Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Clair de lune and other favourite piano works
Debussy was born in 1862 in St Germain-en-Laye, the son of ashop-keeper who was later to turn his hand to other activities, with varyingsuccess. He started piano lessons at the age of seven and continued two yearslater, improbably enough, with Verlaine's mother-in-law, allegedly a pupil ofChopin. In 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he abandoned the planof becoming a virtuoso pianist, turning his principal attention to composition.In 1880, at the age of eighteen, he was employed by Tchaikovsky's patronessNadezhda von Meck as tutor to her children and house-musician. On his return tothe Conservatoire he entered the class of Bizet's friend Ernest Guiraud and in1883 won the second Prix de Rome. In 1884 he won the first prize, the followingyear reluctantly taking up obligatory residence, according to the terms of theaward, at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt. By 1887 he was back inParis, winning his first significant success in 1900 with Nocturnes and goingon, two years later, to a succ?¿s de scandale with his opera Pelleas etMelisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a work that establishedhis position as a composer of importance.
Debussy's personal life brought some unhappiness in hisfirst marriage in 1899 to a mannequin, Lily Texier, after a liaison of someseven years with Gabrielle Dupont and a brief engagement in 1894 to the singerTher?¿se Roger. His association from 1903 with Emma Bardac, the wife of a bankerand a singer of some ability, led eventually to their marriage in 1908, afterthe birth of their daughter three years earlier. In 1904 he had abandoned hiswife, moving into an apartment with Emma Bardac, and the subsequent attempt atsuicide by the former, who had shared with him many of the difficulties of hisearly career, alienated a number of his friends. His final years were darkenedby the war and by cancer, the cause of his death in March 1918, when he leftunfinished a planned series of chamber music works, only three of which hadbeen completed.
As a composer Debussy must be regarded as one of the mostimportant and influential figures of the earlier twentieth century. His musicallanguage suggested new paths to be further explored, while his poetic andsensitive use of the orchestra and of keyboard textures opened still morepossibilities. His opera Pelleas et Melisande and his songs demonstrated a deepunderstanding of poetic language, revealed by his music, expressed in termsthat never overstated or exaggerated.
It is difficult to hear  Clair de lune (Moonlight) withnew ears, so familiar did it become, even in Debussy's lifetime. Poetic andevocative, it suggests the nostalgic world conjured up by Verlaine in his F?¬tesgalantes and formed part of Debussy's Suite bergamasque written between 1890and 1905.
 La plus que lente, a waltz that is slower than a slowwaltz, dates from 1910 and has the direction Molto rubato con morbidezza, ahint, perhaps, at a mildly satirical intention. It has proved popular in itsoriginal form and in a variety of transcriptions.
 &  The two Arabesques rival Clair de lune inpopularity. The first, in E major, has a contrasting central section, while thesecond, in G major and in similar form, makes much use of a decorative motifheard at the opening, a justification for the title.
 Le petit n?¿gre (The Little Negro) first appeared inTheodore Lack's pedagogical Methode de piano in 1909 with the original Englishtitle of The Little Nigar. It has much in common with one of the pieces in theChildren's Corner Suite, written for his daughter Emma-Claude and given Englishtitles, a reflection of Debussy's anglophilia and perhaps of the influence ofEmma-Claude's English governess.  The Snow is Dancing evokes the scene ofthe title,  while The little shepherd opens with the delicate expressivenessof the shepherd-boy's flute, contrasted with a dance motif.  Golliwog'scakewalk is a light-hearted version of a dance that had been popularised in themusic-halls of Paris in the 1890s.
 Estampes (Prints) was published in 1903, to be firstperformed the following year by Ricardo Vines. The second of the three piecesof the group is La soiree dans Grenade (Evening in Granada), an evocation ofSpain.  The set ends with Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain), areworking of the earlier unpublished Image under the title Quelques aspects de'Nous n'irons plus au bois' (Some aspects of 'We shall not go to the woodsagain').
 Valse romantique opens with the melancholy simplicityof Erik Satie, before moving into more conventional territory. In conclusionthe melody is brightened by a change from minor to major, a touch of finaloptimism. The waltz was written in 1890.
 Danse first appeared in 1891 as Tarantelle styrienne,to be revised in 1903 and published again under its present title. It is nonethe less a tarantella, with all the vigorous rhythm of that dance.
 The busy Toccata, published as the third and finalmovement of the suite Pour le piano in 1901, was first heard in a performanceby Ricardo Vines in 1904. It is an energetic tour de force, a brilliantcontrast to the movement that precedes it in the suite.
 Debussy published the first set of his Images in 1905,opening the group of three piece with the evocative Reflets dans l'eau(Reflections in the water), compared by the composer to dropping a pebble intothe water and watching the ripples moving outwards.
 Poissons d'or (Goldfish) ends the second set of Images,published in 1908. The piece was seemingly inspired by two goldfish on alacquered Japanese panel in Debussy's room, but in the music they are broughtto brilliant life, as they swim.
 Debussy's Mazurka of 1891 adopts the Polish dance thatChopin had introduced to the salons of Paris sixty years before. Melodic turnsof phrase are immediately recognisable as Debussy's, using, as they do,characteristic forms of scale. In F sharp minor, the piece has a D majorcentral section.
 R?¬verie was written in 1890 and published in 1903.Marked tr?¿s doux et expressif, if offers first a gentle melody over a repeatedaccompaniment pattern, developing into a passage of contrasted mood andtonality, before the return of the material of the opening.
Debussy's two sets of Preludes were published in 1910 and1913 respectively.  From the first come the gently expressive portrait Lafille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair), a piece that has beenmuch transcribed,  Minstrels, allegedly inspired by a black street-bandheard in Eastbourne in 1905,  and La cathedrale engloutie (The submergedcathedral), an evocation of medieval France and the ancient cathedral of Ys,now beneath the waves, its chants and bells heard through the sea-mist.