Born to a meager family in 1862 this composer of ballets, orchestral pieces, chamber music, and so many other forms of musical creations were discovered to have a gift for music when only eleven years old. He was sent to the Paris Conservator to study and did so, diligently, for the next decade or so.

When he was twenty-two years old Debussy won the Prix de Rome and the prize money enabled him to continue his path of musical training in Italy. By the time the 1900s rolled around this composer ascertained himself as France’s foremost musician. Debussy was the first to use gamelan stylings in his music and created an entirely new sound. A gamelan, is the grouping of bells, metallophones, xylophones and gongs.

Between the time he began playing music until his death in 1918 at the age of 55, Debussy works are large in numbers and rank as some of the best and have influenced many composers that have followed. This is why, we would like to take some time to introduce you to some of our favorite Claude-Achille Debussy works.

(PS:To get even a better grasp of the music and personality of Debussy, watch the theatre and musical Debussy Alone on Stage today.)

 

1. Pelléas et Mélisande

The significant thing about this opera by Debussy is that it was his first to be performed, and it is said the reception was split with some adoration and others abhorring the piece. It is a five act piece and the libretto was an adaptation of a play by the same name written by Maurice Maeterlinck.

Opening night was at the Opéra Comique in Paris on April 30, 1902. Jean Périer and Mary Garden played the title roles while André Messager was a driving force in convincing the opera house to produce the work in the first place. It is considered an exceptional work for the fact that it is the only opera Debussy ever completed.

Debussy himself had said that he had been trying to incorporate his style of composition with musical theater yet nothing seemed to fit, which ended in a good deal of unfinished and abandoned projects. The key to making it a success would be the libretto. Debussy had written to a friend that he wanted a libretto that was minimal and scenes that moved.

There was a bit of drama on the set during rehearsals because Debussy promised the role of Mélisande to Georgette Leblanc, a singer who was involved with Maeterlinck at the time. It was all but done until Debussy was asked to hear singer Mary Garden from Scotland, once he did the title role was hers. Of course, the writer of the original play would not take this sitting down and tried to sue Debussy and even went as far as to threaten violence upon the composer. At the end though, all Maeterlinck could do was say he left the production for artistic differences.

It is the story of the title characters, who meet and fall in love after Mélisande marries Pelléas’ brother Golaund. They are eventually cause and Golaund kills his brother. Mélisande dies as well giving birth to her first child. While the first performance was split critically, this opera by Debussy has gone on to become a standard part of the Opéra Comique’s repertoire.

 

2. Jeux

This ballet is the last piece ever composed for an orchestra by Claude Debussy. It is called a “danced poem” or “poéme dansé” and the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer of the Ballet Russes, that Sergei Diaghilev, found of the company, intended to use the music to portray a “homosexual” relationship between three men. Nijinsky was hoping to add an airplane crash to the plot.

Still, we don’t always get what we want and the final storyline evolved into plot surrounding two girls, a man and a game of tennis. The audience at the premiere was given the story that was set at dusk, in a garden, and three children are looking for their lost tennis ball. The lights that illuminate the garden are meant to illustrate the ideology of “childish games.”” Next they play other games like “hide and seek” and it ends up in a fight until they are all sad.

When a second tennis ball is flung into the garden by a stranger the boy and the girl vanish into the night.

IT is said that Debussy didn’t care for the original scenario given to him by Diaghilev but when the Russian impresario offered him twice as much money he agreed and wrote the music fast. In a month’s time to be exact. Yet, the premiere was not a smashing success and when The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky was premiered by the Ballet Russes two weeks later Jeaux was all but forgotten.

There was a recording made to sell commercially. It was performed by the Orchestra Stabile Accademica di Santa Cecilia. It was produced by Victor de Sabata and released in 1947. In 1988 Pierre Boulez prepared an analytical version of the score. Musically, it is a complicated piece. French critic Émile Viullermoz said that the music changed throughout the pieces. Specifically, “every two measures.”

