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Friday 20 September 2019

Debussy: the man who broke the mould

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

George Hamilton

'What I am trying to do is something different - an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism, a term that is usually misapplied."

The words of Claude Debussy, who was credited by his fellow French composer Pierre Boulez as being in on the birth of modern music.

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Debussy was around at the start of the 20th century, which Boulez would come to dominate as one of its major personalities.

What was describing is easily categorised as impressionism, given the artistic temperament of his time.

He had in mind specifically the 'Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Daune', music inspired by a poem by Debussy's contemporary Stéphane Mallarmé.

The faune - the god of the woods - has just awoken from his afternoon nap. The music captures the mood, his random thoughts caught by a flute floating across the soundscape.

For Debussy, this was radical. The notion of structured development had been done away with, the very concept of form itself had been overthrown.

So, impressionism? Like the paintings of Monet and Manet, Renoir and Cézanne?

You'd be inclined to think so, coming from a man who once described music as the space between the notes and who declared, "There is nothing more musical than a sunset".

He was influenced by the visual arts, admiring the work of the English watercolourist William Turner, taking inspiration from Whistler's scenes of London by night.

And yet, he felt sound conveyed more than mere brushstrokes.

"Collect impressions," he said, "that is something music can do better than painting."

His dislike of the term "impressionism" had more to do with its misuse by the "fools" he referred to, the implication that somehow he was composing in a style that was not his own.

Debussy's unconventional approach cost him over the years. He would routinely fail exams.

His canvas was broad. The impressions he collected included the experience of a day at the seaside - three symphonic sketches, as he called them, with the simple title of 'La Mer' - and the suite of three Nocturnes for orchestra.

Not nocturnes in the John Field or Chopin sense, rather the various effects created by the quality of light at night.

Which brings us to what's probably Debussy's most famous piece - his 'Clair de Lune' or moonlight.

Inspiration had come from another poem, in this case one by the composer's friend, Paul Verlaine, whose mother-in-law had been his piano teacher.

It speaks of calm, sad, beautiful moonlight "that makes birds dream in the trees".

The essence of sonic tranquility, it's quintessentially romantic, music that goes its own way, inspired by the emotion behind it.

The essence of Debussy was caught in a comment he made after a successful rehearsal of another orchestral suite - 'Images'.

He declared himself well satisfied as it sounded as if it hadn't been written down.

"There is no theory," he once said. "You only have to listen. Pleasure is the law." This was a man who reinvented the language of music, an innovator best summed up in the title of a recent biography by Stephen Walsh (published by Faber) - Debussy: A Painter in Sound.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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