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August 22: Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862)

Claude Debussy

It was on this date, August 22, 1862, that French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy was born Achille-Claude Debussy, the eldest of five children, in St. Germain-en-Laye. A prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10 and by 1902 his Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1892-94), inspired by the poem by French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé, and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), based on the drama by Belgian poet, essayist and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, were recognized worldwide. Some critics of his time described Debussy as “one of the greatest musicians of his generation.” Conversely, though he was clearly talented, his contemporaries thought Debussy argumentative and experimental, as he frequently favored dissonances and intervals, innovations that were frowned upon by the rigid teaching of the Academy. As one writer recalled, “When asked by a grumpily puzzled professor what ‘rules’ he followed, Debussy is said to have retorted, mon plaisir—‘whatever I please.’” Or, as Debussy once explained, “I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” He won the Prix de Rome in 1884 and was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1903.

Debussy often took his musical themes from such neo-pagans as Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Maeterlinck and Charles Baudelaire, but also was influenced by Richard Wagner—every one of them a Freethinker. In fact, the composer was wholly without religious belief. In a 1911 interview, Debussy made this comment about his music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien, based on the play by Gabriele d'Annunzio:

Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist's soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d'Annunzio's mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church. … Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.*

Debussy died in Paris on 25 March 1918 at age 55. He had a secular funeral in Paris, during the German bombardment of the city. His body was moved the next year from Père Lachaise Cemetery to its current location, the small Passy Cemetery sequestered behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling Debussy’s wish to rest “among the trees and the birds.”

It was Claude Debussy who said,

I do not practice religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpeted earth, ... and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. ... To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! ... that is what I call prayer.**

* As quoted in Dancing in the Vortex : The Story of Ida Rubinstein (2001) by Vicki Woolfe, p. 56.
** As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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Socialists had a sort of religion to begin with. “Have we not that which forms the strength of religion,” Liebknecht pointed out, “faith in the highest ideals?”

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