“Fleeting” #3: the reason why Debussy opens this program

Welcome back to my site. Before getting into the individual pieces, I would like to write a little about why I chose Claude Debussy to open this program. (If you have not seen the entire program yet, please see the previous post here.) 

At the end of the nineteenth century, Romanticism was still prominent in Europe. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) undoubtedly played a significant role in the late Romantic period, and his legacy (e.g. complex textures, rhetorical intensity, rich harmonies) was carried over and extended by Austro-German composers such as Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).[1] Meanwhile, Claude Debussy, a French composer born in 1862 as a son of a china shop owner, took music in a different direction by focusing on “what he regarded as the traditionally French values of decoration, beauty, and pleasure”.[2]Unlike Romantic works, his music is characterized by “rhetorical understatement and emotional reserve”.[3]His tone poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), composed in 1894, was a defining piece that served as a dawn of modern music.[4]   

Debussy is also frequently referred to as an Impressionist composer by analogy to the Impressionist painters.[5] It was 1887 when the members of the Institut de France first called Debussy’s music “Impressionist” for his symphonic suite Printemps (Spring) (1887), and this label was established especially after the orchestral composition La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestra (The sea, three symphonic sketches for orchestra) (1905), due to the following description of the work in one of the program notes:[6]

“It is, in a word, musical impressionism, following an exotic and refined art, the formula for which is the exclusive property of its composer.”[7]

“An exotic and refined art” in the statement comes from the cover of the 1905 first edition of the work, which was obviously inspired by the woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) known as the Great Wave.[8] Given the popularity of Japanese art throughout Europe at that time, as evident in the japonisme, and the fact that notable Impressionist painters such as Monet owned copies of Hokusai’s prints, it was easy (and probably convenient from a marketing standpoint) to connect Debussy and Impressionism.[9]    

Cover of the 1905 first edition of Debussy’s La Merpublished by A. Durand & Fils.
Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849), Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the Wave off Kanagawa, also known as “the Great Wave”), from Fugaku sanjūrokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji).

However, here is a question that is occasionally presented in an effort to understand what lies at the heart of Debussy’s art: was he a Symbolist or Impressionist? It is absolutely not my intention to settle the argument to frame the composer into a certain category, but it is worth pondering over the question as it partly explains why Debussy was chosen to open this program. 

In order to appreciate the meaning of this question, we must first digest both terms: Impressionism and Symbolism. The term Impressionism was given by an article in the satirical magazine Le Charivari after the famous exhibition in 1874 by the members of the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, including Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, and Pissaro.[10] The term was given based on Monet’s Impression: Soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise) shown below due to its style lacking in clear definition.[11]

Monet, Impression: Soleil levant

What the Impressionist artists sought after was creating “atmosphere and sensuous impressions from nature” through suggestions, leaving them to the viewers to “fill in the missing details”.[12]Although Impressionist art attracts many excited visitors to museums around the world today, in the late nineteenth century, being an Impressionist artist was to be “accused of sins ranging from immorality to anarchism, from ignorance to lunacy” due to their opposition to the establishment and non-conformity.[13]Debussy surely shared this rebellious spirit as shown in his own words directed at his composition teacher who described Debussy’s music as “theoretically absurd”:[14] 

“There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”[15]

We also associate his music with Impressionist paintings because of the evocative titles such as Images and Estampes (Engravings or Prints) given by the composer. Harold C. Schonberg, a longtime music critic for New York Times, referred to the new theories of light and color as the common denominator between the Impressionist artists and Debussy.[16]

Meanwhile there are others who believe labeling Debussy as an Impressionist composer is misleading.[17] François Lesure, a musicologist known for his work on Debussy, emphasizes the importance of Symbolism in the French composer’s life:

“Never having been to school, and aware of the gaps in his intellectual training, Debussy was an autodidact (except in music) who was conscious early in life of the values that could enrich his personality. His late but most enduring education came between the ages of twenty-five and thirty from his contacts with the symbolists.”[18]   

