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Debussy in 1901, just prior to the
introduction of the electric iron.

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Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918)

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

 

Claude Debussy was a bloodless revolutionary. Cited by the likes of both Duke Ellington and Marcel Proust, his music is, in the words of Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, "easy to love but hard to explain."  Beyond the academic confines of mere Impressionism, Debussy, as a student, openly questioned the need for systems of harmony and form, and in his extensive and truly innovative career, demonstrated that ignoring centuries-old rules does not create cacophony, but simply new textures and emotions. Again; hard to explain.  Perhaps his humble roots - being removed from academic convention, the son of an impoverished laborer and a seamstress - gave him insight. Certainly his unapologetic criticism of the musical status quo shows the kind of pragmatic rationalism of thinking revolutionaries, who are often of similarly humble origins. 

Trois Chansons de Charles D'orleans

Debussy was obsessed with poetry, and these are taken from the works of Charles, Duke of Orleans, a prince and poet who was imprisoned in England after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Composed between 1898 and 1906, the chansons are ternary in form - the opening section being repeated at the end. They are Debussy's only compositions for unaccompanied choir, and as challenging to sing as they are beautiful to listen to. 

Dieu! qu'il la fait bon regarder!
("God! how good it is to look at!")

D'Orleans wrote this about the beauty of his wife, who died while he was imprisoned. Debussy himself was a hopeless romantic, and paints it as a dream, increasing the complexity of harmony throughout, but resolving to the gentle theme at the end as the dream comes to a close. Of all the Trois Chansons, over-analysis on his use of unique textures and colors using sixteenth note triplets, free tempos, and Mixolydian, Lydian, and Dorian scales, takes away from the quiet beauty of the piece as a whole. Don't think about it. Just enjoy it. Pleasure is the law.

Quant j'ai ouy le tambourin

("When I heard the tambourine")

This one is a lot of fun. Debussy has set the text to a solo voice, wishing to "sleep a little longer," above the Choir's sound of a distant tambourine, "summoning us to go maying. " Aeolian in mode, the sound dances on the edge of irritating in its atonality
and persistence, until the protagonist drifts back to sleep. 

Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain

("Winter, you are nothing but a rogue")

 

Anyone who has lived through February in New Brunswick can relate to this, and probably doesn't need the translation. "Summer is pleasant and kind...but you, winter...you need to be exiled." Debussy's composition is segmented, juxtaposing all that is nice - a sweet quartet sings of the purity of spring - with the choir's rapid melodic descents and chromaticism spitting out disdain: "Yver! Yver! YVER!!" 

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