Black History Month 2023: The First and the Future

Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Tuesday for the next pair of classical artists!

Pictured: Elayne Jones, timpanist. Photo has been digitally modified and elements have been added. Uploaded by user Barbara.steinberg at Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0


Harold Jones

Co-founder of the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States

VIDEO: Harold Jones Plays William Foster McDaniel: Flute Concerto (Movement II)

Like many young musicians, Harold Jones got his start as a violin student at ten years old, but it wouldn’t take long to discover his true passion. Upon hearing a fellow student play the piccolo, Jones was drawn to the flute at age fifteen and honed his craft at Chicago’s famed DuSable High School. Jones began to play professionally at the Chicago Civic Orchestra before moving to New York City in 1955. 

In New York, Jones earned a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, where he won the “Outstanding Woodwind Player” award at his graduation. He embarked on a multi-decade career as a soloist and recitalist, making his New York recital debut at Town Hall in 1966 and regularly performing with numerous top orchestras across the country. 

In the 1960s, Jones began to meet with a group of fellow Black classical musicians who were frustrated with the lack of representation and opportunity for artists of color in their field. This assembly of artists – including harpist Elayne Jones, composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and many more – formed a plan to address the inequities they experienced: “Everyone jumped to the idea,” Jones remembered. “‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it – have an integrated orchestra.’” The Symphony of the New World was born, and with its inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1965, it became the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. Though the orchestra eventually folded in 1978 due to financial difficulties, its impact on the classical music landscape was enduring.  “It built hope where there was very little,” Jones said in an interview with Allegro magazine. “It showed that, as black people, we had paid our dues and we could do it as well as anyone else… the inspiration that this could be done [remains] in all of us.”

An avid educator, Jones impacted the lives of countless students while teaching at the Westchester Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Manhattanville College, and Brooklyn College. He served as the President of the New York Flute Club from 1976 to 1979. Jones recorded the Vivaldi flute concerti for the Library of Recorded Masterpieces in addition to four studio albums, “From Bach to Bazzini”, “Afternoon Fantasies”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, and “This Little Light of Mine.”

In 1993, Jones founded the Antara Ensemble, an active string chamber orchestra formed “to bring quality classical music at affordable prices to the culturally diverse neighborhoods of New York.” Jones continued to program, conduct, and perform with the ensemble in the final years of his life. 

After his passing in 2015, the New York Flute Club published a monthly newsletter filled with heartwarming tributes to Jones written by his students, colleagues, and loved ones. His legacy of kindness, humor, and genuine caring lives on through those he taught: “I can often feel his presence, hearing his voice and laughter, when I’m trying to teach my students the same way he taught me,” former student Meryl D. Newler wrote, “‘Keep it simple and it all makes sense.’

To learn more about Harold Jones, read the New York Flute Club’s tribute to his life here

Allison Loggins-Hull

Flutist and composer; half of the critically acclaimed duo Flutronix

VIDEO: Hammers by Allison Loggins-Hull

Hailed as a “powerhouse” by the Washington Post, distinguished flutist, composer, and producer Allison Loggins-Hull’s work cannot be defined by a single genre. Part of a creative family, Loggins-Hull grew up enveloped in music and visual arts. “Music was omnipresent in my house,” she recalled in an interview with Mother Maker magazine. “My dad had a very extensive and eclectic record collection and was an amateur musician in a lot of ways.” She began playing the flute at age ten, later pursuing an undergraduate degree at SUNY Purchase and a Masters in Composition at New York University. 

While finishing her undergraduate studies, Loggins-Hull began to explore composition and uploaded a few of her works to MySpace, where fellow flutist Nathalie Joachim discovered them. As fate would have it, the two musicians had quite a bit in common: not only did they live just a few blocks away from one another, they had both been experimenting with electronics in composition, and both knew they wouldn’t follow the “traditional path” to orchestral and solo work. They hit it off immediately, and in 2007, they formed the now-celebrated duo Flutronix

In demand as a performing artist and composer, Loggins-Hull has performed at many major festivals and venues worldwide, including The Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and more. Loggins-Hull is the Cleveland Orchestra’s current Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow and is in the midst of a packed 2022-2023 season, including eight world premieres of her work and an East Coast tour with Flutronix and Third Coast Percussion. As an educator, she has served on the faculty of the Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program and The John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University.

In 2020, Loggins-Hull was commissioned to compose a work for the Library of Congress’s Boccaccio Project, an initiative that premiered musical reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic online. Performed by Flutronix, Loggins-Hull’s piece “Have and Hold” responded to feelings of isolation during the pandemic and news of police killings earlier in the year. “I was really craving just the feeling of having companionship and being near people and just physical contact,” she told NPR. “Whenever these shootings happen, I still have that desire to hold people that I love, even to hold people that I don’t know who share this common experience we all share as black people in this country.” 

