Debussy, Claude (1862-1918)

The primary aim of French music is to give pleasure

Claude Debussy

Achille-Claude Debussy, though one of the best known Impressionist composers today was not a fan of the Impressionist label. He admired the work of Richard Wagner and sought to liberate tone, sound and texture even further from the straight-jacket of contrived form.

Debussy’s early life was filled with emotional and financial turbulence. He was employed by Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck (who also supported Tchaikovsky) to teach music to her children, providing some relief from the poverty in which he and his parents were living at the time.

Debussy entered the Paris Conservatory at 11 years of age, starting with a focus on piano, but shifting to composition. He debated his composition and harmony teachers with his unusual use of chords and progressions.

A trip to Bayreuth introduced Debussy to the music of Richard Wagner, which provided a starting point for Debussy’s own music. He spent time with the impressionist writers and artists in Paris, whose goal was to use tonal color to evoke a mood (rather than tell an entire story as did Wagner with his operas).

Debussy’s music represents a true shift from functional harmony (where one chord leads to the next) to using harmony to create a color or mood. Whether you call him an impressionist or not, Debussy is truly a transitional figure in music, moving from the Romantic idea of stretching the boundaries of form and harmony into a style that replaces focus on form with a focus on mood and color.

Well-Known Works

Debussy’s better known works include:

  • Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune – orchestral tone poem
  • Pelleas et Melisande – opera
  • La Mer – 3 movement (sketch) orchestral work depicting the sea
  • Children’s Corner – piano suite of children’s pieces, composed for his daughter
  • Syrinx – solo flute

Listening – Flute-Related


Syrinx is a solo flute piece that Debussy intended as incidental music for a play that was never finished. It is inspired by the Greek myth of Pan and Syrinx. As Pan (half goat, have man) pursued Syrinx, she prays to the goddess of chastity to save her and the goddess responds by transforming her into a bundle of river reeds, just as Pan approaches. When he sighed in frustration, the river reeds made musical sounds, inspiring Pan to create the Pan flute.


Prelude a l’apres Midi d’un Faune (Prelude to the afternoon of a faun)

The opening of this beautiful orchestral work makes it a favorite among flute players, and orchestras that audition flute players! Notice in the video how the conductor simply nods to the flutist to begin rather than conducting.

Pan from the Syrinx story above is a faun – a creature that is half goat, have man. This piece depicts the groggy start of the day in the life of a faun through his daily activities.


Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

Debussy intended to compose 6 sonatas, with the last composed for a combination of all previous instruments. He only finished three of them before he died of cancer. This sonata was composed at the end of his life, while he struggled with cancer, and during the first world war, which may explain some of the introspective and ambiguity that is heard from the opening notes and throughout the piece. It is not all gloom, though – this mood is interspersed with moments of lightheartedness, surprise and wonder.


La Mer

This three movement (or sketch as Debussy referred to movements) work depicts various moods of the sea. There are places where the flutes (either solo or section) are prominent, but notice that there is more focus on blending instruments rather than featuring solos.

  • From dawn to noon on the sea
  • Play of the Waves
  • Dialogue of the wind and the sea


Bonus Listening

The Little Shepherd

The Muppet Show was known for having various guests, including the famed French flutist Jean Pierre Rampal. In this video, Rampal interacts with the Muppets and performs Debussy’s The Little Shepherd. Enjoy!


Spread the love

Share your thoughts!

%d bloggers like this: