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Claude Debussy

Composer of the Month #9

August 22nd, 2020

Each month, we celebrate a famous composer who imposed their mark on classical music history. In these interviews, they talk about their work and history, and offer you free sheet music of some of their most iconic pieces for your Newzik library! What a nice thought. This month, we're proud to receive French composer Claude Debussy in our office for this interview.

Claude was kind enough to prepare a complete setlist for Newzik's subscribers, with all the music we discussed with him. If you are already a Newzik Premium subscriber, go ahead and download it right away!

If you are a free user, choose only the parts you want later in the interview (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import! Finally, in case you’re not a Newzician yet, get Newzik for free on the App Store to download these free scores from Claude Debussy!

Composer of the Month: Claude Debussy

Today is March 24, 1918. I am 56 years old, and tomorrow I, Achille-Claude Debussy, the impressionist Claude de France, will die. What will I leave behind me, if not music for the most part misunderstood?

As death approaches, my thoughts escape. I remember, in 1885, the Villa Medici standing before my eyes. I had just begun my 23rd year. In my hands were scores, those of my cantata "L’Enfant Prodigue" (The Prodigal Child) which opened the doors of this Villa to me. I have never actually liked this composition that much, I find it rather boring, even after having taken it up again years later. Taken by melancholy I think back to my younger years. I think of that piano that I left aside to focus on composing. I think of Madame Mauté de Fleurville, to whom I owe precisely the little I know about the piano.

Madame Mauté de Fleurville. It must be remembered that if I became what I am, it is mainly thanks to luck and misfortune.

Thanks to misfortune because my father, Manuel Debussy, was sentenced to four years of prison for having taken part in the Commune when I was not even ten years old. Thanks to chance because if he only stayed there for a year, it was enough for him to make an encounter that changed my own life. In prison, he met Charles de Sivry, son of the excellent pianist Madame Mauté. Thanks to this chance meeting he introduced me to Madam Mauté. I discovered the piano and its flavours and entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of ten, in 1872, to discover discipline and its misfortunes.

I must admit, however, that I was not an easy student. I was withdrawn, shy, undisciplined, and having never been to school before, the rigor of the Conservatory did not suit me much. Even my music sought to free itself from the academic rules: Gabriel Pierné himself descirbed it as extraordinarily awkward and clumsy.

Then, little by little, I abandoned the piano, which had been my gateway to music. I largely preferred composition.

The Prodigal Child

Let us leave the story of Debussy's life for a few seconds and talk a little about his cantata L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Child). This lyrical scene was premiered at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris on 27 June 1884 for the “Prix de Rome” competition (which Debussy won by 22 votes out of 28). It was originally composed for piano and voice based on a text by Edouard Guinaud. If the work was not intended to be staged, L'Enfant Prodigue was sometimes presented as a one-act opera.

This play was composed in three weeks, according to the rules of the “Prix de Rome”. Between 1906 and 1908, under pressure from his publisher, he reworked it and completely recomposed the fourth and fifth movements. Debussy wrote the first version when he was only 22 years old and yet we can feel the influences of Massenet and Delibes in it. He uses leitmotifs associated with each of the three characters (Azaël, Lia, Siméon). We can already feel an immense harmonic creativity and an excellent mastery of counterpoint. There are also influences of Russian music. This piece is one of Debussy's first great compositions, already predicting the huge talent of the composer.

Today we offer you an arrangement for two pianos of Le Cortège et Air de Danse, a movement taken from The Prodigal child. Warm up your fingers, sextolets abound!

Arrangement for two pianos

So here I am, finally admitted to the Villa Medicis, having just been awarded the First Prize of Rome, which was my ticket to this prestigious institution. I spent a few years there but once again my music was not really to their liking. About Zuleima, the jury said: "We regret to point it out but this resident seems today to be concerned only with the strange, [...] the incomprehensible, the unenforceable.” I resigned after two years.

However, during these years I met my first great love. I was only 18, she was 32. Her name was Marie Vasnier and I declared my love to her many times by setting to music poems from Banville and Leconte de Lisle. Unfortunately, as soon as I left Rome, this idyll ran out of steam.

Even though I had spent two years in the "Eternal City", I had missed Paris. But my stay there was rather short because I went to the Bayreuth Festival in 1888 and fell in love with it. I returned the following year and heard Tristan and Isolde by Wagner. Although I cannot stand Wagner's work anymore, I must admit that Tristan is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

After discovering exotic music at the World's Fair, and maybe I did not realize it yet, many influences had melted into me, giving birth to my very special style.

The year 1890 was the year of my first true success. I composed my Suite Bergamasque which conquered both the public and the critics. A few years later I composed the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which was at first highly criticized, but this was only due to a mediocre interpretation. This Prelude quickly became a success all over Europe.

"Suite Bergamasque", extract from "Moonlight"

Debussy's Clair de Lune (Moonlight) is certainly one of his best known pieces: it can be found in advertisements, at the cinema,... This piece is the third in the Suite Bergamasque and is inspired by a poem by Paul Verlaine from the Fêtes Galantes. The piece takes up the four main themes of the poem being: Soul and Nature, Music and Nature, Sadness and finally Ecstasy. This poem is written in three stanzas, like the Clair de Lune which is ternary and follows an ABA (slow-fast-slow) structure.

The beginning of the piece is marked by chords of thirds, giving the notes a certain purity, interspersed with single and linked notes, having a more bare and wilder hue. One can see a kind of introspection between soul and nature. One recognizes in this the beginning of Debussy's impressionism: the two hands at the piano are very close together, it is a realistic and continuous music, there is no pedal indication and the attack of the notes is typically soft and the contrasts are subtle. We are very far from a romantic approach to music.

