On Debussy

“Monday Musings” for Monday August 29, 2013

Volume III. No. 32/125


Claude Debussy, Happy 151st Natal Anniversary

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Things have a way of getting piled up and sometimes neglected. It has been over a year since I had intended to write a piece about French composer Claude Debussy, and have not. Apologies to Maestro Debussy and our readers! Last year, August 22, 2012 was Debussy’s sesquicentennial, and four days ago was his 151st natal anniversary. Before discussing Debussy’s music, here is a brief history:

Achille-Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862- March 25, 1918) was born and died in France. As a child he was very picky and aloof. He would pick the smallest morsel of food from the offering plate and often leave much of the food behind. He had few friends. His caricature like appearance with a large double forehead under a thick umbrella of red hair may have contributed to his friendless childhood. In addition, he was short, temperamental and extremely sensitive. From his early composition days, he evoked strong sentiments of dislike and avoidance among colleagues and other French composers, such as Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. His contemporary French composers subjected his music to fierce criticism as though he were a “foreigner like Richard Wagner and Strauss”. He felt alienated among his own peers.

But his music caught on. He thought as all Parisians do, that Paris was the center of the universe, and he saw himself the center of Paris in spite of the fact that he was rejected by the intimate click known as “Les Six” French group of six composers/musicians (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre).  Debussy married a woman, Texier, with whom he had a stormy relationship. It is reported that a few days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Texier attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver while standing in La Place de la Concorde; she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. His biography records that Debussy went to Texier’s bedside and took all the money and her jewelry before calling the doctors. The scandal served to further alienate Debussy from what few friends he had. His obsession with his own greatness and his narcissistic temperament heightened as he gained fame as a composer. Many psychobiographers blame his childhood and upbringing for late life eccentricity and psychopathic behavior.

Debussy was a musical rarity. His music is fluid, soft and unstructured as Monet’s paintings of the water lilies, thus gaining him the label of being the father of impressionistic music. Music of any nation follows the characteristics and rhythm of that nation’s language. Perhaps this explains why Italian music and opera, because of abundance of vowels, is so melismatic and melodic. You can devote as much time as you wish singing the word Alleluia. The blessed word consists of eight letters, five of which are vowels. Can you find me a word in German, Russian, Farsi, or Welsh with this abundance of vowels?  French language is full of soft edges, full of diphthong, full of uncertainty, full of unresolved cadence, full of open-ended Wagnerian inconclusions. Debussy being a true, genuine and proud Parisian, wanted to incorporate this distinguished quality of French “mot et language” into music. He created edgeless, boundary less, diffuse, and almost amorphous music with the distinct “Debussy sound.” His unique compositions bearing names such as “nuages” (clouds) and claire de lune, and Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un faun magnify the distinct qualities of the French language. Can you imagine anything as amorphous and pleomorphic as a piece of cloud? What magnificent compositions of dissonance and rhythmic ambiguities.

Happy 151st birthday dear Claude!


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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