Picking Up from Where We Left Off from Monday’s Music History Monday . . .
Claude Debussy (1862-1918), preternaturally talented little cocker that he was, entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at the age of ten. He remained there for twelve years, until 1884, when at the age of 22 he won the vaunted Prix de Rome (“Rome Prize”) for his cantata, The Prodigal Son.
Having won the Prix de Rome, Debussy was expected to reside and compose at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Villa Medici in Rome for two years. Poor Debussy: having won a prize that everyone else coveted he complained bitterly about having to leave his beloved Paris for what he considered a “foreign exile”, something for which not a single one of us feels sorry for him. Debussy recalled his pique at having won the prize this way:
“’You’ve won the prize’, someone said, tapping me on the shoulder. Whether you believe it or not, I can nonetheless assert that all my joy collapsed! I saw clearly the boredoms, the irritations that [such a prize] brings.”
Debussy did indeed reside in the Villa Medici in Rome between 1885 and 1887, and he claimed to have hated every minute of it. He detested his fellow artists – musicians, painters, and sculptors – who he found to be vulgar, uncultured, and wholly uninteresting. As for Rome itself, well, Debussy found it “abominable.”
During his stay in the Eternal City, Debussy was required to send the authorities and the Conservatoire back in Paris one composition a year so that they might keep abreast of his “progress.” The first such piece he submitted, part of a work entitled Zuleïma, elicited this response from the professors back home:
“At present, M. Debussy seems to be afflicted with a desire to write music that is bizarre, incomprehensible, and impossible to execute.”
(For those of us who’d like to hear a performance of Debussy’s Zuleïma, we’re out of luck. That’s because the piece no longer exists. Monsieur Debussy, deciding that “it calls Verdi and Meyerbeer to mind too much” destroyed it, as he did most of the music he wrote while in Rome.)
Another piece Debussy sent back to the authorities in Paris was a work for chorus and orchestra entitled Printemps – “Spring” – which was condemned by those “authorities” as “this vague impressionism, which is extremely dangerous in works of art.”
For our information, this was the first time the term “impressionism” was used in connection with Debussy’s music!
If the pedants in Paris had taken their heads out of their sundry derrieres and had actually listened, they would have realized that Claude Debussy’s “impressionistic” music was, in point of fact, at the very cutting edge of a new sort of French music, one that proudly embraced a thoroughly French language-inspired approach to sound, nuance, and color.… continue reading, only on Patreon!Become a Patron!