Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

The music of Debussy mirrors the visual art of France during his lifetime. Just as French painters were trying to capture the effects of light on subjects, Debussy tried to create music that represented visual images and emotions.

Once again, opera, solo vocal, orchestra, and piano pieces were changed by new ideas and compositional techniques. The titles of pieces were no longer descriptions of their forms (sonata, etude, minuet). Instead, pieces were given descriptive names like “The Snow is Falling” and “The Sea.” The title of the piece would provide a clue about what the music was describing, giving the listener a hint as to what he or she would be hearing.

To create these descriptive pieces, Debussy used new harmonies that were strange compared to those used by previous composers. He used a whole tone scale to create a dreamy quality. There was no longer a clearly identified melody or melodic idea. Debussy wrote music that was meant to represent nature, and it was presented as a constantly developing, moving thread of sound. He would use short, melodic fragments to recall a certain mood, feeling, or idea.

The music of Debussy could represent a story or simply a time, place, event, or emotion. The orchestral piece La Mer (The Sea) demonstrates this new approach to composing music. This piece, written for orchestra, is meant to represent the interplay of the water in the sea with the wind, the sunlight, and the shore. There are times when the instruments try to recreate the sound and feeling of the wind on the surface of the water, or the waves overlapping, or the sun reflecting off of the sea like many diamonds.

“Clair de Lune,” meaning moonlight, is from the third movement of the Suite Bergamasque for piano. It is believed to have been named after Paul Verlaine’s poem “Clair de Lune.” The movement is played mostly pianissimo and in D major. Debussy wrote the suite at age 26 in 1888. The suite was not published until 1903.

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