Excerpts from the Claude Debussy entry
for the composers of The World of
Twentieth-Century Music....

....by David Ewen (1968).
CLAUDE DEBUSSY.......................1862-1918

.................................................When Claude Debussy was a young man, the artistic cults most frequently discussed in the cafés of Paris were those of the Impressionists in painting (Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Seurat), and the Symbolists in poetry (Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Verlaine). Their artistic theories, and ideas of ways and means of achieving those theories, struck a responsive chord with Debussy, who, truth to tell, had also been drifting (though instinctively) in their direction.

......The term "impressionism' was coined in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1867, some canvases by Édouard Manet were exhibited in Paris. At that time, the catalogue explained that Manet's aim was to render "impressions." At about this same time, Claude Monet did a canvas of a sunrise at sea entitled Une Impression. From either one of these two sources—perhaps from both—came the word "Impressionism" to identify a new way of painting.

......Impressionist painters tried to create subjects or images not as others saw them but rather as they, the painters, saw them. Not the subject itself was important to the Impressionist but the feeling or impression that this subject aroused in him. The Impressionist painter emphasized design, color, light values, rather than form and substance. Skies may be blue or gray, but if the sky suggested to the painter feelings of deep purple, then the Impressionist painted his sky deep purple. To the Impressionist, what was of first importance in a painting was not the figure or the scene butlight. The vibrations of light, the Impressionist felt, gave life to every image and scene. He, therefore, tried to get down those vibrations of light on a canvas by means of commas and dots of pure color (using a smaller brush for this purpose), leaving it to the eyeof the beholder to mix and blend the colors.

......The Symbolists
represented for French literature what the Impressionists did for French painting. Like the Impressionist, the Symbolist poet tried to appeal to senses rather than to intellect. Where the Impressionist emphasized light, color and shadows, rather than the subject matter, the Symbolist accented the sound of words rather than their meaning. Words became important as the instruments of musical sounds. The Symbolist tried to impart the essence of a poetic experience not by reproducing facts but by presenting the symbol and exploiting the metaphore. These became the means by which to suggest the mystery at the heart of human existence. The Symbolists rebelled against the Romantic movement in poetryjust as the Impressionist painter had revolted against heroic attitudes and sentimental landscapes in Romantic painting. The Symbolists rejected storytelling, moral preachings and passionate emotional outpourings. In this rejection, the poet turned inward, exploring and expressing the shifting subtle states of the human psyche.

......The seeds of such ideas fell on fertile soil as Debussy listened to the Impressionists and Symbolists, as he absorbed those ideas and made them a part of his own Weltanschauung.

......From his contacts with the Impressionists and the Symbolistsfrom his association to Satie and his musicDebussy finally arrived at those artistic principles which henceforth were to give shape, form and substance to his own compositions. His was to be a new kind of musicno longer concerned with romantic effusions or dramatic force or programmatic realism, but rather with colors, nuances, moods, sensations, atmosphere. Chords became the means of projecting color and were used individually for their own specific effect rather than for their relationship to chords that preceded or followed them. Unresolved ninth and eleventh chords moved about freely without concern for a tonal center, evoking a world of shadows and mystery. The fourths, fifths and octaves, moving in parallel motion, the avoidance of formal cadences, the using of rapidly changing meters and rhythms created elusive moods and evanescent sensations. A new kind of sensitive, seemingly remote melody was realized through the use of the oriental pentatonic scale, the old Church modes and, most significantly, the whole-tone scale. The last of these, while occasionally appearing in works of earlier composers, is always identified with Debussy, for it is Debussy who used it so extensively and with such extraordinary effect.
......Debussy, the father of musical Impressionism, was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on the outskirts of Paris, on August 22, 1862. At the age of eleven, he entered the Paris Conservatory, where for the next eleven years he studied harmony with Durand and Lavignac, copmposition with Guiraud and piano with Marmontel. Despite his insistence on seeking out new chord combinations, and disconcerting his teachers with his unorthodox methods and techniques in defiance to textbook law, Debussy was an excellent student, winning prizes in solfeggio and sight-reading. In 1884, he acquired the much-coverted Prix de Rome with his cantata L'Enfant Prodigue.. In Rome, Debussy chaffed under the restrictions imposed upon him by the academicians of the Conservatory. In addition, he hated Italyits weather, food, people and music. He did not wait to complete his three-year residence, returning precipitously to Paris in the spring of 1887, where he competed the cantata La Damoiselle Élue (The Blessed Damozel), based on the poem of the same name by pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti as translated into French by Gabriel Sarazin....
......By 1893, Debussy had crystallized his thinking and arrived at his own manner of writing music. He now produced a series of masterpieces which forthwith placed him with the great creative men of his timeand established him as one of the most provocative.
......First came the Quartet in G minor for Strings, op. 10, written in 1893 and introduced by the Ysaÿe Quartet at a concert of the Société Nationale on December 29 of the same year. The audience was at turns puzzled and irritated by its daring style, The critics were outright denunciatory, one of them speaking derisively of its "orgy of modulations." Recognition was not to come for another decade; but in the early twentieth century, it was recognized as one of the most important and original string quartets since Brahms. It set into motion musical Impressionism as a compositional style; its influence on younger composers everywhere was incalculable.
......Then came one of Debussy's most exquisite works, the orchestral Prélude à l'Après Midi d'un Faun (The Afternoon of a Faun), written between 1892 and 1894, and introduced on December 22, 1894, by the Société Nationale, Gustave Doret conducting. Inspired by the delicate poem of Stéphane Mallarmé (dean of the Symbolists), it is a complete realization in music of the artistic concepts of both the Symbolists and Impressionists.
......With the three orchestral Nocturnes, written between 1897 and 1899, Debussy's tone-painting achieves the very quintessence of perfection. Debussy himself explained the title of "Nocturne" was intended "to have a more general and, above all, a more decorative meaning," and that he was not concerned with the form of the nocturne, but with "everything that this word includes in the way of diversified impression and special lights". The first two Nocturnes, "Nuages" (Clouds) and "Fêtes" ("Festivals"), were introduced by the Lamoureux Orchestra, Chevillard conducting, on December 8, 1900. The following year, on October 27, 1901, all three Nocturnesthe third of which was "Sirènes" ("Sirens") scored for women's voices as well as orchestrawere performed at a Lamoureux concert .
Please note that the German Weltanschauung had started to mean a philosophical view of the world by the late 19th Century, and the Conservatory named in Ewen's work is the Conservatoire de Paris.

Nocturnes was written before 1900 (the date I had chosen to end my coverage of Debussy's earlier career), but that I could not avoid the dates that are given in the book for its introductory concerts.