Achille Claude Debussy was a French composer whose harmonic
innovations helped pave the way for the musical upheavals of the
From 1902 to 1910 Debussy wrote chiefly for the piano. Among the most important works of this period were Estampes (Engravings, 1903), L'île joyeuse (The Isle of Joy, 1904), Images (two series, 1905 and 1907), and many preludes. He rejected the traditionally percussive approach to the piano, instead emphasising the instrument's capabilities for delicate expressiveness.
His treatment of chords was radical in its time; he arranged chords in such a way as to weaken, rather than support, the illusion of any specified key, by using them for their individual colour and effect, rather than functionally as part of a traditional progression. The lack of fixed tonality produced a vague, dreamy character that some contemporary critics termed musical impressionism, after the resemblance they saw between it and the pictorial effect achieved by painters of the Impressionist school; the term is still used in describing his music.
In 1909 Debussy learned that he was afflicted with cancer, from which he died on March 25, 1918.
L'Isle Joyeuse (1904) presents a 'musical picture', in this case a specific painting: Antoine Watteau's famous L'Embarquement pour Cythère. This virtuoso piece is justly popular.
The first volume of the Préludes was composed within the
remarkably short time of two months (between the beginning of
December 1909 and the beginning of February 1910).
Feux d'artifice, the tightrope act with which Debussy concludes his two volumes of Preludes, is remarkable not so much for its pyrotechnic innovations as for its anticipation of the composition styles of the future. Feux d'artifice ranks as a completely atonal composition, because its harmonic structure lacks any consistent point of reference. The impression of novelty is further enhanced by the extremely fragmented and amorphous nature of its form and thematic material. This is not to say, however, that the piece does not evoke specific images: The slumbering smoke of Bengal candles emitting single sparks, the crackling of rockets, the gradual parabolic descent of stars, the whirring of Catherine wheels, the blinding radiance of brightly-coloured bouquets, everything that sparkles and shines in the night, the entire magic of light is contained in this music (Alfred Cortot).
The origins of this piece go back to the Paris Exhibition of
1889, where Debussy came into contact with oriental art and in
particular Javanese music. Note the use of a pentatonic
(five-note) scale, common in Eastern music.
The three parts invoke three pictures: Pagoda looks towards an Indonesian pagoda, complete with meditating buddha. Soirée dans Grenade evokes an Andalusian night, using the rhythm of a Havanera dance-passionate, sexy and seductive. Jardin sous la pluie depicts a garden in the rain, almost monotonous, and nearly without feeling.
Technically this is a difficult piece. In the first part, the piano has to be 'stroked' to make it sound like a Javanese string instrument. The music also reflects a certain anti-romantic tendency, and so has to be played clearly and accurately without much feeling, almost like a theory.
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