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Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Clair de lune and other favourite piano works
Debussy was born in 1862 in St Germain-en-Laye, the son of a
shop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varying
success. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and continued two years
later, improbably enough, with Verlaine’s mother-in-law, allegedly a pupil of
Chopin. In 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he abandoned the plan
of becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition.
In 1880, at the age of eighteen, he was employed by Tchaikovsky’s patroness
Nadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return to
the Conservatoire he entered the class of Bizet’s friend Ernest Guiraud and in
1883 won the second Prix de Rome. In 1884 he won the first prize, the following
year reluctantly taking up obligatory residence, according to the terms of the
award, at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt. By 1887 he was back in
Paris, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes and going
on, two years later, to a succès de scandale with his opera Pelléas et
Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a work that established
his position as a composer of importance.
Debussy’s personal life brought some unhappiness in his
first marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after a liaison of some
seven years with Gabrielle Dupont and a brief engagement in 1894 to the singer
Thérèse Roger. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker
and a singer of some ability, led eventually to their marriage in 1908, after
the birth of their daughter three years earlier. In 1904 he had abandoned his
wife, moving into an apartment with Emma Bardac, and the subsequent attempt at
suicide by the former, who had shared with him many of the difficulties of his
early career, alienated a number of his friends. His final years were darkened
by the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he left
unfinished a planned series of chamber music works, only three of which had
As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the most
important and influential figures of the earlier twentieth century. His musical
language suggested new paths to be further explored, while his poetic and
sensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still more
possibilities. His opera Pelléas et Mélisande and his songs demonstrated a deep
understanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in terms
that never overstated or exaggerated.
It is difficult to hear  Clair de lune (Moonlight) with
new ears, so familiar did it become, even in Debussy’s lifetime. Poetic and
evocative, it suggests the nostalgic world conjured up by Verlaine in his Fêtes
galantes and formed part of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque written between 1890
 La plus que lente, a waltz that is slower than a slow
waltz, dates from 1910 and has the direction Molto rubato con morbidezza, a
hint, perhaps, at a mildly satirical intention. It has proved popular in its
original form and in a variety of transcriptions.
 &  The two Arabesques rival Clair de lune in
popularity. The first, in E major, has a contrasting central section, while the
second, in G major and in similar form, makes much use of a decorative motif
heard at the opening, a justification for the title.
 Le petit nègre (The Little Negro) first appeared in
Théodore Lack’s pedagogical Méthode de piano in 1909 with the original English
title of The Little Nigar. It has much in common with one of the pieces in the
Children’s Corner Suite, written for his daughter Emma-Claude and given English
titles, a reflection of Debussy’s anglophilia and perhaps of the influence of
Emma-Claude’s English governess.  The Snow is Dancing evokes the scene of
the title,  while The little shepherd opens with the delicate expressiveness
of the shepherd-boy’s flute, contrasted with a dance motif.  Golliwog’s
cakewalk is a light-hearted version of a dance that had been popularised in the
music-halls of Paris in the 1890s.
 Estampes (Prints) was published in 1903, to be first
performed the following year by Ricardo Viñes. The second of the three pieces
of the group is La soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada), an evocation of
Spain.  The set ends with Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain), a
reworking of the earlier unpublished Image under the title Quelques aspects de
‘Nous n’irons plus au bois’ (Some aspects of ‘We shall not go to the woods
 Valse romantique opens with the melancholy simplicity
of Erik Satie, before moving into more conventional territory. In conclusion
the melody is brightened by a change from minor to major, a touch of final
optimism. The waltz was written in 1890.
 Danse first appeared in 1891 as Tarantelle styrienne,
to be revised in 1903 and published again under its present title. It is none
the less a tarantella, with all the vigorous rhythm of that dance.
 The busy Toccata, published as the third and final
movement of the suite Pour le piano in 1901, was first heard in a performance
by Ricardo Viñes in 1904. It is an energetic tour de force, a brilliant
contrast to the movement that precedes it in the suite.
 Debussy published the first set of his Images in 1905,
opening the group of three piece with the evocative Reflets dans l’eau
(Reflections in the water), compared by the composer to dropping a pebble into
the water and watching the ripples moving outwards.
 Poissons d’or (Goldfish) ends the second set of Images,
published in 1908. The piece was seemingly inspired by two goldfish on a
lacquered Japanese panel in Debussy’s room, but in the music they are brought
to brilliant life, as they swim.
 Debussy’s Mazurka of 1891 adopts the Polish dance that
Chopin had introduced to the salons of Paris sixty years before. Melodic turns
of phrase are immediately recognisable as Debussy’s, using, as they do,
characteristic forms of scale. In F sharp minor, the piece has a D major
 Rêverie was written in 1890 and published in 1903.
Marked très doux et expressif, if offers first a gentle melody over a repeated
accompaniment pattern, developing into a passage of contrasted mood and
tonality, before the return of the material of the opening.
Debussy’s two sets of Préludes were published in 1910 and
1913 respectively.  From the first come the gently expressive portrait La
fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair), a piece that has been
much transcribed,  Minstrels, allegedly inspired by a black street-band
heard in Eastbourne in 1905,  and La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged
cathedral), an evocation of medieval France and the ancient cathedral of Ys,
now beneath the waves, its chants and bells heard through the sea-mist.
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DEBUSSY: Piano Favourites