This week, on August 22, will be the 150th anniversary of one of the greatest composers of piano music: Claude-Achille Debussy. Debussy lived until 1918 and during his lifetime, spanning the American Civil War and World War I, he created some of the most beautiful piano music ever written.
The amazing thing about Debussy’s music is that just like Chopin a generation earlier, Debussy created beautiful music that in terms of technique, harmonies and tonal colors far exceeded just about anything else written by his contemporaries.
Compare “Claire De Lune” which was written between 1890 and 1905 with a more typical popular piano piece from that era “Star of the East” (1883):
In the realm of classical piano music, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) created a marvelous series of ground-breaking piano pieces near the end of his life like this Op. 118 Intermezzo which was written in 1893:
Both Brahms and Debussy despised the man who was — for better or worse — the main musical influence of their lifetimes: Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
Wagner clearly wanted to create a Music of the Future which is the catch phrase that he created to describe his music when he wrote a book of that title in 1861. At the time it was published, the impertinence of the struggling opera composer seemed ludicrous. But Wagner definitely had the last laugh on his many detractors as his musical style dominated music for over a century.
Both Brahms and Debussy rebelled against the Wagnerian tsunami that swept across Europe and America during the late-19th and early-20th Centuries.
Wagner undoubtedly wrote some marvelous masterpieces. His egoistic personality led him to the long drawn out form of the music drama (i.e. opera) and works like Tristan und Isolde, the four-part Ring Cycle and Wagner’s final music drama Parsifal (1882) which weighs in at about four hours.
Here is the “Good Friday” Scene from Act III of Parsifal.
It was this glorious heavy, plodding Wagnerian sound that dominated European and American classical music well into the 20th Century.
In fact, the Wagnerian influence lasted up through our own day when it comes to movie music. The clearest example of this is the 1981 film Excalibur. The movie’s score not only copied the Wagnerian style but actually uses substantial portions of Wagner’s music such as here in the opening of the film:
I can’t listen to a movie composer like John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters, Harry Potter, War Horse, etc.) without thinking of Wagner.
It was the turgid, mythical Wagnerian style that Debussy fought against by composing miniature masterpieces for the piano like “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”.
Debussy, displays his Gallic wit by “quoting” a Wagnerian phrase (1:10-1:45) and adding his own anti-Wagnerian laughter in the upper registers. It still brings a smile to my face every time I play it!