written by Irene Gómez, specially written for the Strings By Mail Articles
Claude Debussy – 100 Years of his Death
Browse and shop Debussy related sheet music for pieces referenced in this article
Since the past two years I have brought to this section of Strings By Mail, relevant facts that have been important for the development of artistic, musical or even social thinking in our culture. This is why in 2016 we went through Shakespeare and Cervantes 400 years of passing away and the music of their time. Last year, we spoke about the commemoration of 500 years of Luther’s Reform and its influence in music. During this agitated 2018 we have to join through this space, the numerous celebrations that are being remembered through concert programs and all medias, the passing away of Claude Debussy 100 years ago and the birth of beloved Leonard Bernstein 100 hundred years ago. Many musicians are taking this year to bring up to audiences Bernstein’s important output, that during his life was somehow overshadowed by his genial conducting!
In order to give the deserved space to each one of them we will spread the anniversaries of this year into two articles, starting by Claude Debussy and hoping to bring soon a semblance of Leonard Bernstein in the next delivering. For now I hope you will enjoy refreshing some aspects of French composer Claude Debussy that are exposed below:
Some insights on Claude Debussy
(b. August 22 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, d. March 25, 1918 in Paris)
Debussy lived during the period named “Belle Époque”, the time between the last years of the XIX century and 1914, just before the beginning of First World War. The “Belle Époque” was then the French name to designate a special attitude towards life leaned on certain frivolity, hope and the “joie de vivre”. The looking for freedom and auto-identity and somehow the growing interest for “exotic” cultures, the love for nature, and irreverence marked the spirit of those years. During these years many inventions that we know today were created (phone, movies, cars, the first planes).
It was a time of contrasts and ruptures giving birth to new schools of thinking. In the field of visual arts, The “Impressionists” left their classical practice focused in the form and perfection of shapes to turn into more subtle ways to express their vision of the world, which by the way was deeply enlarged. (Impressions, Soleil levant, by Claude Monet, was the work that by an ironic critic gave birth to the new aesthetic movement). In literature, Proust, and poets like Baudelaire and Mallarme (symbolists) created new ways to express their perception of reality using enigmatic metaphors, not exempt of spirituality. In the field of music the representing names of the French School (contrasting with the German School with Liszt, Wagner, Strauss) included the great melodist Gabriel Faure (the first who made the music on the piece Pelleas and Melisande by Meaterlinck, 1898), Emmanuel Chabrier, Vincent D’Indy and Paul Dukas.
In this rich context Debussy developed a personal language built on impressions and evocations. His music unified music and poetry with a nonpredictable rhythm, but one that follows a natural breath according to the musical idea; melodic lines with pentatonic scales and Greek modes, and the harmony seen as a tool of coloring. This made of him a most inspiring composer who influenced future artists in all fields until present days. He has been designated as one of the most influential composers of the XX century, along with Stravinsky and Schoenberg.
He loved Japanese art (like Monet and some other impressionists did) and he loved Spanish music as well. In fact, his famous “Soiree dans Grenade” (Evening in Granada) from the Suite “Estampes”, was inspired by the habanera rhythm (or tango andaluz). His music, that for our ears may sound so fantastic and evocative, was not so clearly understood by the audiences of his time, being habituated to perfect cadences. His music definitely opened a new way to expression for musicians in the times ahead.
Debussy for Guitar
While Debussy has not written for guitar, his language of arpeggios and clear melodic lines has made it possible to transcribe some of his works, such as La fille aux cheveux de lin or Reveries, in a very idiomatic way to our instrument. It is worth here to mention Eric Satie, Debussy’s counterpart and friend, who wrote music with similar harmonies in short pieces such as Gymnopedies some of them playable on the guitar.
On the Spanish side Manuel de Falla, a big admirer of Debussy, wrote a unique and well respected composition for guitar: Hommage au Tombeau de Debussy, (played for the first time by Emilio Pujol at the Conservatoire of Paris on December 2, 1922). Some parts of his orchestral works have also been transcribed with good results. The piano music of other composers of this era, specifically Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados, have also found good means of expression in transcriptions for the guitar. Original works by Federico Mompou with his Suite Compostelana, and Antonio Jose with his Sonata (clearly inspired by Ravel, the other great exponent of Impressionism) both represent on a high level the subtle mind of this French school. Works of Turina, Ponce and Rodrigo were also pervaded with the impressionist style. And in closer decades, Japanese Toru Takemitsu stated his veneration for the Debussy’s style, composing pieces such as Folios, Equinox, All in Twilight, and In the Woods. Thus, the guitar actually enjoyed the creation of new music under the influence of the great Debussy. One of the favorite quotes by Debussy was: “Music is the silence between the notes.”
Classical guitarist Irene Gómez regularly contributes to Strings By Mail through her teaching and performance videos as well as articles. She is a Strings By Mail Sponsored Artist, teaches guitar at the National University in Bogotá, Colombia, and performs worldwide.