The Genius of Claude Debussy and Why I've Always Loved His Music

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I’ve always loved Claude Debussy’s music.  From the first time I heard “Afternoon of a Faun” when I was around 19 or twenty, his music has exerted a strong emotional pull on me.  For me, Debussy–and also Ravel and Bartok—was the portal, the entry way into what is known as “classical music”.  Bach came later.  Mozart much later.

While trying to finish a term paper in the late 60s, I listened to a certain passage of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian hundreds of times.  It’s just part, I suppose, of my obsession with music.

Debussy and Ravel are often lumped together, but they are quite different.  Ravel is a classicist and follows many 18th century traditions.  Debussy is the radical.  Like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, he invented a new musical language.

He used whole-tones that he first heard in Balinese gamelans, used his pedals to make the piano sound like it is hidden or underwater.  The band Art of Noise dedicated a cd to his musical genius a few years ago.

I read both volumes of Edward Lockspeiser’s biography of Debussy.  I identified with the photo of Debussy that the composer had slashed.  Self-loathing and the pain of existence, the struggle for beauty amidst the sordid details of life consumed me.  I once was at a party at my French professor’s place, and a guy who was sullen and quiet suddenly walked over to the Bechstein grand and played the amazing Debussy miniature “The Engulfed Cathedral”.  I was mesmerized and jealous that I couldn’t be like him.

I have been moving and it’s enervating stuff.  Last night, to relax after unpacking yet more boxes, I put Claudio Arrau’s cd of Debussy Preludes into the boombox, now my only cd player.  I heard old familiar friends like “Feu d’Artifice” (fireworks).  It was calming and reassuring.  My love for Debussy’s music is alive and well.