Loggins-Hull’s other myriad accomplishments include playing as co-principal flutist on the soundtrack to The Lion King (2019), co-producing Joachim’s GRAMMY-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (2020), and scoring the 2019 documentary Bring Them Back. She launched the project Diametrically Composed, “a collection of newly commissioned works featuring flute, voice and piano exploring the duality of being a mother and an artist,” in 2021. 

To learn more about Allison Loggins-Hull, visit her official website here

VIDEO: “Run-On” – performed by Flutronix, live at The Brooklyn Museum

Sources and Further Reading

How the Symphony of the New World made history (Allegro)

Leading New York Flute Player Has Died (Slipped Disc)

The New York Flute Club Newsletter: A Tribute to Harold Jones

The New York Flute Club: Harold Jones (NYFC president 1976-1979)

A Conversation with Harold Jones (The Symphony of the New World)

Allison Loggins-Hull Official Website

A New Library Of Congress Project Commissions Music Of The Coronavirus Pandemic (NPR)

Allison Loggins Hull: the flutist, composer reflects on her new work (WYPR)

5 Questions to Allison Loggins-Hull (composer, flutist) (I Care If You Listen)

Allison Loggins-Hull (Mother Maker)

Flutronix Official Website


Ann Hobson Pilot 

First Black member of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the BSO’s first Black principal player

VIDEO: The Last Pluck: BSO Harpist’s Final Performance

There’s a reason harpist Ann Hobson Pilot is so often described as “legendary:” at 79, she remains one of history’s most esteemed harpists after over 55 years as a top soloist, recording artist, and educator. Born into a musical family in 1943, Pilot took up piano as her first instrument, following in the footsteps of her concert pianist mother. When she switched to the harp at age 14, the racist backlash from others at her predominantly white school was swift. In one incident she described to Sarasota Magazine, “[A friend’s mother] pointed to a portrait on the wall of a white woman, with long blond hair, playing the harp, and she said, ‘See, she is what a harpist is supposed to look like.’ I was shocked that she said that to me. What did she want me to do, quit?”

Pilot persisted, and at just 18, her skill began to garner public attention as she performed alongside artists like Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis at a Philadelphia nightclub. Following her subsequent studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she won a position as a master harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal harp in 1969, becoming both orchestras’ first Black member. Pilot also made history when she earned the principal harp position in 1980, which made her the BSO’s first Black principal player. During her time in Boston, she served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University for decades, toured the globe as a soloist, and recorded numerous albums

Though Pilot officially retired in 2009 after 40 years with the BSO, she immediately returned to open the BSO and Carnegie Hall seasons with the premiere of “On Willows and Birches,” a concerto written for her by John Williams. Pilot’s solo career continued to flourish after her retirement: “Everybody says to me, ‘Do you miss it?,’ and I can’t really say that I do, because I am still playing,” she told PBS. “I will continue as long as I can.” She released her latest album, “A Dream,” in 2020 and has made many high-profile returns to the stage, including a performance at the opening of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

A frequent award recipient, Pilot has been honored twice with the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Boston Musicians Association and the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Bridgewater State College and became the only harpist recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Golden Baton award, its highest honor, in 2017. 

To learn more about Ann Hobson Pilot, visit her official website and watch her 2020 TEDx Talk or the 2011 PBS documentary “A Harpist’s Legacy.” 

VIDEOA Black Harpist’s Story | Ann Hobson Pilot | TEDxBeaconStreet

Angelica Hairston

Harpist, educator, and activist; founder of Challenge the Stats and Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble

VIDEO: Wave of Sound ft. Angelica Hairston

In 2007, teenage harpist Angelica Hairston found a mentor in a living legend: Ann Hobson Pilot. “It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me,” she said of their first meeting in an interview with Lyon & Healy. “She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.” 

Growing up surrounded by music of all genres, Hairston gained a new perspective on the art form’s power while listening to gospel music at her grandmother’s church. “I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes,” she explained. “What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story.” She began her musical study as a violinist at 4 years old and transitioned to the harp at 12. Hairston performed on From the Top for the first time at age 18, later winning the From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship that aided her studies at Toronto’s Royal Academy of Music. 

