Claude Debussy

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I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naïve candour of a child. No doubt, this simple musical grammar will jar on some people. It is bound to offend the partisans of deceit and artifice. I foresee that and rejoice at it.

Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 186225 March 1918) was a French composer, prominent in the style commonly referred to as Impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term.

Sourced[edit]

I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.
  • The colour of my soul is iron-grey and sad bats wheel about the steeple of my dreams.
  • I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.
The worship of Adonis is united with that of Christ.
  • Collect impressions. Don’t be in a hurry to write them down. Because that’s something music can do better than painting: it can centralise variations of colour and light within a single picture — a truth generally ignored, obvious as it is.
    • Debussy in a letter to his pupil Raoul Bardac (1906)
  • Every sound perceived by the acute ear in the rhythm of the world about us can be represented musically. Some people wish above all to conform to the rules, I wish only to render what I can hear.
    • Statement of 1910, as quoted in Debussy on Music (1977) edited and translated by Françoise Lesure and Richard Langham Smith, p. 243
Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion...
  • The worship of Adonis is united with that of Christ.
    • On the tale of Saint Sebastian, as told by Gabriele d'Annunzio in the play Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911), for which he wrote the music, as quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225. Shortly before its opening, the Archbishop of Paris declared the work offensive to Christian consciences, and forbid French Catholics to attend upon pain of excommunication.
To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.
  • Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist's soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d'Annunzio's mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church.
    Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.
    • On his music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911), in a 1911 interview, as quoted in Dancing in the Vortex : The Story of Ida Rubinstein (2001) by Vicki Woolfe, p. 56
Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.
  • I do not practise religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpetted earth, … and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. … To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.
    • As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225
    • Variant translation: Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion. The whole expanse of nature is reflected in my own sincere and feeble soul. Around me the branches of trees reach out toward the firmament, here are sweet-scented flowers smiling in the meadow, here the soft earth is carpeted with sweet herbs. … Nature invites its ephemeral and trembling travelers to experience these wonderful and disturbing spectacles — that is what I call prayer.
    • As quoted in The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 240
  • I wish to write down my musical dreams in a spirit of utter self-detachment. I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naïve candour of a child. No doubt, this simple musical grammar will jar on some people. It is bound to offend the partisans of deceit and artifice. I foresee that and rejoice at it. I shall do nothing to create adversaries, but neither shall I do anything to turn enmities into friendships. I must endeavour to be a great artist so that I may dare to be myself and suffer for my faith. Those who feel as I do will only appreciate me more. The others will shun and hate me. I shall make no effort to appease them. On that distant day — I trust it is still very far off — when I shall no longer be a cause of strife, I shall feel bitter self-reproach. For that odious hypocrisy which enables one to please all mankind will inevitably have prevailed in those last works.
    • As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 226
Is it not our duty to find the symphonic formula which fits our time, one which progress, daring and modern victory demand?
  • The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous may happen.
    • As quoted in Music in the Modern World (1948) by Rollo Hugh Myers, p. 99
    • Variant translation: The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous might happen.
      • As quoted in Debussy (1989) by Paul Holmes, p. 10
As there are no precedents, I must create anew.
  • Music should humbly seek to please; within these limits great beauty may perhaps be found. Extreme complication is contrary to art. Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.
    • Quoted in French Music : From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (1951) by Martin Cooper, p. 136, and in Debussy and Wagner (1979) by Robin Holloway, p. 207
  • A beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.
  • Is it not our duty to find the symphonic formula which fits our time, one which progress, daring and modern victory demand? The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.
    • As quoted in Music in History : The Evolution of an Art (1957) by Howard Decker McKinney and William Robert Anderson, p. 640
    • Variant: The century of aeroplanes deserves its own music. As there are no precedents, I must create anew.
    • As quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 69
How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.
  • People don't very much like things that are beautiful — they are so far from their nasty little minds.
    • As quoted in Debussy : Musician of France (1957) by Victor Illyitch Seroff, p. 172
  • Music expresses the motion of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.
    • As quoted in The Twentieth Century (1972) by Caroline Farrar Ware, p. 222
    • Variant translation: Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes.
  • How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Time (1979) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 351
I need a text by a poet who, resorting to discreet suggestion rather than full statement, will enable me to graft my dream upon his dream...
  • The music I desire must be supple enough to adapt itself to the lyrical effusions of the soul and the fantasy of dreams.
    • As quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 194
  • There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth — an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.
    • Quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 268
      • Unsourced variant: There is no theory. You have only to listen. Fantasy is the law.
There is nothing more musical than a sunset.
  • Composers aren't daring enough. They're afraid of that sacred idol called "common sense", which is the most dreadful thing I know — after all, it's no more than a religion founded to excuse the ubiquity of imbeciles!
    • Debussy Letters (1987) edited by Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols
  • Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light.
    • As quoted in Greatness : Who Makes History and Why by Dean Keith Simonton, p. 110
  • First of all, ladies and gentlemen, you must forget that you are singers.
    • Instructions to the singers in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, as quoted in 100 Great Operas and Their Stories (1989) by Henry William Simon, p. 371
Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.
  • Music would take over at the point at which words become powerless, with the one and only object of expressing that which nothing but music could express. For this, I need a text by a poet who, resorting to discreet suggestion rather than full statement, will enable me to graft my dream upon his dream — who will give me plain human beings in a setting belonging to no particular period or country. … Then I do not wish my music to drown the words, nor to delay the course of the action. I want no purely musical developments which are not called for inevitably by the text. In opera there is always too much singing. Music should be as swift and mobile as the words themselves.
    • As quoted in Debussy (1989) by Paul Holmes, p. 36
  • Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.
    • As quoted in Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought (1992) by John Paynter, p. 590
    • Unsourced variant: Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.
  • Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are part of Infinity. … There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little — the book of Nature.
    • As quoted in The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (1996) by Don Michael Randel
  • What I am trying to do is something different — an effect of reality, but what some fools call Impressionism, a term that is usually misapplied, especially by the critics who don't hesitate to apply it to Turner, the greatest creator of mysterious effects in the whole world of art.
    • As quoted in The Lives of the Great Composers (1997) by Harold C. Schonberg, p. 464
  • Music is the space between the notes.
    • As quoted in Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving (2001) by Jonathan G. Koomey, p. 96 ISBN 0-9706019-0-5
    • Unsourced variant: Music is the silence between the notes.
  • It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you. All people come to music to seek oblivion.
    • As quoted in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (2003) by Simon Trezise, p. 120

