1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Debussy, Claude Achille

DEBUSSY, CLAUDE ACHILLE (1862–  ), French composer, was born at St Germain-en-Laye on the 22nd of August 1862, and educated at the Paris Conservatoire under Marmontel, Lavignac, Massenet and Guiraud. There between 1874 and 1884 he gained many prizes for solfège, pianoforte playing, accompanying, counterpoint and fugue, and, in the last-named year, the coveted Grand Prix de Rome by means of his cantata L’Enfant prodigue. In this composition already were thought to be noticeable the germs of unusual and “new” talent, though in the light of later developments it is not very easy to discern them, for then Debussy had not come under the influence which ultimately turned his mind to the system he afterwards used, not only with peculiar distinction but also with particular individual and complete success. Nevertheless, the mind had clearly been prepared by nature for the reception of this influence when it should arise; for, in order to fulfil that condition of the Prix de Rome which entails the submitting periodically of compositions to the judges, Debussy sent to them his symphonic suite Printemps, to which the judges took exception on the ground of its formlessness. Following in the wake of Printemps came La damoiselle élue for solo, female voice and orchestra—a setting of a French version of Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damosel”—which in the eyes of the judges was even more unorthodox than its predecessor, though, be it said, fault was found as much with the libretto as with the music. Both works were denied the customary public performance.

The Rome period over, Debussy returned to Paris, whence shortly he went to Russia, where he came directly under the influence referred to above. In Russia he absorbed the native music, especially that of Moussorgsky, who, recently dead, had left behind him the reputation of a “musical nihilist,” and on his return to Paris Debussy devoted himself to composition, the stream of his muse being even in 1908 as fluent as twenty years before. To him public recognition was slow in coming, but in 1893 the Société Nationale de Musique performed his Damoiselle élue, in 1894 the Ysaye Quartet introduced the string quartet, while in the same year the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune was heard, and brought Debussy’s name into some prominence. As time passed the prominence grew, until the climax of Debussy’s creative career was reached by the production at the Opéra Comique on the 30th of April 1902 of his masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande. Herein lay the whole strength of Debussy’s system, the perfection of his appeal to the mind and imagination as well as to the emotions and senses. Since its production the world has been enriched by La Mer, and by the Ariettes oubliées, but the lyric drama remains on its own lofty pedestal, a monument of elusive and subtle beauty, of emphatic originality and of charm. In an Apologia Debussy has declared that in composing Pelléas he “wanted to dispense with parasitic musical phrases. Melody is, if I may say so, almost anti-lyric, and powerless to express the constant change of emotion or life. Melody is suitable only for the chanson, which confirms a fixed sentiment. I have never been willing that my music should hinder, through technical exigencies, the change of sentiment and passion felt by my characters. It is effaced as soon as it is necessary that these should have perfect liberty in their gestures or in their cries, in their joy, or in their sorrow.”

The list of Debussy’s works is a lengthy one. Several of them have been referred to already. Among the others, of which the complete list is too long to print here, are the dances for chromatic harp or pianoforte; Images; incidental music to King Lear; the Petite Suite; Trois Nocturnes; innumerable songs, as Proses Lyriques (text by Debussy); two series of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes; Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire; many pianoforte pieces.

In 1891 Debussy was appointed critic of the Revue Blanche. In his first notice he expressed his faith thus: “I shall endeavour to trace in a musical work the many different emotions which have helped to give it birth, also to demonstrate its inner life. This, surely, will be accounted of greater interest than the game which consists in dissecting it as if it were a curious timepiece.”

As to the theories, so much debated, of this remarkable musician—probably in the whole range of musical history there has not appeared a more difficult theorist to “place.” Unquestionably Debussy has introduced a new system of colour into music, which has begun already to exert widespread influence. Roughly, Debussy’s system may be summarized thus:

His scale basis is of six whole tones (enharmonic), as (1) middle C, D, E, G♭, A♭, B♭, which are of excellent sound when superimposed in the form of two augmented unrelated triads.

B♭ A♯
G♭ or enharmonically   F♯
A♭ G♯

used frequently incomplete (i.e. by the omission of one note) by Debussy.


Now, upon the basis of an augmented triad a tune may be played above it provided that it be based upon the six-tone scale, and a fugue may be written, the re-entry of the subject of which may be made upon any note of the scale, and the harmony will be complete. To associate this scale with the ordinary diatonic scale let a major 9th be taken, e.g.: one may conventionally flatten or sharpen the fifth of this (A becoming ♯ or ♭ as desired): if both the flattened and sharpened fifths be taken in the one chord this chord is arrived at:

A♭   (A♯ enharmonically altered to B♭)

which is composed of the notes of the aforesaid scale (1), and Debussy thereby proves his case to belong to the “primitifs.” It will be noticed that chords of the 9th in sequence and in all forms occur in Debussy’s music as well as the augmented triad harmonics, where the melodic line is based on the tonal scale. This, in all likelihood, is the outcome of Debussy’s instinctive feeling for the association of his so-called discovery with the ordinary scale. The “secret,” it may be added, comes not from Annamese music as has been frequently stated, but probably from Russia, where certainly it was used before Debussy’s rise.  (R. H. L.)