Debussy and the musical renewal

Debussy and the musical renewal

  • Portrait of Claude Debussy.

    BASCHET Marcel André (1862 - 1941)

  • Claude Debussy at the piano at Ernest Chausson's estate in Luzancy.


To close

Title: Portrait of Claude Debussy.

Author : BASCHET Marcel André (1862 - 1941)

Creation date : 1884

Date shown: 1884

Dimensions: Height 24.5 - Width 21.5

Technique and other indications: Oil on wood

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 99DE15641 / RF1996-13

Portrait of Claude Debussy.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Claude Debussy at the piano at Ernest Chausson's estate in Luzancy.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1893

Date shown: 1893

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Albumen print, colored ink

Storage place: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - P.Schmidt

Picture reference: 95DE17779 / Pho 1985-5

Claude Debussy at the piano at Ernest Chausson's estate in Luzancy.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - P.Schmidt

Publication date: January 2005

Historical context

There are many for whom Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is the greatest composer of the 20th century. When he entered the Conservatory in 1872, where he took piano lessons from Professor Marmontel, Debussy immediately expressed deep reservations about the type of teaching delivered by the institution: his impatience with the theory, his refusal to comply with rules other than those dictated to him by his "good pleasure", especially in matters of harmony, his early desire for independence are the subject of continuous clashes with his teachers and already outline the main features of his personality musical.

In 1884, he nevertheless won the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata The Prodigal Son. The malaise and infertility that dominated his two years of stay at the Villa Medici finally convinced Debussy of the vital requirement that independence represents in his creative process. Back in Paris, this feeling is confirmed: Debussy severed all ties with the Conservatory and fled the musical world. He also binds with the composer Ernest Chausson, fervent admirer of Wagner.

Image Analysis

This pastel portrait of Debussy was produced by Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) in 1885, during the stay in Rome of the young composer. The sobriety of the composition and the severity of the colors chosen by the artist marvelously exalt the intensity of the young winner's expression: the maturity, the somewhat surly seriousness and the assurance both melancholy and haughty that emerge. here are surprising in a young man of twenty-three. They seem to want to bear witness to the nickname given to Debussy by his friends at the Conservatory, the "Prince of Darkness", a nickname that says a lot about the impression the young composer made on his fellows! Doesn't the portrait also seem to make a sort of pictorial echo to the words of the musician who, speaking of his music, said "I would like her to appear to come out of the shadows and that, at times, she would go there ”?
The photograph shows Debussy at the piano in Luzancy, a property rented by Ernest Chausson on the banks of the Marne in 1893. Debussy regularly attended the salon of this fervent “Wagnerist”, while gradually moving away from this artistic movement. At that time he devoted himself to Chausson and the latter's entourage in the passionate deciphering of Russian music, in particular the Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky. It was also in this same year 1893 that he began to work on his greatest work, Pelléas and Mélisande, opera composed after the symbolist play by Maeterlinck and premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1912.


Few composers can claim to have, like Debussy, renewed the musical language of their time so much. We even talk often about reinvention, so profound and fruitful were the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that he introduced into musical writing. His conception of music like the "passing wind", freed from conventional rules and only in search of its own inner harmony, is the founding stone of the music of the 20th century. The deep fascination he felt, like his entire generation, for Wagner, then his distancing from the master of Bayreuth are exemplary in this respect: for Debussy, if Wagner's music frees powers unexpressed until then, it remains essentially dependent on an external message and a metaphysics; in this, it remains a support and cannot be this "pure music" to which he himself aspires.

Debussy's deep interest in the pictorial movements of his time - Impressionism, the Nabis - but also in the symbolism and poetic research of a Mallarmé is, moreover, indicative of his entire conception of art. turned towards the liberation of the form and the expression of the ineffable: "I believe that I can never enclose my music in a too correct world ... I would prefer something where, in a way, the action is sacrificed for the long pursued expression of the feelings of the soul. "

  • music
  • portrait
  • avant-garde
  • symbolism
  • impressionism
  • Wagner (Richard)
  • Mallarmé (Stéphane)
  • Maeterlinck (Mauritius)
  • Nabis
  • Verlaine (Paul)


Jean BARRAQUE, Debussy, Le Seuil, coll. "Solfèges", Paris, 1994.Claude DEBUSSY, Correspondence -1884-1918, presented by F. Lesure, Hermann, Paris, 1993 François LESURE, Claude Debussy before Pelléas or the Symbolist Years, Klincksieck, Paris, 1992.Gilles MACASSAR and Bernard MERIGAUD, Claude Debussy, pleasure and passion, Gallimard, coll. "Discoveries", Paris, 1992.

To cite this article

Hermine VIDEAU, "Debussy and musical renewal"

Video: Debussy: Complete Music For Piano Solo