Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Debussy

Claude Debussy in 1902
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in 1902

We celebrate the birth on August 22, 1862 – 160 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Claude Debussy.  Born in the Paris suburb of St. Germain-en-Laye, he died in Paris on March 25, 1918, at the age of 55. 

Let’s tell it like it is: Monsieur Debussy was one of the great ones.  For all of its sensual beauty – and Debussy did indeed compose some of the most gorgeous music ever written – his music is among the most original, revolutionary, and influential ever composed.  At a time when young composers like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) were casting about for new musical models, it was Debussy’s music that became their essential inspiration. Along with Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Debussy was the most influential composer of the twentieth century.

Among the radical triumvirate of Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, it was Debussy who was the “breakout” composer, the first composer to cultivate a musical language that broke free of the melodic and harmonic traditions of tonality, traditions that had governed Western music since the fifteenth century.  That the musical revolution started in France is most significant, for reasons to be discussed in a moment.

Our Game Plan 

Here’s how we are going to approach our celebration of Debussy and his remarkable music.  Today’s Music History Monday post will be dedicated to understanding the anti-German origins of his distinctly French musical revolution and we’ll start to get know Debussy as a person.  In tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, we will pick up from where we leave off today and then we’ll tackle Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (of 1894) and his 12 Études for piano (of 1915), for which I will recommend recordings.


Map of Europe
France and Germany: uneasy neighbors

According to the musicologist Arthur Locke writing in the Musical Quarterly in April 1920:

“German tendencies both in music and literature strongly affected the course of the romantic movement in France.” 

Merci, Professor Locke; I needed someone else to say that because, for your average Francophile, it is heresy to even imply that the French turned to German models for anything! But it is true that for the first 70 years of the nineteenth century, many French composers looked to Germany for their inspiration.  For example, the French Romantic Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) bemoaned the state of music and opera in France and Italy and looked to Germany for his inspiration.  And it’s no overstatement to say that in the 1850s and 1860s, young French composers were as addicted to the music dramas of Richard Wagner as they were to claret, cigarettes, and to arguing with one another.

But that all changed in 1870, a year that would haunt Europe well into the twentieth century.  

1870 was the year that the issue and conflict that would upend Europe for the next 75 years began.  The issue was the unification of Germany, and the conflict was the Franco-Prussian War between France and Germany.…

Continue reading, and listen with ad interruption, only on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Great Courses on Sale Now