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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Claude Debussy is generally considered the dominant figure in the transition from the late romantic style to that of the twentieth century. Born in St. Germain de Fleurville, France in 1862, Debussy studied at the famous Paris Conservatory from the age of ten to twenty-two and awarded the Prix de Rome in 1884. Debussy's principal influences included the music of Russia, the exotic colors of Asian music (which he first heard at the Paris International Exposition in 1889), and the ideas of writers and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire. Following the production of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 and the completion of his popular orchestral work La Mer (The Sea) (1905) Debussy was soon recognized as a leading composer of early twentieth-century.

Due to certain aspects of Debussy's style, his music is usually classified as a musical counterpart to the artistic movement known as impressionism. Like the paintings of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Debussy's music (and musical impressionism in general) conveys a feeling of vagueness rather than sharply defined articulation. For example, the exotic tone colors, sensuous harmonies, imperceptible metrical pulse, and tonal ambiguity--all characteristics of Debussy's style--seem to accurately reflect the spirit of ethereal paintings like Monet's Impression, Sunrise(1874). In debussy's music, clearly delineated harmonic progressions, melodies, and rhythms are purposely avoided to evoke mood and atmosphere rather than concrete images. In the work entitled La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), Debussy utilizes a compositional device known as parallel chords (or planing) to dilute the sense of directed motion found in traditional progressions. It should be noted that it it took a while for the critics and the listening public to warm up to this new and bold experiment in harmonic freedom.

La Cathédrale engloutie

The colorful harmonies suggests Debussy was guided simply by that which he found pleasing to the ear rather than some "rule" of traditional harmonic practice. In 1890 Debussy's professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy's use of parallel chords in the following way: "I am not saying that what you do isn't beautiful, but it's theoretically absurd." Debussy simply replied: "There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law."

Debussy was fond of unusual scale patterns. Medieval church modes and numerous scales from the orient were used extensively. One such scale is the pentatonic scale. As implied by the name, this scale utilizes a total of five notes (e.g., corresponding to the black keys of the piano keyboard) rather than the traditional eight. A pentatonic scale is illustrated below:

Pentatonic Scale


The whole-tone scale is another frequently encountered scale pattern in the music of Debussy. This scale consists of six different notes with no intervening half-steps.

Whole Tone Scale


A good example of the whole tone is found in Debussy's Voiles (Sails) (i.e., G sharp, F sharp, E, D, C, B flat).



The musical elements described above are but a few of the unique characteristics of musical impressionism. Numerous composers asssociated with the style, most notably Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), developed a number of unique and fascinating effects. However, one of the most important works representing musical impressionism is Debussy's Prélude À "L'après-midi d'un faune" (Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun," 1894). Written as a free illustration of the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé (The Afternoon of a Faune), this work continues to exert enormous influence on composers.

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