A French composer of fascinating and charming, stand-alone character, Debussy came into the world on this day in 1862; destined to bring the world some of the most memorable and referenced instrumental repertoire. To describe him in a short burst of qualities, Debussy was inspired by, wrote and performed with a sense of curious rebellion –thinking that not all music needed to follow the stringent conventions established by the scholarly traditions of the time.
What’s so captivating about Debussy’s music is the dichotomy it presents, depending on how one chooses to approach it. Viewed from the vantage point of a strictly pedagogical and theoretical angle and there is far less “romantic” influence to harp on through it. Then, from a historical standpoint, there is even less, as some will be of the side that Debussy was born on the exiting (or at the very least declining) cusp of the Romantic era, though the exact dates and accompanying labels vary depending on with whom you are speaking. What isn’t deniable is the fact that the structures (or lack thereof) that Debussy ensured made it to his manuscripts over the years, are some of the very factors that steer western-listening ears away from immediately thinking of romantic-era styling:
Parallel chords (beginning theory students out there are probably cringing at the mere thought. Hence my “rebellious” characterization.)
Eastern style compositional qualities, e.g. pentatonic scales
Unorthodox application of the 7th and the 9th chords
Less emphasis on tonal organization and expected direction, as well as overall use of non-conventional rhythm patterns.
Of course, these are just a small handful of the strategies and ideas that Debussy applied to his works; pieces that spanned everything form solo, concerti, opera and chamber repertoire, among many others. Retuning to what I mentioned before about a dichotomy…I’m referring to the fact that even if some of Debussy’s most iconic pieces are deeply seeded in post-Romantic, impressionist color, when experienced and absorbed from a overall auditory perspective, rather than a written structural one, it is hard not to feel the music simply functions to inspire a straightforwardly beautiful and more Romantic -supported mentality.
Impressionism having strong ties to instrumental timbre and generalized aural character only boosts this ability to enjoy such works with a looser and less analytical ear, even though the building blocks that create the music can seem to exist in just the opposite way; for example, when any student or researcher should approach Debussy’s music to analyze and draw theoretical connections from it. After all, anyone who played around with whole tone scales, uncommon symphonic instrumental roles and had a passion for the gamelan is providing plenty of scholarly kindling for up-close and personal academic review –the last thing one might associate with a less intimidating and emotionally driven listening experience.
Whether you see Claude Debussy as a mastermind composer with boundary pushing ambition and the catalyst of impressionism, or, as a emotionally fueled write who simply weaved in compositional change out of pure intrigue, there continues to be a time and place devoted to everything he created. Regardless of where and why you might throw some Debussy work on in the room, if the people present like what they hear, then that’s certainly a good enough reason for Google to bring attention to his birthday with one rhythmic music box of a doodle, isn’t it? (As you watch, the city lights flicker on and off with the changing notes. It’s rather picturesque.)
Happy Birthday Debussy!
As a person who is also for changes to music’s academic and social conventions, today I play your music loudly and proudly!