Philip Hale's Boston Symphony Programme Notes: Historical, Critical, and Descriptive Comment on Music and Composers

By John N. Burk; Philip Hale | Go to book overview

CLAUDE ACHILLE
DEBUSSY

(Born at Germain [ Seine and Oise], August 22, 1862;
died at Paris, March 26, 1918)

DEBUSSY SUFFERED at the hands of the ultra-orthodox and the snobs in music. The former could not find either melodic lines or the semblance of form in his orchestral and chamber works, his songs and pianoforte pieces. The snobs, secretly bored, thought it the thing to swoon at the mere mention of his name. In New York and Boston, as in Paris, there were "Pelléastres," to use the contemptuous term coined by Jean Lorraine. There were some that spoke of Debussy as an ignorant fellow who, not being able to achieve greatness in the conventional manner, wrote in an eccentric way to attract attention, to make the bourgeois sit up. They forgot that Debussy had taken the chief prize at the Paris Conservatory, where harmony and counterpoint are taught rigorously. Debussy fashioned his own musical speech. It is easy to say that he learned much from Moussorgsky's Boris Godounov—but no one has yet pointed out exactly what he borrowed or imitated. That Debussy sojourned in Russia was enough to excite those who are unwilling to admit that any innovator has originality, for Debussy was an innovator, not a developer of what was handed down to him. It is more probable that he learned from the gypsies in Russia than from Moussorgsky.

The question arises whether in his compositions of the few last years Debussy did not merely imitate himself, whether he had

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