 

3. Rodrigue et Chiméne

This opera, which remains unfinished, has a libretto written by Catulle Medés. The basis for the libretto was on two separate plays, Le Cid by Corneille and Las Mocedades del Cid by Guillén de Castro y Bellvis. It wasn’t until a century later that this incomplete dramatic opera was produced for the stage in Lyon, France.

In the first act we meet Rodrigue and Chiméne are set to be married and all seems happy with the world. They decide to get together in secret one morning as the sun is peaking over the horizon. A group of men come upon them and it is discovered that they are all servants of Chiméne’s father, Don Gomez.

Women belonging to the family of Rodrigue’s father, Don Diégue, come along and the male servants are aggressive with them. Don Diégue is highly offended and he reprimands the male servants. Of course, when learning of this, Don Gomez gets angry and the two fathers begin to fight.

The argument grows and the two men pull their swords on one another, yet, Chiméne’s father is unable to hold his own due to his being so much older and is humiliated by Don Gomez.

We set into act two to find Don Diégue in rags, he has been ostracized for his embarrassing duel with Don Gomez. He comes upon his sons, including Rodrigue, and tells them they must avenge his honor by killing Don Gomez. Although Rodrigue loves Chiméne, he agrees to his father’s wishes, even though it is tearing him up inside. The two men who love Chiméne the most duel and her betrothed kills her father.

It is act three when we meet King Ferdinand, who is getting armies together to fight a war with the Moors. When the King notices that Don Gomez hasn’t arrived Chiméne pleads with Ferdinand to give her father what he is due, the death of Rodrigue. Yet, she also admits that she still loves him.

King Ferdinand summons Rodrigue and spares his life so that he could fight the Moors for him. Rodrigue, feeling terrible for killing his fiancé’s father, begs that Chiméne kill him to even the score but she can’t. Rodrigue turns to a soldier and begs for death but his father tells him, with his new restored honor, that he must live. It is his duty to go to battle for his King.

Rodrigue agrees and silently wishes to die on the battlefield.

This is where it ends, although we can predict almost anything to happen next. Does Rodrigue die in war? Does he come back to be with Chiméne? Maybe Chiméne marries one of his brothers when he is away. Unfortunately, we will never know what the composer and the librettist had in mind to happen next.

It seems that although Debussy had enthusiasm for the project at first, his momentum slowed because he felt the style of music the plot required was not the direction he was taking his compositions. While he was working on this project he happened to see the play Pelléas et Mélisande, which we already know, inspired him to create his one and only finished opera.

It is said that Debussy asserted that his copy of the score for Rodrigue et Chiméne had been burned but somehow the music sheets still exist today.

 

4. La diable dans le beffroi

The basis for this unfinished opera is a short story written by the master story teller that induces fright, Edgar Allan Poe. It seems that Debussy must have been a fan of Poe because this the first of two works he attempted to write based on Poe’s work. The other was “The Fall of the House of Usher” and this particular opera was based on Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry”, which is the translation of La diable dans le beffroi.

Debussy also took on the role of librettist in this project. He began to work on this shortly after his opera Pelléas et Mélisande was a roaring success. Even though he continued to work on this project for ten years it still remained unfinished. He is quoted as saying he was intending make the devil in his story encompass the “spirit of contradiction” opposed to the “breathing clown that has, so illogically, become a tradition.”

Still, as with his other unfished works, La diable dans le beffroi did get its day in the sun. It was first premiered in 2012 at Centres des Arts Crowley, which is located in Montreal, Canada.

The devil makes his presence known when the bell-ringer comes to do his duty. When the devil forces the clock to strike thirteen the villagers are frightened. The son of the bell-ringer is ordered by the mayor to make the bells play “holy music” but the devil is too powerful and the music is changed to his preference. The villagers are being hypnotized by the devil’s music and dance about.

Still, the bell-ringer’s son is not mesmerized by the devil and he climbs up the belfry to pray. When he does, the devil is powerless and everyone returns back to normal.

 

Here are some more articles about ballet composers you should definitely get a read: Four Famous Ballet Composers, Sergei Prokofiev Works, and Marius Petipa Works.

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