The Life of the Creative Spirit[edit]

Quotations from The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 239 - 240
Listen to no one's advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind...
  • Art is the most beautiful deception of all! And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory. … Let us not disillusion anyone by bringing too much reality into the dream.
    • Unsourced variant: Art is the most beautiful of all lies.
  • I believe the principle fault of the majority of writers and artists is having neither the will nor the courage to break with their successes, failing to seek new paths and give birth to new ideas. Most of them produce them twice, three, even four times. They have neither the courage nor the temerity to leave what is certain for what is uncertain. There is, however, no greater pleasure than going into the depth of oneself, setting one's whole being in motion and seeking for new and hidden treasures. What a joy to find something new in oneself, something that surprises even ourselves, filling us with warmth.
  • Search for a discipline within freedom! Don't let yourelf be governed by formulae drawn from decadent philosophies: they are for the feeble-minded. Listen to no one's advice except that of the wind in the trees. That can recount the whole history of mankind...
  • To complete a work is just like being present at the death of someone you love.

Quotes about Debussy[edit]

  • When Claude Debussy studied at the Paris Conservatory from age ten to age twenty-two, many considered him a rebel because of his treatment of dissonance and his disdain for the established forms. He reputedly turned to a fellow student during a performance of Beethoven with the words, “Let’s go. He’s starting to develop.
  • I love Italian opera — it’s so reckless. Damn Richard Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death. Damn Debussy, and his averted face. I like the Italians who run all on impulse, and don’t care about their immortal souls, and don’t worry about the ultimate.
    • D. H. Lawrence in a letter (1 April 1911) in The Letters of D.H. Lawrence Vol. 1 (1979), edited by James T. Boulton
  • Claude Debussy was a rare phenomenon — a composer profoundly and subversively revolutionary...
    • Wilfrid Mellers, Foreword to Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (2001), p. xi
  • When asked by a grumpily puzzled professor what "rules" he followed, Debussy is said to have retorted, mon plaisir — "whatever I please" — and he further claimed that more was to be gained by watching the sun rise than by listening to the Pastoral Symphony. Although such remarks were intended to shock, they contain a core of Debussyan verity...
  • An examination of the harmonic techniques out of their context has all too often led to misleading terminology such as 'static' or 'non-functional' as a description of Debussy's harmonic methods. Viewed as a whole, however, the tonal coherence of his music depends upon a carefully calculated and often dramatic interaction of these various harmonic 'types' with each other and with orthodox diatonic harmony. The result is a tonal language, but one which is fundamentally different in concept from classical tonality. The detailed classifications of harmonic events is no longer possible in Debussy's music where the central tonality of a work emerges only through a constant focusing and re-focusing on harmonic types.
    • Jim Samson in Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900-1920 (1977), p. 38 ISBN 0393021939
  • The Sea of Debussy does not call for many words of comment. The three parts of which it is composed are entitled From Dawn till Noon, Play of the Waves and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, but as far as any pictorial suggestiveness is concerned, they might as well have been entitled On the Flatiron Building, Slumming in the Bowery and A Glimpse of Chinatown During a Raid. Debussy's music is the dreariest kind of rubbish. Does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would not write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff, if he could invent a melody?... Even his orchestration is not particularly remarkable.
    • New York Post, 22 March 1907, criticising Debussy's first performance of La Mer (which was described by The New York Times as "persistently ugly"), as quoted in The New York times book review (1977), volume 82, p. 27
  • Among all our musical masters, l should say, Claude Debussy was the least weighed upon by the dead hand of formula. Yet neither was he an improviser. This latter art, indeed, among all the compositional techniques, is the one most servile to rules of thumb. Debussy's operation was more thorough. Like any Frenchman building a bridge or cooking a meal, painting a picture or laying out a garden, he felt, he imagined, he reasoned, he constructed—and in that order.

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