By DAVID DUBAL
During this 150th anniversary year of the composer's birth—or any year, for that matter—there are plenty of performances of Claude Debussy's music. Certainly, someone at this moment is attempting to play the celebrated Clair de Lune. And although Debussy (1862-1918) lived less than two decades into the 20th century, his influence has been paramount to the musical art of that century—more so, even, than that of Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg. In 1971 Stravinsky, just months before his own death, stated that "Debussy is in all senses the century's first musician." Virgil Thomson, critic and composer, wrote, "Internationally viewed, he is to the musicians of our century everywhere what Beethoven was to the nineteenth, our blinding light, our sun, our central luminary."
Even by age 20, in Wagner-mad Paris, Debussy knew that the thick-textured German Romanticism of Anton Bruckner, Hugo Wolf and Richard Wagner was a dead end. The composer Erik Satie told Debussy "that we had better create a French music and without sauerkraut."
Debussy demanded new forms that reflected the revolutionary poetry and painting of the new century. His mature music showed almost no resemblance to the past; balance and regularity no longer mattered. The diversity, irregularity and discontinuity of his forms were entirely different in each work. For his new soundscape he made chords into building blocks, shifting and juxtaposing them for contrast rather than resolution. Harmonic progression was no longer a necessity, as it had been since J.S. Bach. With Debussy, the chord itself became freed of its necessity to move. A single chord could become a sensuous experience in itself.
But Debussy was not formless. In fact, he is one of the supreme formal designers in music history. Perfection was his goal and, as the pianist Marguerite Long wrote, "he worked at his craft like a refined lover." Unpredictability and logic combine as in no other composer.
His originality emerged at about age 30 with his orchestral tone poem "Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun," inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé's poem. The work ushered in a new era in musical expression. The composer Pierre Boulez said, "The art of music began to beat with a new pulse." With its exotic scales, "Faun" inhabited a trancelike state of quivering sensations. At the time, Debussy wrote that "music is not something that can flow inside a rigorous form. It consists of colors and of rhythmicized time."
Even before "Faun," Debussy had become entranced with Maurice Maeterlinck's play "Pelléas et Mélisande." Although the 1890s saw him compose his single string quartet and the evocative three Nocturnes for orchestra, he was obsessed with his opera based on the Maeterlinck work, which he worked on from 1892 until its 1902 premiere. When completed, it was the most radical opera since Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." "Pelléas" is the last word in musical refinement, and those attuned to it are always shaken by its unearthly beauty. Marcel Proust could not hear it enough. The poet Adrienne Monnier and her sister saw it at every chance. "From the first notes, we would begin to shed tears, and to sniff and sob."
Debussy once said that if he had not been a musician he would have been a painter. His favorite painter was not an Impressionist, a term he abhorred, but J.M.W. Turner, whom he thought the greatest of all colorists. And it is as a colorist that Debussy is the most wondrous tone-painter of music, exploring unknown regions of sonority and timbres. In 1905 he completed "La Mer," one of the miracles of orchestral music. To perform it well, the composition needs musicians who are painters. "There should be only sirens in the sea," Debussy said.
The piano was his most important paintbrush, always close at hand. His body of piano music is the most original since Franz Liszt's. His biographer Edward Lockspeiser wrote of "Debussy's mysterious conception of tactile properties." He was a man of the widest culture. But above all he was a nature worshipper, and nearly half of his art was inspired by the natural world, which he best reflected in his piano music. A pupil, the pianist E. Robert Schmitz, speaks of "Clouds, moonlight, passing breezes—sunken churches, the wind at sea or in the plains, sunrise on a golden roof, shimmering gold fish inspired by a Japanese lacquer," and so much else.
Within his own music, Debussy was an incomparable pianist. The composer Alfredo Casella said that he "used the pedals as nobody else ever did." Debussy wanted the impossible—a piano without hammers. Many pianists came to him hoping to divine his rarefied music, and he gave his time freely. But he was seldom happy, telling the composer Edgard Varèse: "I assure you one cannot imagine how my music is disfigured; often I can scarcely recognize it. . . . Pianists dissect my music into bits and pieces, like a roast chicken."
Debussy was a man of many parts, some of them not pleasant—especially in his treatment of women, two of whom attempted suicide over him. He was self-centered, secretive and sarcastic, with a slightly cruel streak lurking; he loved only his charming young daughter Chou-Chou, for whom he wrote the enchanting "Children's Corner Suite."
When in need of money he wrote some witty, perceptive and often caustic music criticism, gathered together in a volume titled "Monsieur Croche—the Dilettante Hater." Edvard Grieg's music was "bonbons wrapped in snow." César Franck was "a modulating machine." Debussy wrote, "I heartily detest the piano concertos of Mozart but less than those of Beethoven." Frédéric Chopin was his first love and remained so. "My soul is as romantic as a Chopin Ballade," he told a friend. In 1916 he dedicated to Chopin's memory his astonishing Twelve Etudes, among the most admired 20th-century scores. There are extraordinary recordings of these works by Mitsuko Uchida and Maurizio Pollini.
Wasting away from cancer, his last years were punishing. The war further debilitated him; he was depressed that he could play no part in it. To his publisher Jacques Durand he wrote, "Truly my life is too hard, and furthermore, as Claude Debussy is no longer making music, he no longer has any reason to exist." Taking to bed late in 1917, he lingered on until March 25, 1918. Hardly anybody noticed that one of the greatest of all artists was gone. The obituaries were scant, and Paris was starving. But today his music sounds as new and mysterious as ever.
Mr. Dubal, a professor at the Juilliard School, is the author of "The Art of the Piano." His radio program, "The Piano Matters," can be heard on WWFM, The Classical Network.