le Cid, a grand opera premiered in 1885, and Esclarmonde four years later, a story of medieval chivalry produced in the style of the German composer Richard Wagner. His Manon of 1884, generally considered his masterpiece, was a commendable portrayal of Manon Lescaut, the novel by the French writer Abbé Prévost. Later works of note were Werther, after the work of the German writer Goethe, and Thaïs (based on the novel by Anatole France), an exotic opera set in Egypt which, like many of his others, has a captivating and seductive heroine.
xxxxxApart from operas, Massenet also composed overtures, incidental music for plays, ballet music, oratorios and cantatas, a piano concerto and some two hundred songs. Much of his work is noted for its graceful, melodic charm. Particularly remembered today are his oratorio Marie-
xxxxxThe eccentric pianist and composer Erik Satie (1866-
xxxxxThe colourful, eccentric character Erik Satie (1866-
xxxxxBorn in Honfleur, Normandy, he was assessed as “untalented” during his studies at the Paris Conservatory, and by the late 1880s he was reduced to playing the piano in Le Chat Noir, a cabaret in Montmartre, adapting pieces of popular music for piano and piano and voice. His own compositions at this period -
xxxxxIn 1905, however, he abandoned his bohemian life style and for the next five years went back to school to study classical counterpoint. He then turned to more serious compositions and from 1912 onwards produced a highly successful series of humorous melodies for the piano. In the meantime he worked on incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in 1915 wrote the score for Parade, a ballet composed by the writer and film director Jean Cocteau. Premiered in 1917, its odd sound effects -
xxxxxOutside of music he lived a somewhat bizarre life, particularly in his early years. In 1893, for example, he founded his own religious order and, as its sole member, served as the high priest. At one time he took to wearing velvet suits, began collecting umbrellas, and put up for sale small buildings which, in fact, only existed in his imagination! Later in his career he became a member of a radical socialist party. (The illustration is a self-
xxxxxIn his piano pieces and his music for theatre and ballet, Satie was in the forefront of musical change, and it is in the innovative nature of his music that his importance mainly lies. A heavy drinker throughout his life, he eventually developed cirrhosis of the liver and died of this complaint in July 1925. His room in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, was found to contain a large number of unpublished compositions for both piano and stage.