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Claude Debussy At 150

Flutes and fauns, dreams of the sea, Clair de Lune, and more.  We’re celebrating the 150thof composer Claude Debussy.

Claude Debussy at the piano, 1893

Claude Debussy at the piano, 1893

Claude Debussy composed in the time of the impressionist painters.  His music can call to mind that dreamy state.  A storm at sea.  A faun at play.  Moonlight on water.  Where Wagner went big, Debussy went small.  Went for color, for timbre, for his own harmonic language.

An almost mystical music that broke the rules, came from the heart, made way for jazz.  This year is the 150th anniversary of his birth.

This hour, On Point:  the dream state music of Debussy.

-Tom Ashbrook


Paul Roberts, pianist, writer, and scholar of French impressionist music. Author of “Claude Debussy” and “Images: the Piano Music of Claude Debussy.” You can find an excerpt of his Debussy biography here.

David Robertson, conductor and music director of the St. Louis Symphony.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Classical music institutions are usually quick to seize on major anniversaries of a composer’s birth or death as a convenient programming hook. Get ready for the Wagner and Verdi bicentennial celebrations next year. But what happened to Debussy, born 150 years ago on Wednesday in St.-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris?”

The Wall Street Journal “Claude Debussy is increasingly regarded as the most important composer of the twentieth century, even though he died before the end of World War I. This year, the 150th anniversary of his birth, more people than ever are making that claim, while the composer’s influence can be heard everywhere from the concert hall to the nightclub.”


“Clair de Lune”
La mer: III. “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea”
“Clair de Lune”
Arabesque No. 1: Andantino con moto
Ariettes oubliees: No. 3 L’ombre des arbres
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
String Quartet in G minor, Mvmt. #4
Pelléas et Mélisande – Act 1, Scene 1
Suite Bergamasque: #3, Claire de Lune
Pelléas et Mélisande – Act 4, Scene 4
Act 2 – Love Duet from “Tristan und Isolde”
La mer: I. From Dawn Till Noon On the Sea
“Clair de Lune”
Préludes, Book I: No. 12 Minstrels
Préludes, Book 1: No. 2. Voiles
Images Book 2: #2.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor: 1. Prologue
“Clair de Lune” (JAZZ TRIO)

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  • ToyYoda

    I play the piano and I absolutely admire Debussy. I can’t wait to listen to this show. To me Debussy music is the music of light speckling off water, of wide open spaces, of dawn and dusk landscapes, of mindscapes, and a mind in dreams and in wonder.

  • Gregg Smith

    Debussy is one of my favorites. I love the Romantic era music of giants like Chopin and Listz. Debussy, IMHO, took it to another place. Many consider him an impressionist but he never jumped over the cliff. The harmonic structure was unpredictable and in many cases unresolved but somehow the melodies and harmonies created tension instead of dissonance. When he released that tension it didn’t put the listener safely back to the root or it’s relative, it took the listener to another dimension in the most pleasant and natural feeling way despite breaking all the rules. 

    It all sounds silly, I know. There really are no words to describe the experience of listening to (and especially playing) a masterpiece like Clair De Lune.  

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Not silly at all.  You nailed it.

    • TinaWrites

      Doesn’t sound silly, at all!  In fact, I’m about to copy it down in my Arts Notebook!  Thanks for the great way you expressed these thoughts!

  • ToyYoda

    Could you please ask your guest about one of the colorful stories about Debussy.  Debussy once told someone that he wrote Claire de Lune to make women swoon.  I’ve always wanted to know if this was true or not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/drpmeade Paul S Meade

    Listening at work, so can’t call in. Tom you should be doing
    a show like this every couple of months.

    Debussy was one of the first “classical” composers I started
    listening to in High School.  “Clair de Lune”, “The Girl with the
    Flaxen Hair” and of course “La mer”.

    Flashing back, it was a show on my local PBS channel in Huntington, WV
    featuring Jascha Heifetz in concert
    that introduced me to Debussy.

    You could do a whole series on the evolution on “Modern Classical Music”

  • Liz Kelso

    In Debussy’s music I find memories, but memories that I never actually experienced: Morning walks through golden fields, my mother in a wind-swept dress stoically looking out from atop a hill, a walk at twilight as I step between exposed roots of trees beside a brook in a dark forest. Debussy’s melodies cause these foreign scenes to swell into my heart, as real as any true moment that i’ve ever lived. 

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Since there are more than one kind of relationship, we need both Wagner and Debussy.

  • http://twitter.com/nikevich nikevich

    Unless I’m seriously mistaken, you’re broadcasting the music in monaural!!! You’re only about 50 years behind the times! What in the dickens gives? WGBH engineers would hang their heads in shame to do something so seriously backward. This is a serious disgrace! Please get your act together! This is a prime reason to avoid contributing.

    Currently listening via live streaming (works great in Linux, with no user action needed.); my trusty pocket portable’s stereo pilot LED remains dark.

  • Chris Sterling


    I have been immersed in punk rock for 25+ years, and “classical” has NEVER appealed to me on any level. I had never heard of Debussy’ until today…and I must say that what I am hear is astonishing. Unlike anything I’ve heard (and previously disliked) before. This is amazing stuff. Thanks for the illumination.

    • TinaWrites

      How wonderful!

  • haric

    Hari from Olanta, Sc., I grew up on all types of music, but I love Debussy. I’m now a senior of 62, & every time I him I feel like a 16 yr. old again. Too me he captured sexy, dreamy, color, & life.

  • catsfriend79

    DeBussy’s music makes me want to dance & sing, laugh & cry – all at the same time. It is so alive! I love it!

  • http://twitter.com/nikevich nikevich

    More: Broadcasting music in mono is the type of thing a college radio station would do if it had an operating and equipment-purchase budget of, say, $1,000/year!

  • mezzophile

    Some years ago Boston Jazz pianist Al Vega was perfroming at the Continental where the format was requests and an open mike for singers. Al was a great jazz pianist and it was obvious to me that some of what he was doing bored him. During a break I asked him to play something he loved. He paused, smiled and played is own version of Claire du Lune in a way I had never heard it played. When he was done he smiled at me and asked, “do you know what it was?” I smiled back and answered “yes.” It was a very good moment. The performance had passed into the ether as most live performances do, lingering only in my memory.  

  • 1Brett1

    I feel Debussey’s contribution to ushering in music to the 20th century can not be overstated.

  • TinaWrites

    THANK YOU, Tom and guests for this beautiful hour!

    I think that Debussy sounds more Post-Impressionist than Impressionist, if you are making analogies to the world of the Visual Arts (rather than using these terms as they are understood within the world of Music History).  I see more Matisse and Bonnard in my mind’s eye than I do the work of the Impressionists.  When one guest described how, musically, there is NOT a physical center of gravity, or something like that:  THAT cemented my feelings on this matter.  So much of Impressionism is still expressing a Renaissance feeling of space, altho rather than using lines, they use color and atmospheric perspective to make sure that, in spite of the broken brush strokes, that our sense of the physical presence of walk-thru space is still there.  Much of Bonnard does this, too; so really, I feel that Debussy is most like Post-Impressionist Matisse, as so many of his forms float, and have a revolutionary sense of their own placement.  That said, Debussy doesn’t do the Arabic-inspired pattern-on-pattern of Matisse.  My conclusion:  Debussy stands between Matisse and Bonnard, and is definitely more modern than even the Impressionists! 

    The beauty of this hour was just what so many of us needed today! 

  • TinaWrites

    Write it!  Sounds like a engaging idea!  

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