The Difficulty of Debussy

To appreciate an impressionist, forget everything you knew about listening to classical.


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Debussy was the first composer I never learned to play. After more than ten years of piano lessons, I had moved through baroque Bach; classical Mozart; and romantic Chopin Nocturnes — all of which had systematic rules to follow. I thought I was ready to move on to the next big thing: The Impressionist Era. I started with Debussy’s Clair de lune and later attempted the first of his Deux Arabesques. I listened, again and again, until I could hear the entirety of the works in my head, but between the key and tempo changes, it was simply music I couldn’t grasp.

Such is the difficulty of impressionist composers. The impressionist era abandons everything a musician knows in favor of capturing an essence: The essence of a feeling or of a place, even an image. The impressionists play with synesthesia, mixing the senses, translating sight into sound. It is a nearly impossible task, and one that makes their music frustrating.

Despite the difficulty, Debussy, like any other great artist, doesn’t need defending. Why do we love Mozart? Well, because he is Mozart. Why is Bach often unanimously accepted as the greatest composer of all time? Because he is Bach, of course. But we tend to take these facts for granted. The name suffices. Someone is playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and someone declares it his or her favorite Mozart piece. Who cares? No reason to be pedantic about it.

There are real answers to these questions; conductors, musicians, musicologists, and historians have dedicated their lives to answering them. It is a lost cause to argue any composer can match the breadth and depth of Mozart’s melodic and lyrical qualities — not to mention the awesome quantity of great masterpieces he produced. Bach played with music with an inquisitive complexity never seen before in composition, mastering the notoriously difficult form, the fugue, and even improvising them.

But Debussy is misunderstood in that a lot of his efforts are taken for granted. It is one thing to listen to the Vivaldi’s neatly structured Four Seasons and be reminded of spring and the rest. It is another to listen to Debussy’s orchestral Images and know what you’re supposed to be imagining without being told.

Last August marked the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth, but this year should not simply be a celebration of Debussy for the sake of an anniversary. It’s clear I’m not the only one that feels an inexplicable need to promote the French composer. Orchestras, ensembles, and solo musicians across the country are making room in their programs to celebrate Debussy this season. Dolce Suono Ensemble — a chamber music group headed by Mimi Stillman, the flautist famed for being the youngest wind player ever admitted to the Curtis Institute — is even dedicating their entire 2012-2013 season to the composer.

Stillman, who wrote her master’s thesis on the influence of Asian music on Debussy, believes that Debussy excelled at capturing the essence of instruments themselves. “He wrote abut timbre — tone color — what makes certain notes on specific instruments special,” she notes. Which is one of the reasons why she is including Debussy’s Syrinx, a solo for flute, at almost every one of her concerts this season. The piece simply personifies the flute.

These abilities can partially be linked to Debussy’s relationship with art. “He was friends with Rodin,” says Stillman, “He wrote ‘I love images almost as much as music.’” So you might expect his work Images to channel a painting or color, but Debussy captures more than the visual in his pieces. Instead Images captures places — one movement dedicated to France, another to Scotland and England, and the third to Spain.

A place can be translated relatively easily. Castanets help create Spain. He samples the timing of popular English jigs and we think of England and Scotland. Debussy becomes progressively more complex when his music pays homage to more intangible ideas, such as moonlight or the sea.

“Debussy was influenced by art nouveau,” says Stillman. “He saw images of vine like patterns or a woman’s hair and brought these into his compositions using cascading sound patterns.”

This synthesthetic idea of capturing an image through sound did not stop with Debussy either. Rather he inspired and, arguably, mastered the effort for generations to come. He was the predecessor for another French composer, the post-impressionist Poulenc. Poulenc aimed to capture the image of a painting of women in his work Les Biches. Other French post-impressionists worked similarly: Satie, wrote a piece dedicated to a Bronze statue, and Saint-Saëns wrote a huge work with each movement representing a different animal. And, ultimately, he likely influenced American composers of the 20th century — Gershwin, Copland, Korngold, Bernstein — who managed to compose a uniquely American sound.

Debussy’s La Mer prompts the listener with its titles. Would we still hear the sea in this work without the cue? After even a first listen, it seems impossible not to. La Mer takes advantage of the bold brass section of the orchestra to give voice to the power of the ocean. A slow build in dynamics and tempo, ultimately leading to crashing waves, presents multiple views of the ocean — a romantic respect for the sea, the view from the docks with gulls overhead, the dramatic and awe inspiring storm. That last, the storm, is the thread between each movement; trembling strings convey the calm before a storm and the anxious wait as we prepare for it.

But we are not always given these cues in Debussy’s titles. Duex Arabesques is difficult to translate but basically gets across the idea of two ornamental pieces. They function as short vignettes, but are still prime examples of Debussy’s mastery of synesthesia, the crossing of senses.

The first of the arabesques unequivocally conjures images of water. The way the melody of the piece frequently, almost continuously, criss-crosses with the harmony is fluid like water. The right hand of the pianist is, at first, delicate on the keys — trickling water. Later, it is more solid, a strong splash.

It is not until the second movement that we approach a perfect example of what makes Debussy truly difficult. The second arabesque follows with a drastically divided melody and harmony. It encompasses more than water, or a larger idea. Perhaps it plays at a season? Or where the first movement represents water, the second is a lush forest? Maybe, the pleasure of the piece lies simply in the listener’s personal imaginings. The challenge in this can be off putting to some; even to the musicians learning the piece.

Listening to Debussy requires a full immersion in the music. Someone once told me they liked classical, but primarily listened to it as background music. In general, but especially with an impressionist like Debussy, this is tantamount to quickly scanning through a chapter of Hemingway. But active listening isn’t for everyone; it is much easier to tune in and out of a series of easily digestible baroque minuets.

Music is able to accomplish a surprising amount. It is the only art form capable of capturing an emotion or, even, the heart of a country. Most classical pieces do not aim to accomplish so much, but this is why Debussy is an exceptionally difficult composer to play. A musician must be a true extension of their instrument to transcend beyond the notes on the page into the soul of something else.

Debussy wasn’t just the first composer I never learned to play; he was the last composer I attempted. I was in the middle of struggling through Clair de lune, when I stopped playing the piano. Listening to it now, I think that it may have simply slipped out of my hands. Impossible to grasp, like light or water.
19 December 2012


Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters,, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.