Debussy, Claude Achille
He is the most typical of the musical impressionists of the present day, the most gifted representative of the new French School, and a decidedly interesting figure in the musical world. Debussy was born at St. Germain-en-Laye, France, and was educated at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied harmony with Lavignac, piano with Marmontel, and composition with Guiraud. Edward Macdowell, then a boy of fifteen, was his fellow-student. He took prizes in solfeggio and piano-playing and, in 1884, won the Grand Prize of Rome, at the Institut, with his cantata, L'Enfant Prodigue. Four years later he composed La Damoiselle lue, a setting of Rossetti's Blessed Damosel, for solo, female choir and orchestra. This was performed in Paris, and by its success undoubtedly first attracted the attention of the musical world to Debussy's work, then came an orchestral prelude; two nocturnes and a string quartet, which was composed in 1893 and produced in Paris by Ysaye's quartet the same year. His Sirens, for orchestra and women's voices, has been much praised, and his Prelude a 1'apres Midi d'un Faune, which is a setting for the orchestra of Mallarme's elaborate fantasy, The Afternoon of a Faun, has been perhaps the most admired and discussed of any of his works. It was first given at a concert at the Paris Conservatory, in 1906, and since then has been frequently given by wellknown orchestras, notably by the Chicago Orchestra under Frederick Stock in 1907. Debussy's greatest work is his opera, Pelleas and Melisande, the libretto taken from Maeterlinck's drama of the same name, which it closely follows. It was first produced at the Opera Comique, Paris, in April, 1902, under the direction of M. Carre, and with Mary Garden, an American singer, in the role of Melisande. The opera called forth much discussion and was one of the most important of the musical events in Paris of recent years. It was heard in New York the season of 1907 at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House, with Miss Garden in the leading role.
The opera from beginning to end is in recitative, yet according to the critics, is unforced and spontaneous to an unusual degree and contains some marvelous music. Lawrence Gilman, one of the most authoritative musical critics of the present day, calls it Debussy's undoubted masterpiece.
Debussy shares with Vincent D'Indy the place of honor among the musical elect of Paris and he is fast becoming almost as well-known and honored in the United States. The first of his important works to be heard in New York were the two nocturnes, Nuages and Fetes, which the New York Symphony Orchestra, under Walter Damrosch, played at Carnegie Hall in January, 1905. The Kneisel Quartet had previously played the G Minor String Quartet and a few of his songs. During 1905 the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Vincent D'Indy, played the first two nocturnes and the New York Symphony Orchestra later played The Afternoon of a Faun. Debussy has written a great deal of music, including the following compositions: A danse Sacree; a danse Profane, for chromatic harp and orchestra; and three sketches, entitled La Mer, all belonging to the period between 1889 and 1906. Of his numerous piano works, the following are worthy of note: Suite Bergmasque, composed in 1890; Estampes Masques; L'Isle Joyeuse; and Images. Among the best of his many songs are six ariettes set to words by Paul Verlain; Sagasse and Fetes galantes; five songs to the words of Baudelaire; a fantasy for piano and orchestra; and a transcription of Schumann's four-hand piece. At the Fountain. His most recent work is an opera, based upon the Tristan legend, with the text by Gabriel Monray. This composition has not as yet been produced. Other works beside those mentioned are lüs sara' bande and toccata, published in 1901; March of the Counts of Ross; An Evening in Granada; and Gardens in .the Rain, all for piano. A new orchestral work, The Sea, includes three symphonic sketches, From Dawn to Noon on the Sea; Play of the Waves; and Dialogue of the Winds and the Sea. He has also written many songs and much chambermusic. Debussy's music has been described by his friend, Alfred Bruneau, as " mysterious, vague, fluid, haunting and impossible to grasp." He has been compared to Whistler and, in his eager thirst and search for beauty, to the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, a " great harmonic inventor and an unsurpassed poet in mysticism." Debussy is a leader among the more progressive French composers, a product, as he is a leader of the modern French School. He is one of the few modern composers, who disclaims any influence of Wagner upon his work. The best summing up of the characteristics and beauties of this composer's style is to be found in Lawrence Gilman's recent book, The Music of Tomorrow. A chapter is devoted, by the writer to a characterization of Debussy, whom he has described as poet and dreamer, declaring he is a blend of Verlaine, Mallarme, and Rosetti.