While completing her graduate degree at Northeastern University as a 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow, Hairston founded Challenge the Stats, a growing initiative dedicated to empowering BIPOC classical artists and challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression in classical music. She currently provides free harp instruction to over 90 students as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble

Hairston is an alum of the Sphinx Organization’s SphinxLEAD, a 2019 winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, and a recipient of the 2020 Atlanta Magazine’s Women Making a Mark Award. Now 30, Hairston remains dedicated to activism in the Atlanta area and beyond as a musician, educator, speaker, and consultant. “Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” she told Atlanta Magazine in 2021. “Facing a pandemic – but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities – has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us.”

To learn more about Angelica Hairston, visit the Challenge the Stats website or watch the short documentary Wave of Sound

Sources and Further Reading

Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot on Overcoming Racism in Classical Music (Sarasota Magazine)

Tribute to accomplished harpist, classical trailblazer (

Ann Hobson Pilot Official Website

Honoring Boston Symphony’s pioneering harp legend Ann Hobson Pilot (League of American Orchestras)

Harpist pilots a ground-breaking career (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

In Honor of Black History Month: The Experiences That Shape Us (Lyon & Healy)

Angelica Hairston uses her harp and music as instruments for social change (ARTSATL)

Challenge the Stats Official Website (Challenge the Stats)

Angelica Hairston Biography (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)

Four Gifted Young Musicians Aim To Effect Change Through Community-Focused Projects (NPR)

Women Making a Mark: Angelica Hairston (Atlanta Magazine)


Todd Duncan

First Black singer to perform as part of a major American opera company with an otherwise white cast

Pictured: Portrait of Todd Duncan
Todd Duncan
Photo by Vandamm, New York – cropped, Public Domain.

Among many other “firsts,” baritone, educator, and activist Todd Duncan originated the role of Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935. Unimpressed by the 100 baritones who had previously auditioned for the role, Gershwin received a tip from the current New York Times music critic: he should reach out to Duncan

Just a few bars of an aria later, Gershwin offered the role to him personally – but Duncan, who described his typical fare as “Schubert and Schumann and Brahms,” wasn’t sold yet. “When [Gershwin] started [playing] the opening music… I looked at my wife and said quietly, ‘This stinks,’” he recalled. “By the time twenty minutes or a half hour had passed I just thought I was in heaven. These beautiful melodies in this new idiom – it was something I had never heard.” With that, history was made, and Porgy became Duncan’s signature role. 

Born to a music teacher in Danville, Kentucky, Duncan’s early interest in the art form led him to pursue a career as a singer and professor after receiving a B.A. from Butler University and an M.A. from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 1931, Duncan accepted a teaching position at Howard University, where he eventually became head of the public school music and professional voice departments. Success as a performer followed soon after: in 1934, Duncan starred in an Aeolian Opera production of Cavalleria Rusticana with an all-Black cast, and audiences instantly took notice of his “elegant phrasing” and “dramatic persuasiveness.”

In 1945, Duncan made his New York City Opera debut as Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. This achievement made him not only the first Black singer to perform with the company, but also the first to perform as part of any major American opera company with an otherwise white cast. He would go on to sing several roles with the NYCO, including Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen and the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Duncan returned to Broadway to star in the musicals Cabin in the Sky (1940) and Lost in the Stars (1949) and appeared in two films: Syncopation (1942) and Unchained (1955). Before it became one of the most recognizable songs of the 20th century,  the song “Unchained Melody” was written for the latter film – and Duncan was the first singer to ever record it. 

During his 25-year career as a recitalist, Duncan sang 2,000 recitals in 56 countries, once confessing that he adored the “thrill of holding an audience even on your faintest note.” He spent his later years as a revered voice professor in Washington and at the Curtis Institute of Music. Among other awards and honors, Duncan was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Howard University, a George Peabody Medal, Tony and New York Drama Critics Awards, and the President of Haiti’s Medal of Honor and Merit. 

To learn more about Todd Duncan, read his American National Biography entry here. An illuminating 1980’s TV interview with Duncan is available to watch here

VIDEO: Todd Duncan – Unchained Melody (Original in Color 1955)

Limmie Pulliam

Powerhouse tenor who recently made debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, first Black singer to perform the role of Radamès (Verdi’s Aida) at the Met

VIDEO: Nessun Dorma – Limmie Pulliam

If you’re not sure whether a skill fits on your resume, sometimes it pays to include it anyway – and tenor Limmie Pulliam is the proof! After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Pulliam faced size discrimination at every turn and struggled to build an opera career. “I’d always made myself a promise that if it ever stopped being fun, I would move on to do something else,” he explained in a recent NPR interview. “I kept that promise to myself, and I moved on.” 

