Composer: Claude Debussy
Performer: Aldo Ciccolini (piano)
Album: Complete Piano Works
Label: EMI Classics
"I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It's just that I find the actual pieces - whether they're old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates - so totally poverty stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there's the desire to amaze one's colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There's no need either for music to make people think! ... It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they're incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognise their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that's to say, one that can't be found on the map."
- Claude Debussy (1901)
Claude Debussy was a composer and pianist associated with the impressionism movement, which also included composers like Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel, amongst others. Impressionism was a breakthrough movement at the time, disregarding many of the more conventional ideas of tonality that had become the norm during the Romantic movement. The impressionists were focussed on capturing the essence of a time and place in the form of music, much in the same way that the visual impressionist artists attempted to capture the energy of a place and time through the subversion of traditional artistic techniques. Romanticism had initially been a rebellion against Classical music and the rigid compositional structures that composers were forced to follow as well as the use of music as a commissioned and undervalued commodity. As a rebellion against this trend, composers began to write music purely for a performance and were not hired or paid by royalty or nobility. However, by the tail end of the 19th century, a few composers (Debussy included) began to tire of the Romantic style and started working outside of the conventions of western Classical and Romantic styles. Debussy was renown for having openly dissed Camille Saint-Saëns, saying: "I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns", while Saint-Saëns said that he had stayed in Paris purely to spread the word that Debussy's music was shit.
Listening to the music of Claude Debussy, it is easy to see why he was seen as a controversial composer. He was greatly influenced by Erik Satie, whose sparse, minimal compositions and experiments with musical form (writing extremely eccentric playing directions on his pieces like "wonder about yourself" and "very lost" as well as sometimes completely eschewing time and key signatures) had also garnered praise and a good amount of hatred from critics and listeners alike. While Debussy admired the work of Satie though, his work is far more fluid and technically complicated than Satie's, focussing less on minimalism and more on the capabilities of rhythm and tonality to transport the mind. Debussy was also interested in the music of Java, which he felt had a strong bond with the experience of nature, experiences that he tried to both emulate in his music and evoke in his listeners.
I find Debussy's ideas about music and its purpose very refreshing, especially when faced with the legion of pre-20th century musicians who fetishise form and structure and place these above expression and evocation of emotion. That's not to say that Debussy's music is without form; quite the opposite is true in fact; his music is rich in form which becomes increasingly apparent the further one delves into his catalogue of work. Recurring ideas and themes include his frequent usage of alternative tonal systems that deviate from traditional western scales and his obsession with planting ethnomusicological references in his compositions, his appreciation of mellifluous rhythmic passages and phrasing, and his occasional whims to transplant phrases and melodies from one piece into another in an often comic and mischievous fashion.
While a lot of people respect Erik Satie's contribution to music and art far more than Claude Debussy's, I think it's all too easy to overlook what Debussy was doing and why it was so worthy of praise. It is undoubtable that Satie's influence has been widespread and can be seen in everything from ambient music to minimalism with many contemporary musicians and composers citing him as an influence. Now, I could be just making this up, but to me it always looks like Satie gave the middle finger to the mainstream and hung out with the dadaists instead, deciding that he would never be accepted and was probably better off just giving up and playing to people that actually enjoyed what he was doing. Debussy on the other hand, searched to be a part of contemporary music, even though his compositions were very avant-garde and largely unaccepted. I personally really respect Debussy for trying to bring many esoteric musical ideas to the forefront of the public's musical consciousness, even though many people would not have seen him for what he truly was.
Because I fear that the wrath incurred by the scary people at EMI caused by me posting a link to any of Debussy's music would be the equivalent of voluntary blogicide, I'll spare myself the hassle by not posting any download links. Instead, you could just buy it. It's everything that he ever composed for solo piano, it spans five discs and it only costs £12 (which works out at £2.40 per disc). It's good quality recordings of some fairly solid performances from Aldo Ciccolini, and it also means that you're pretty much sorted for life in the way of Debussy's solo piano stuff. Enjoy.