His times: Debussy’s career straddled one of the most fascinating periods in music history: the dusk of Romanticism and the emergence of Modernism. Music was becoming less a harmonious, evolving journey of mutual learning and agreement and more an outright battle between opposing ideologies. German dominance, particularly from Wagner’s angst-ridden music dramas, became the reactive springboard from which Debussy would spawn the first pages of modernist music and forge his own unique sonic world.
His music: Debussy famously disliked it, but the word ‘Impressionism’ does much to outline his approach to composition. In contrast to the German method of taking a theme and developing it, Debussy put the emphasis on texture. Impressionist painters used short, built-up brush strokes and multiple colours to create the visual equivalent – leaving explicit details to the imagination of the observer while conjuring a new sense of light and movement. Debussy’s orchestra became a medium of exotic beauty and colour; through his move away from traditional harmonic ‘preparation’ and ‘resolution’, his superimposition of short motifs and his emphasis on passing, shifting textures, he created a language of suggestion – of free thought and mood evocation rather than narrative angst and forthright explanation.
Himself: Debussy was an artist through-and-through; he enjoyed the high life and the exoticism of travel. But the scandalous nature of his private life alienated him from many of his friends led to a life of stilted happiness.