Pulliam’s departure from the opera world lasted over a decade. He worked in security for years, even starting his own firm, before taking a leave of absence to serve as a field organizer during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. At one event, a local beauty pageant winner who was scheduled to sing the national anthem suddenly bailed. “My boss looks at me and says, I remember on your resume that you used to sing opera. Why don’t you sing it?,” he recalled. “And he didn’t leave me much choice.” 

What Pulliam heard surprised him:

“[My voice] had gained a certain warmth. It had matured. And it had taken on a much more burnished, darker quality to it that I felt really kind of set me apart from anyone that I was hearing in the industry currently.”


Once the campaign was over, Pulliam threw himself into vocal study. He nurtured his new sound privately, even revisiting videotaped lessons from Oberlin, then began studying with a pedagogue in Memphis. Three years later, a friend came across a video Pulliam had posted on YouTube. She passed it on to her husband, the music director of a small opera company in Seattle, and Pulliam booked his first role back in the game. 

Pulliam proved himself a force to be reckoned with after winning the National Opera Association’s Vocal Competition in 2012. He performed in young artist programs with Cleveland Opera, Opera Delaware, and Opera Memphis and maintained a busy calendar of engagements, building up to a series of high-profile debuts in recent years. Critics lauded his “healthy, focused, ringing tenor” at his 2021 L.A. Opera debut, where he starred as Manrico in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. In December 2022, Pulliam broke a historical precedent with his Metropolitan Opera debut by becoming the company’s first Black artist to portray Radamès in Verdi’s Aida. Most recently, he made his Carnegie Hall debut singing the title role in R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses.”

At 47, Pulliam is a rapidly rising star – and aside from his otherworldly voice, his persistence says it all. “My mantra has become, you know, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” he explained to NPR. “You never know when that phone call may come, whether it’s a performance or offer you a particular role or any other type of job opportunity. But do the work to be prepared when that call comes.”

To learn more about Limmie Pulliam, visit his official website here

Sources and Further Reading

Todd Duncan, 95; Sang Porgy and Helped Desegregate Opera (New York Times)

Duncan, Todd (American National Biography)

He Quit Singing Because of Body Shaming. Now He’s Making a Comeback. (New York Times)

Opera singer Tenor Limmie Pulliam reflects on his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 47 (NPR)

Limmie Pulliam Official Website


Elayne Jones

First Black principal in a major American orchestra; first Black person to play in an opera orchestra

Elayne Jones, timpanist
CC BY-SA 4.0

With a curious spirit and an ear for music, an adolescent Elayne Jones often attended New York Philharmonic concerts by herself. One day in 1958, she would become the first Black musician to perform with the orchestra – just one of many historical firsts that spanned her career. Raised by a mother who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, Jones studied piano and sang in a choir growing up, but it wasn’t until high school that she was introduced to percussion (and not by choice). Though she gravitated toward the violin, a teacher pushed her into percussion due to a racist stereotype. Jones excelled, and in 1945, she began her studies at the Juilliard School with a scholarship provided by Duke Ellington. 

In the same year of her graduation, Jones became the first Black person to play in an opera orchestra as her eleven-year career with the New York City Opera began. She later co-founded the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States, in the 1960s. During this time, she met with a group of fellow musicians determined to solve a glaring problem: orchestras weren’t hiring women and people of color. Jones and her peers developed the concept of the “blind” audition, now a virtually universal practice in symphony orchestras.

Jones was said to have become the first Black principal musician in a major American orchestra upon winning a blind audition at the San Francisco Symphony in 1972. “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play,” she later said, “I’m the recipient of a thing that I worked on.” She was immediately popular with audiences and critics: one reporter wrote that her playing was “so rounded and suave [he] just about fell out of [his] seat.” However, when Jones was up for tenure nearly two years later, she was denied – a result that came with no explanation and conflicted with the advice of music director Seiji Ozawa. All six of her white colleagues hired in the same year were granted tenure.

As outrage spread with the news of Jones’ rejection, audience members picketed and started petitions. Peers from around the globe began to flood her with calls. But despite the mounting scandal and a high-profile discrimination lawsuit, Jones was denied tenure once again in 1975. 

Though her ties with the San Francisco Symphony were fractured, Jones remained a beloved – and tenured – member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra for 23 years until her retirement in 1998.

Elayne Jones passed away at the age of 94 on December 17, 2022. In an interview with the Percussive Arts Society, Jones expressed how she would like to be remembered:

“As a musical percussionist… because some people don’t think of us as musicians! But I loved every minute of it. I was lucky; music came easy for me, and I would like everybody to feel and love the music the same way that I feel and love it.”

