Claude Debussy disliked the label “Impressionism”, a term which had been coined in a satirical sense by critic Louis Leroy in 1874, drawn from Monet’s early painting Impression, Sunrise. “I am trying to do something different,” wrote the composer to his publisher, “what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by art critics who never cease lumbering Turner with it!” Debussy’s music is not about vague washes of colour. If you look at his scores, they are full of fastidious detail.

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy

 

For the centenary of his death, here is a playlist of my “top ten” Debussy masterpieces… at least today’s top ten! Listen to the detail, the precision in these scores. Impressionist? Relaxing classics as “aural wallpaper”? I don’t think so.


1 Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune (1894)

Pierre Boulez described this symphonic poem as the birth of modern music, with its free form and its atmospheric, rather than literal, portrayal of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem. It was later choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, but is here performed in concert by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth. Listen out to the languorous flute solo which opens the faun’s erotic daydreams.

 

2 Syrinx (1913)

This work for solo flute was inspired by the Greek myth of the lusty god Pan, who pursued the nymph Syrinx. Trapped at the water’s edge, she prayed for help and was turned into hollow reeds which, when Pan blew across them, made a haunting sound… hence panpipes. We’re not far from Debussy’s earlier Faune here. Emmanuel Pahud performs this miniature gem:

 

3 La Cathédrale engloutie (1909-10)

In his two books of Préludes, Debussy did not write the titles until the end of each piece, as if an afterthought. Pianist Stephen Hough described it to me as “like a perfume lingering after someone’s walked past.” La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) is from Book 1 and, with its bell-like chords tolling, is my favourite of the Préludes. Here is the composer himself, via a piano roll.

 

4 La Mer (1903-05)

Debussy does paint pictures in sound, but watch the precise scoring used in his seascape La Mer. He began work on it in France, but the triptych was completed at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. Taking us from dawn to midday, then the “play of the waves” to the turbulent dialogue between the wind and the sea, La Mer is a marvel of orchestral colour. Sviatoslav Richter described it as “an enigma, a miracle of natural reproduction; no, even more than that, sheer magic!" Here, Paavo Järvi conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

 

5 Clair de lune (1890, rev 1905)

This tender movement from the Suite bergamasque is probably one of Debussy’s most famous melodies. Philippe Cassard is a superb interpreter of Debussy’s piano music, as witnessed at his remarkable Wigmore Hall series.

 

6 Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915)

Debussy’s late sonata – a “terribly sad” work according to the composer himself – was the first to combine flute with viola and harp. There’s a deep intimacy to the work, with hints of Ancient Greece in its poise. This performance was recorded at London’s King’s Place.

 

7 Pagodes (1903)

At the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, Debussy heard the Javanese gamelan for the first time and the impression it made on him can be heard in Pagodes, the first movement from the suite Estampes.

 

8 String Quartet in G minor (1893)

Debussy only wrote a single string quartet, dedicated to fellow composer Ernest Chausson. It’s often overshadowed by Ravel’s quartet which is ironic given Debussy’s quartet can be heard as a blueprint for the later work, especially with its pizzicato second movement. Here it is played by the Esmé Quartet.

 

9 L’Isle joyeuse (1904)

In 1904, Debussy took his lover Emma Bardac to the island of Jersey and L’Isle joyeuse is an erotic portrait of her and what Cassard describes as “Debussy’s own celebration as a lover”. Trills, chromatic spirals and the steady rise and and fall of the voyage to the island – or the rhythmic thrust of the act of love-making – make this an intense, heady experience, played here by Marc-André Hamelin.

 

10 Cello Sonata (1915)

This sonata employs whole-tone and pentatonic scales familiar from Debussy’s late style and is a very concentrated work, barely ten minutes long. In Gautier Capuçon’s excellent performance, watch out for the extended use of pizzicato technique.

 

Which Debussy works would be in your top ten? Leave comments below, or find us on Twitter (@bachtrack) or Facebook.