150 years ago, Claude Debussy was born, on the 22th of august. This French composer was a key figure of a crucial period of French history. Basically, we can say that, for what concerns a precise period, Debussy is to music what is Proust to literature and Bergson to philosophy.
Debussy means the triumph of the developed bourgeoisie. It is not the struggling bourgeoisie any more, that had to fight against restoration in the years following Napoleon's debacle. It is not the worried bourgeoisie from 1848 and 1871, when the masses that helped the bourgeoisie to win over the aristocracy tried to “continue” the democratic revolution.
No, Debussy is the composer of the Belle époque, the “beautiful era”; his music is full of impressions, of psychology, like Proust's books and Bergson's philosophy, or Mallarmé's poetry.
In this sense, Debussy is a “modernist”. He produces the music asked by impressionism and symbolism. He doesn't have the romanticist content of Nerval, Baudelaire, Verlaine or Rimbaud; he only takes the modernist aspect of them, rejecting the revolutionary aspect of it.
Debussy's music prefigures Disney's movies music; it is empty of any epic dimension. It is just soft, mysterious, without melody, just smooth like a bourgeois dance and the bourgeois feeling of “liberty” that goes with it.
Debussy's music is so like the poetry of his friend Mallarmé: sensorial without any serious construction, without goal. It is art for art, with dissonance used to strength the individual sensitive aspect.
In this sense, Debussy is modern, and that is why the bourgeoisie all over the world considers him as a great composer, that opened the door for modern music and jazz (in its bourgeois dimension).
And it is logic that Debussy was more and more oriented in Baroque music. If we give a historical look to the history of any decadent class, we always find the “grotesque” and disharmony, the lack of soul.
This accusation is the most important one: Debussy lacks of soul, he calls the listener to individualist pleasure. Not that feelings can not be personal – but these feelings have necessarily an universal dimension: love, compassion, symbiosis.
But Debussy doesn't call to this, he calls to a passive individual attitude, like Proust's literature, like Mallarmé's poetry, like Bergson's philosophy.
Debussy was very aware of this anti-epic aspect; here is what he says about his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902):
“I wanted the action to never stop, that it was continuous, uninterrupted. The melody is anti-lyrcal. It is powerless to translate the mobility of souls and life.
I never consented to my music to rush or to delay, due to the technical requirements, the movement of feelings and passions of my characters. It disappears as soon as she should leave them complete freedom of their gestures, their cries, their joy and their pain.”
This is an outspoken bourgeois individualism, the negation of the synthesis, the negation of opera as “gesamtkunstwerk”, total artwork, that romanticism tried to find (in opera) at the time where it was the banner against feudal formalism.
This is why Debussy could say something as ridiculous as :
“See the sun rise is more useful than listening to the Pastoral Symphony.”
Opposing a masterwork of Beethoven to nature is non-sense, but a non-sense that is logical: Debussy want a “personal” view of sunrise, which he opposes to the principle of symphony, of movement.
Debussy thinks of watching the “sunrise” as merely passive, based on individualism; he rejects the universal aspect of it, that romanticism nearly understood.
Debussy is against movement and universalism; he is a bourgeois esthete in the spirit of the Belle époque, just before the first imperialist war (Debussy was born in 1862 and died in 1918). At the end of his life, he demanded that appends to its name the words “French musician”.
With Debussy, 150 years ago, the bourgeoisie found his reactionary agent in music, which favored the disappearing of melody and subject, the use of music as simple background to produce individual colored moods.