More information about Jones’ life and legacy can be found in her autobiography, Little Lady with a Big Drum (2021), and in obituaries from the New York Times and San Francisco Classical Voice. Watch Jones’ Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame induction video here

Jauvon Gilliam

First African-American principal in National Symphony Orchestra history

Video: Your NSO Principal Timpanist | NSO@Home: Jauvon Gilliam

Given a choice between sports and music as a child, timpanist Jauvon Gilliam immersed himself in both – but luckily for today’s audiences at the Kennedy Center, music eventually won out. Like Elayne Jones, Jauvon Gilliam got an early start on the piano, winning his first national competition at 11 and later entering Butler University on a full scholarship for piano performance. A few years later, Gilliam graduated from Butler with a degree in arts administration and a new passion: the timpani. 

Gilliam was hired fresh out of graduate school as principal timpanist at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. “I knew nothing about Canada,” he revealed in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press. “After I won the audition, I went to Earls on Main and pulled out a map to see where Winnipeg was.” After seven highly successful years with the WSO, Gilliam bested roughly 60 candidates to win the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpanist position in 2009, a unanimous selection that made him the first African-American principal in the orchestra’s history. 

Now the Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Maryland and a coach for the National Youth Orchestra in addition to his duties at the NSO, Gilliam makes a point to invest in his students as his teachers invested in him. “I try to give [my students] as much information, as much help as I can,” he told the American Federation of Musicians in 2020. “If you have a kid who’s willing to put the work in, the sky’s the limit.” 

A founding board member of the Alliance of Black Orchestral Percussionists, Gilliam has been a dedicated advocate for diversity in classical music throughout his career. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, he co-founded We Over Me Productions, described in his Kennedy Center bio as “a production company created to use the arts to tell a story that will keep the conversation of systemic racism, social inequities and injustices at the forefront of people’s consciousness in an effort to create lasting change through tangible actions.” In 2021, Gilliam opened The Shed DMV, a multifunctional rehearsal space for artists of all levels and backgrounds, which now serves thousands of local students through community outreach efforts.

To read more about Jauvon Gilliam, check out his Kennedy Center bio here

Sources and Further Reading

In Memoriam: Timpanist Elayne Jones, 94 (San Francisco Classical Voice)

Elayne Jones, Pioneering Percussionist, Is Dead at 94 (New York Times)

Symphony of the New World (WIkipedia)

Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame: Elayne Jones (Percussive Arts Society)

Butler Stories: Jauvon Gilliam ’01 (Butler University)

Jauvon Gilliam (The Kennedy Center)

City timpanist drums up gig in Washington (Winnipeg Free Press)

Timpanist Jauvon Gilliam Drives the Rhythm (American Federation of Musicians)

The Shed DMV Website

Leonard Bernstein & The Meaning of Music/Life

“What does music mean?”

That was the premise of the very first Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” televised live on CBS-TV, January 18th, 1958 – exactly one week after my second birthday.

For all I know, my parents sat with all five of us little kids in front of the TV that night. Both my parents were fans of classical music and always encouraged arts appreciation.

In all, Leonard Bernstein, arguably the greatest American music man…conductor-composer-teacher-pianist, hosted a total of 53 Young People’s Concerts on live TV between 1958 and 1972, first from Carnegie Hall and later (from 1962 on), from the Philharmonic Hall in the glistening new Lincoln Center. These performances inspired generations of music lovers and musicians the world over, and continue to do so now that the entire series is available on DVD.

So…what does music mean? Well, as the Maestro would say, music can mean different things to different people. Music can make one feel uplifted and inspired or even sad and melancholy. Different people can feel different emotions from the same piece of music. And just because someone may feel differently about a piece of music than you do, that does not make what the other person is feeling wrong. The power of music is subjective and every individual listener is entitled to his or her own perspective about the music.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, it is difficult to underestimate the impact that Bernstein had in the world of music in his 50-year career. Whether he was composing concert music, chamber music, ballet, opera, or Broadway musicals; conducting the New York Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic or other orchestras around the world; or teaching and lecturing, Leonard Bernstein’s over-sized personality and passion for people and music is an example that comes along only once in anybody’s lifetime. And as great as his talent was, it was able to shine bright despite the challenges of his own common human frailties and insecurities. He smoked one hundred cigarettes a day and drank his first scotch of the day during breakfast, whether that be in the morning or afternoon. He was a terribly flawed human being who also happened to be a musical and intellectual genius beloved by millions around the world. But, it was about eight years before he died that Bernstein lamented to his assistant one lonely night, “People love me for what I do, not for what I am.” Perhaps the Maestro was asking himself, “What does life mean?”

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