• Golden Age Composer Portrait Debussy
  • Claude Debussy

    Claude Debussy entered the Paris Conservatory in 1872 at 10 years old to study piano and musical rudiments. Not cut out for a career as a solo performer, he began to compose in 1879-writing songs, piano music, and a piano trio-while making his living as an accompanist. In 1884, he won the coveted Prix de Rome, which funded two years of study in Rome at the Villa Medici. Afterward, he took a job with Nadezhda von Meck, a patron of the arts who had inherited a railroad fortune (and who supported Tchaikovsky throughout his mature career), playing in a trio at her home in Moscow.

    Returning to Paris in 1887, he fell in with the literary crowd of Symbolists, admired the Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Universal Exposition, wrestled with the influence of Richard Wagner's music, and made his debut in the Parisian musical world with his String Quartet in 1893.

    The following year he produced his first masterwork, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.

    Debussy had strong ties to the Symbolist writers in France but is often mistakenly labeled an impressionist, which was originally a derogatory description of Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise, exhibited in 1872. Monet was criticized for having sloppy technique, when of course the intent was to capture the transitory qualities of light and shadow. The term was first applied to Debussy in 1887 to describe a preference for instrumental texture and timbre over form. But whereas impressionism seeks to capture the fleeting effect of a single moment, Symbolism is concerned with expanses of time, with how the mind forms associations between moments and shapes them into a resonant experience.

  • Notes on the Piece

    Claude Debussy derived his greatest inspiration from French Symbolist literature, an esoteric manner of writing that privileges mystery rather than specificity. The Symbolists were interested in provoking their readers, stimulating their imaginations by forcing them to fill in the blanks to find meaning in randomness. Those Symbolists with a mystical mindset sought through their writing to suggest other worlds.

    In his efforts to do the same in music, Debussy eschewed the logic of cause-and-effect, avoided standard forms, and shied away from conventional harmonies. He worked with special scales that abandoned the strict hierarchies and firm grounding of tonality to create a feeling of timelessness. He also privileged unusual textures, scattering the pitches of a melody among the instruments of the orchestra.


    Echo effects and bell-like sounds are among his favorites. But Debussy sought to express not the peals of one bell in one time and place; instead, he hoped to capture the sum of all bell sounds—the essence of the phenomena to which we give the name bells. Many of his compositions bear suggestive titles—which he often placed at the end—of a work, as if to startle the performer or listener, forcing a retrospective interpretation. He ultimately rejected the idea that his music should be about anything at all, and certainly not any one thing.

    Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is arguably Debussy's most influential score. It was composed to precede a stage reading of a poem titled "The Afternoon of a Faun" by his Symbolist colleague Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem recounts the dream or a memory-it's not clear which—of a satyr, a mythical creature. Half man, half goat, the faun marries the sexual desire and animal instinct of the body below to the rational thought or intelligence in the mind above. He spends his days in lustful pursuit of nymphs in the forest. On this particular afternoon, the faun lies exhausted from his escapades, resting on moist ground in the midday heat. He imagines future conquests while blowing through a reed pipe.

    The following passage suggests the vague chain of relationships that Debussy recreates in his musical setting. Drops of water become musical pitches that then represent the breeze and the faun's breath:

    No murmur of water in the woodland scene,

    Bathed only in the sounds of my flute.
    And the only breeze, except for my two pipes,
    Blows itself empty long before
    It can scatter the sound in an arid rain.
    On a horizon unmoved by a ripple
    This sound, visible and serene,
    Mounts to the heavens, an inspired wisp.

    Drawing inspiration from the poem, Debussy emphasizes wind instruments. The flute dominates, along with the clarinet, oboe, and harp. The famous opening flute passage recurs seven times in the piece, in accord with the seven sections-seven symbolic layers-of the poem. The number of measures in the score, moreover, is equal to the number of lines in the poem.

  • Watch

    Gino Francesconi, Director of the Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum, describes A Golden Age of Music at Carnegie Hall

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    Jeremy Geffen and Sir Simon Rattle introduce Debussy's sensual Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune—arguably his most beloved and influential score..

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