Debussy: Composer of Color and Light

by Dr Renwen Zhang



Image: Claude Monet, Banks of the Seine, Vétheuil, 1880



Everyone knows Debussy’s piano piece Clair de lune (Moonlight), one of the most memorably tuneful pieces in the classical-music repertoire. Fewer people know his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, known as a “symphonic poem for orchestra”. This piece is only 10 minutes long, yet it marks a turning point in the history of music. In this piece, Debussy broke all previous expectations of what music could actually do. The classical musical tradition, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms, put great emphasis on musical form, the structure that organizes a musical idea. Rather than crafting a structured musical form, Debussy felt free to use instruments in big or small groups to achieve his desired effect. The theme in his music is the actual sound of the instruments themselves, not created by chord progressions, rhythms, harmonies, etc. in European traditional music. 

Debussy wrote this piece based on a poem about a creature in Greek mythology – a half goat and half man, and the creature’s lust and imagination for women. It is truly remarkable how he displays the imagination and wondering of the mind when sexual and physical aesthetics comes into play. This piece vividly depicts a mysterious afternoon – that magical place where siestas and dreams converge in the middle of the very real day. It recalls for me the sorts of feelings I had as a child when I first saw a rainbow or watched the leaves changing in autumn. That is the magic of music. It evokes our memories and innermost feelings. It unleashes our creativity and imagination. 

Debussy and the Impressionists had a lot in common. They are truly masters of light and color. The Impressionists are adept at depicting the ephemeral nature of light and the passing of time through thick, conspicuous strokes. For Monet, the color, light, and brushstrokes suggest the sunrise just as well as if one were truly standing under the sun’s warmth. Rather than imitating natural light, they hint at it such that the viewer could feel, interpret, and interact with it for themselves. In the same way that Monet sought to suggest nature with light and color, Debussy ‘painted’ music in new and exciting ways. Much of his work uses harmony and texture in a way that recalls the light and color of Impressionist painting. When you hear his music, you can vividly picture in your mind the tenderness of moonlight or the pink clouds in a cozy autumn afternoon. Debussy is often seen as the first Impressionist composer, although he vigorously rejected the term. Perhaps Debussy’s philosophy of music is best reflected in a letter of advice to a student: “Collect impressions. Do not be in a hurry to write them down. That is something music can do better than painting. It can centralize variations of color and light within a single picture — a truth generally ignored.”



NAF programme title:
 Radiance of Hope - NUS Symphony Orchestra