Debussy Turns 150 Years Old!

“Music is the silence between the notes.”

“I love music passionately. And because I love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.”

“Art is the most beautiful of all lies.”

Claude Debussy was a man of powerful words, daring music, and poignant nuances. The father of musical Impressionism – although Debussy loathed the title – this French pianist turned the very foundations of composition on its head. According to a recent article by The New York Times, however, Debussy is not receiving the honor he is due as he approaches his 150th birthday:

“Perhaps Debussy is not considered enough of an audience draw, but I suspect that the real reason may be more complicated. We like to think we know and admire Debussy. Ah, Debussy the great Impressionist! … “La Mer,” how gorgeous. … Yet the alluring surfaces of Debussy’s works can mask the utter daring of the music. … I think we take Debussy for granted, and this may explain the lack of celebration this year.”

Conversely, here at WDAV, you should expect to hear an extra helping of Debussy for his sesquicentennial on August 22.

But what about the man himself?


Achille-Claude Debussy, the son of a china shop owner and a seamstress, was born in 1862 to a poor French family. When he showed a natural talent for music, Debussy’s aunt began paying for piano lessons when he was just seven years old. By eleven, he was studying piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory. His time at the conservatory foreshadowed the direction he would go with his composing; while his peers acknowledged that he was gifted, they found his compositional experiments strange.

In 1880, Debussy fell under the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, a Russian woman who was also a large sponsor of Tchaikovsky’s. Meck hired Debussy as a piano teacher for her children, and he spent years traveling around Europe with them. His time at Meck’s estate also allowed him to become familiar with Russia’s musical greats, specifically Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin. These exposures would later greatly influence his works.

At age twenty-two, Debussy won the “Prix de Rome,” a composition competition, and was awarded a scholarship for two-years of musical study in Rome. While at school, he studied the opera Tristan and Isolde and came to greatly respect the show’s composer Wagner – Debussy loved his ambition but not his flashy approach. He would later model his one and only opera Pelleas et Melisande after Wagner’s work.

Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy’s opera was an immediate success, although it had a polarizing effect on its audiences – you either loved it or hated it. The show had a gloomy tone, which was periodically interrupted by surges of terror. As one writer noted, “[the opera’s] rule of understatement and deceptively simple declamation, also brought an entirely new tone to opera – but an unrepeatable one.”

Yet another influence soon followed as Debussy returned to Paris for the 1887 World Exhibition. He fell in love with the music of the Javanese gamelan, an ensemble that included bells, gongs, xylophones, and sometimes vocals. The composer incorporated these sounds into many of his mature works.

The inclusion of Javanese Gamelan music was not the only technique that made Debussy stand apart from his contemporary composers. He used Eastern traditions in his works, such as pentatonicism (only using five notes in a scale), modality (the creation of mood), parallelism (the parallel movement of two or more lines of music) and the whole tone scale (each note in the scale is separated by a whole step). Debussy also challenged how instruments were characterized in composition. He believed strings did not have to be merely lyrical and thus instructed players to pluck their strings – instead of using their bow – where written in the music. He began including more clarinet in his works to take advantage of the instrument’s rich tone. He even experimented with the use of piano in various genres.

Unfortunately, the late part of Debussy’s career was rather stagnant. His pieces became less relatable and harder to deconstruct. Other up-and-coming composers such as Igor Stravinsky began to overshadow him, using his own techniques to do so. Debussy also began a public dialogue about art and music with his alter ego Monsieur Croche.

As with many great artists, Debussy died early – at only fifty-six years of age – of colon cancer.

A Few “Debussyisms”

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun 

Clair de Lune 

Children’s Corner


Olympic Focus: South Africa

As the 2012 London Olympics moves into its fifth day of competition, world records continue to be broken. Last Sunday, twenty-four-year-old South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh earned a gold medal in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke. In the process, he shaved twelve seconds off of the world record by completing the event in just 58.46 seconds. Van der Burgh is the first South African man to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

Two days later, fellow South African Chad le Clos won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly, a victory that forced American Michael Phelps to accept the silver for his record-breaking 19th medal. All is now redeemed for South Africa after a poor showing in Beijing in 2008.

The Olympics always inspires extreme bursts of patriotism (just think about how moving those VISA commercials with the Morgan Freeman voiceover become this time of year). South Africa is no exception to this trend. Following the gold medal wins – particularly van der Burgh’s – Twitter exploded with support from South African citizens. Here are a few of the tweets from that night:

“u made us so proud last night and gold is your colour”
“I”d just like to point out that Cameron van der Burgh is from Pretoria. That”s right, my home city. The one other SAcans always laugh at…”
“I just wanted to say that you are my absolute inspiration and that you r a legend and I really look up to you! Thank you for being so amazing!”

Even van der Burgh himself had something to tweet: 

“I am an Olympic Champion! 🙂 humbled by your tweets. Overwhelmed Emotions! … all my life had been but preparation for this challenge!”

But we’ve always known that South Africa is passionate about its sports. Let’s flash back to the 2010 World Cup. Remember the vuvuzelas? Those long plastic trumpets that made every soccer game sound like the stadium was being attacked by a swarm of bees? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please, let me introduce them…I present to you the South African soccer fan’s best friend:

Music in South Africa

 South African music, however, is not limited to these one-pitch plastic horns. Music in this country is a melting pot of Western and African instruments, gospel, a cappella, and a variety of tribal tunes. The South African national anthem provides a good example of many of these ingredients:

This song has a fascinating history. During apartheid, two separate anthems developed, one for the black Africans and one for the white Africans. From 1995-1997, under Nelson Mandela’s watch, both anthems lived on, often one playing right after the other at sporting events. Then, in 1997, someone finally decided it was time to merge the two songs. And ta-da, you end up with what you just listened to above!

The current South African national anthem is unique in two fascinating ways. First, this anthem is only one of two – Italy being the second one – that modulates during the song, thus ending in a different key than it started in. Second, the lyrics come from five of South Africa’s eleven official languages. How much more multi-cultural can you get?

Language Lyrics English Translation
Xhosa Nkosi sikelel” iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw” uphondo lwayo,
God bless Africa
Raise high its glory
Zulu Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Hear our prayers
God bless us, your children
Sesotho Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika — South Afrika.
God, we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation,
Nation of South Africa — South Africa.
Afrikaans Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
Ringing out from our blue heavens,
From our deep seas breaking round,
Over everlasting mountains,
Where the echoing crags resound,
English Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.