As for the central part of the piece, we can see nature singing. There is always this continuity between the two hands, which is fundamental in impressionism. There are echoes, the music trying to imitate Nature.

We offer you a piano score of this mythical piece. Don't forget, Debussy said it himself: his music is music that should be felt!

Suite Bergamasque, Moonlight, for piano

I remember the year 1894. The desire came to me to compose the one and only Opera of my career: Pélleas et Mélisande, on a libretto by Maeternik based on his eponymous piece. It took me almost ten years to compose it and it premiered in 1902. The rehearsals of this piece were certainly the most difficult of my life. It is certain that Maeternick and I did not get along very well. He wanted to impose his mistress as the singer of Melisande but I did not agree. Our disagreement was so deep that he was almost determined to challenge me to a duel! But that wasn't all: the scores were sabotaged so badly that it was impossible to differentiate sharp and flat, and a pamphlet was even published against the work, poetically named Pédéraste et Médisante (i.e The Pederast and the Slanderous)... It must also be admitted that the piece was not very well received. Perhaps my singular music and the slow rhythm of the work disconcerted the audience. Richard Strauss even expressed himself like this: "Is it always like this? There is nothing... no music ... it doesn't hold ... it's too humble ... there's not enough music for me here ... ». I wasn't really surprised by the comment from the Austrian composer.

I haven't spoken about my nickname yet: Claude of France. I received this nickname for my strong rejection of German music. I find it heavy and its constraining forms prevent the composer from going off the beaten track. I remember Mahler's Second Symphony. It was so unbearable for me that I left the hall during the performance and wrote the next day: "Let's open our eyes (and close our ears) ... French taste will never admit these pneumatic giants to any other honor than to serve as a publicity stunt for Bibendum."

I advocated for light music, for fluid music. I wanted to draw from Rameau or Couperin! This dominant taste for German music sent me back to my own non-conformism. In the end, the nickname Claude de France suited me perfectly. I even signed some of my scores that way.

"Arabesque", No.1 in E Major.

Let us return to Debussy's early work: the Arabesques, composed between 1890 and 1891. At first they went unnoticed but became popular from 1906 onwards. It is one of the very first Impressionist works of the time.

The first Arabesque opens with five measures of exposition in A lydian to continue on a scale of E major. We find parallels of triads, a technique widely used by Debussy and the Impressionists, going back to the technique of the drone.

The second and quieter section is in A major, which begins with E-D-E-C♯, passes briefly through E major, returns to A major and ends with a bold pronunciation of E-D-E-C♯, but transposed into the key of C major, played forte.

In the middle of the recapitulation of section A, the music shifts to an upper and lower register, followed by a large pentatonic ascending and descending scale, and resolves again in E major.

We offer you the score of the first Arabesque arranged for piano and clarinet!

Arr. for piano & clarinet

I also remember the year 1913 very well. Marcel Proust published Du côté de chez Swann, Kasimir Malevitch painted his Carré noir sur fond blanc (Black square on a white background), Marcel Duchamp imagined his first ready-made (bicycle wheel). For my part, the Russian Ballets created Jeux on May 15 and Le Sacre du Printemps on May 29. The first work was very badly received, in particular because of its confused choreography. The second was even worse: its wild and primitive character caused a huge scandal. I was proud of it, however, it may be one of my most accomplished works: its fluid discourse in permanent evolution, subtly supported by the orchestra...

A few years earlier, in 1910, I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. The last eight years of my life were nothing more than a slow and painful descent into hell.

Today is March 24, 1918. Tomorrow I die. My last project was to write six sonatas for different instruments in reference to Couperin's Concerts Royaux. I have only written three of them.

Sonata for flute, viola and harp

This sonata was composed in 1915 and dedicated to his wife. It is the second of the Six Sonatas for Various Instruments.

It has oriental sonorities and Debussy gives it a soft and melancholic aspect thanks to the association of the flute, the viola and the harp which are three instruments that had never been put together.

Its structure is as follows:

  1. Pastoral. Lento, dolce rubato.
  2. Interlude. Tempo di minuetto.
  3. Final. Allegro moderato ma risoluto.

This sonata is conceived as a musical conversation: the sonorities mix, support and oppose each other. Debussy described it as "terribly melancholic, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry, maybe both?".

Through this piece, Debussy reinvents the trio sonata of "our old masters harpsichordists" by replacing the harpsichord with the harp. The main problem in the interpretation of this sonata must be the sound balance between the three instruments: a compromise, perhaps a precarious one, must be found between an assertive soloist and playing in the background.

Sonata for flute, viola & harp

As my last breath approaches, my last thoughts go to my daughter, Claude-Emma, or "Chouchou", and to my wife Emma-Claude, to whom I dedicate these last sonatas.

What will I leave behind me, if not music for the most part misunderstood? I've known it for years: I wrote things that will only be understood by the grandchildren of the 20th century.

We hope you liked this Composer of the Month and that you will have a great time practicing these tunes! See you next month for another episode of Composer of the Month.

Disclaimer: all the scores provided in this article were found online and all listed as either Public Domain or Creative Commons and encouraged to be shared freely by their creators. If you want to learn more about the best online sources for legally getting sheet music, go ahead and read this article. Also, if despite our best effort to respect the will of the original creators, you are one of these creators and disagree with our use of your work, please contact us.

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