The Symbolist movement in France, which began around 1885 from the literary world, was characterized by “rejection of naturalism, of realism and of overly clearcut forms, hatred of emphasis, indifference to the public, and a taste for the indefinite, the mysterious, even the esoteric”.[19] The movement was “concerned with what lay behind external appearances, with the intangible and ‘inexpressible’”.[20] Debussy’s style of “evoking a mood through suggestion, connotation, and indirection” confirms the shared qualities between the Symbolists and the composer.[21] As a matter of fact, the French composer himself described the ideal of all art as “the Inexpressible”.[22]Paul Roberts, the author of Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, also quotes the painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) speaking of Debussy in order to emphasize this shared aesthetics between Symbolists and the composer:

“His music kindled strange resonances within us, awakened a need at the deepest level for a lyricism that only he could satisfy. What the Symbolist generation was searching for with such passion and anxiety – light, sonority, and color, the expression of the soul, and the frissonof mystery – was realized by him unerringly; almost, it seemed to us then, without effort … We perceived that here was something new.”[23]

How did Debussy feel about being defined by such terms? Obviously the composer rejected any labels, dismissing both Impressionism and Symbolism as “useful terms of abuse”.[24] In a letter to his publisher, Debussy revealed his concern, speaking of his orchestral Images:[25]

“I’m trying to do ‘something else’ – in a way realities – what imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term as misused as it could possibly be.”[26]

What we know for sure is that the composer was searching for something distinctly different from the past by challenging traditional aesthetics, melting the boundaries of different art forms, and finding beauty in ambiguity and the inexpressible, which reflected “the swinging together of literature, poetry, painting, decorative arts, and music, the trends of different nations converging toward similar goals”.[27]Louis Laloy, the first biographer of Debussy, also illuminates this point: 

“He received his most profitable lessons from poets and painters, not from musicians.”[28]

What is fleetingness? It is what is fragile, ambiguous, vague, implied, elusive, unstable, inexpressible, and intangible, which in a way forces us to stay in an uncomfortable place. And yet, there is something very human about finding beauty in such a place. What this program attempts to present is, no doubt, related to what Debussy sought after, which explains why the French composer was chosen to open this program.   

Next time, you will read about the first piece of this program: Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves), from Images, 2e série by Debussy.

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[1]Barbara Russano Hanning, Concise History of Western Music (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014), 518.



[4]Harvey Lee Snyder, Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World (Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2015), 145.   

[5]Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 518.

[6]François Lesure, “Debussy, (Achille-)Claude,” on Grove Music Online (accessed June 3 2018), http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.


[8]Michael Cirigliano II, “Hokusai and Debussy’s Evocations of the Sea,” on The Metropolitan Museum of Art (accessed June 20 2018), https://www.metmuseum.org.


[10]Paul Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996), 114 and 317. 


[12]Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 509.

[13]Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 115.

[14]Ibid., 121.


[16]Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rded. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 453.

[17]Lesure, “Debussy, (Achille-)Claude,” on Grove Music Online.; Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 19.; Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 518.; E. Robert Schmitz, The Piano Works of Claude Debussy (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1966), 13.

[18]Lesure, “Debussy, (Achille-)Claude,” on Grove Music Online.


[20]Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 18.

[21]Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 518.

[22]Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 79.

[23]François Lesure and Guy Cogeval, Debussy e il simbolismo (Rome: Palombi, 1984), 105; quoted in Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 19.


[25]Lesure, “Debussy, (Achille-)Claude,” on Grove Music Online.

[26]Roberts, Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy, 113.

[27]Klaus Berger, “Mallarmé and Visual Arts,” in Les Mardis: Stéphane Mallarmé and the Artists of His Circle (Lawrence: University of Kansas Museum of Art, 1966), 51; quoted in Snyder, Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World, 137.

[28]Lesure, “Debussy, (Achille-)Claude,” on Grove Music Online.

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