Debussy: The Formative Years

September 20, 2012

The decade of 1870s was very significant in French history: on the political aspect, there were Franco-Prussian war and French Commune (both happened in 1871); on the musical aspect, there were the establishment of the Societé Nationale de Musique Française (1871), with which one of the main leaders was Camille Saint-Saëns, and Debussy’s entrance to the most prestigious conservatoire in France, the Paris Conservatoire, at the age of nine (1873).

To understand the background behind aesthetic and stylistic influence on Debussy’s music, one must first identify the situation and tendency in French musical world. After Franco-Prussian war, French was defeated and had to pay a lot of back to Germany. French artists and musicians began to search for the “French” origin and style. “Ars Gallica” was promoted in the music world: French musicians wanted to write “French” music to defeat “German” music with its own ground (that is to use Germanic forms and advance them with the French style). The members of the Societe Nationale, including Saint-Saëns, Franck, Vincent d’Indy and Lalo were all influenced by German music (especially Wagner), but all of them tried to surpass this influence in their own ways.

Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 in C minor (1886) used a four-movement symphonic form, with organ and piano. Seemingly traditional, it was very innovative. The organ was just used to link between movements and the music alternated between dramatic motion and religious elements. Franck’s “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” (1884) was also another innovation. An advocate of religious morality and seriousness, Franck showed this idea in this piece, with influence of Liszt. it is also a piece of thematic transformation, deeply emotional chorale (in religious sense), and complicated fugal writing.

From this we can now turn to Debussy, who, under this era of searching for “French” music with German influence, entered the Paris Conservatoire and studied for over a decade. The teachers there cast great influence, either positive or negative, during the conservatoire years.

Marmontel, Debussy’s piano teacher, did not like much of this rebellious student. At first it seemed that, from the report of the Conservatoire, Marmontel saw Debussy’s talent. But gradually he wrote that the student was always lack of precision and rhythm. It was then Debussy lost interest and hope in pursuing career as pianist and changed to be major in composition.

Lavignac, his solfége teacher, showed Debussy non-Western “exotic” modes and opened his ear to non-Western music. He was quite helpful in Debussy’s development. Guiraud, another significant teacher, taught composition in the conservatoire. He wrote the first instrumentation method book in France that considered Wagner’s music, which was then banned in every part of France. He showed Wagner’s music to Debussy and Debussy would discuss with him about his “novel” theory. It was also him who helped and suggested Debussy so that the latter could win the Prix de Rome in 1884.

Massenet, who was a very famous opera composer in the 1880s, taught composition class in the Conservatoire. Though Debussy did not formally study with him, he learnt a lot from this opera composer’s music. The L’Enfant Prodigue showed great influence from Massenet for the flexible rhythm and line, and the arioso vocal melody.

Gounod, another important French composer of the time, also cast influence on Debussy’s development of his formative style. Debussy learnt tremendously from his music, which was greatly inspired by Bach and Palestina. It was him who suggested Debussy to go to the church in Rome to listen to the Mass. Debussy was moved by the two masses there, one being Palestina’s and the other Lasso’s.

During the years studied with Marmontel, this teacher would find a “summer job” for Debussy. This was how Debussy knew Madame von Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky. Debussy toured with von Meck a few times, and they went (with a group of musicians) to Vienna, Florence and other places in Europe, and more significantly, to Russia, where Debussy was first in touch with Russian music and greatly admired Mussorgsky’s music.

The other significant patron, Mr. Vasnier, was a wealthy architect. He helped to educate Debussy especially in literature, and also subsidized Debussy financially. He was like a family to Debussy. Madame Vasnier had a love affair with Debussy for some years, and inspired the young composer to write a lot of songs for her, who was an amateur singer.

As Debussy hated the academic system and strict rules or forms, he was attracted to Chabrier’s and Satie’s music. Both composers had quality of humor and “freedom” away from academic forms as they did not have academic training. It was Chabrier’s music that helped to soothe Debussy who played his music when he felt sad staying in the Villa Medici.

Debussy was also fascinated by the Symbolist movement in literature, led by Stephané Mallarme. Debussy always hanged out with him and his group, including Baudelaire and Varlaine. These poets advocated that the sound and color of words was the more important element than the meaning of words to subtly provoke and suggest imagery and feeling. They were strong admirers of Wagner, whom they regarded as a symbolist poet too.

Wagner was very influential to Debussy. In fact, he was the very figure that had an immeasurably great influence on all the significant French composers of the time, like Franck. d’Indy and so on. Yet the difference between the influence on this group of composers and that on Debussy is that they admired Wagner’s powerful instrumentation, the leitmotive and the dramatic declamatory style, whereas Debussy liked how Wagner used the long and flexible melody without a sense of ending, and the motives associated with ideas.

The three Rome Cantatas (as the three envois for the Prix de Rome) showed a great influence by Wagner. After Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884, he started to reject the academic system and “official” writing to develop his own style. The first envoi, Zülima, showed the use of reminiscent motive inspired by Wagner. It was not too “radical”. The second cantata, Le Printemps (1887), used Leitmotive and had quite a dramatic movement. It was scored as for two pianos and voice, and the original orchestration was destroyed by Debussy himself. The existing orchestration version was done by his friend Henri Busser. It is a symphonic suite for orchestra and a wordless chorus. Its “violent” text and strange “character” were criticized by the conservatoire and it was performed much later by the Societé Nationale.

The third cantata, “La Damoiselle élue”, was very much influenced by Wagners’ Parsifal. It was written in 1888, the very same year that Debussy went to Bayreuth for Wagner’s music for the first time, and the next year for the second time. This cantata was based on the poem (translation) by Dante Gabriel-Rossetti, who was inspired to write to other side of the same theme by Poe’s “Raven” which was about the sadness of the male lover on earth for his deceased beloved. This version of Rossetti was about the sadness of the deceased maid in heaven. The writer was one of the Pre-Raphaelite movement which promoted the art before Renaissance, for the sake of purity, näiveté and humanity. This idea suited Debussy very much as it promoted anti-academic systems and rules, and this was why he liked Parisfal, the Holy Grail and purity.

The poem by Rossetti is a free verse prose, without regular meter, rhythm and verse length. This led Debussy to write music with very freely. The music has a reminiscent of Wagner’s influence, yet it already showed the emergence of “Debussy” style, as shown in the beginning that the parallelism (of 5ths) was prominent. The orchestration was also Debussy-ian, full of colorful effect. The melodic lines were long, flexible and smooth, without metrical or rhythmic sense. This was written for orchestra, soprano solo, female chorus, and contralto narrator.

Through the background of French history, the conservatoire years to “La Damoiselle élue”, we can notice how Debussy gradually emerged from the restricted and academic situation to the beginning of his developing “Debussyian” style. He was about to break through from Wagner’s influence to develop a truly Debussy style.

Further Reading:
James R. Briscoe. Claude Debussy: a guide to research.
James R. Briscoe. Debussy in Performance.
Jane Fulcher. Debussy and His World.

Teresa Wong

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