Claude Debussy
Mandoline and Nocturnes

Born: 22 August 1862 in St. Germain-en-Laye (near Paris)
Died: 25 March 1918 in Paris

{Biography} {Mandoline} {Nocturnes} {Works} {Bibliography}


A note on his name: Debussy was born Achille-Claude, and went by Achille when he was young, as can be seen on programs of early performances of his music. His last name was sometimes also spelled de Bussy early in his life. Mandoline, published in 1890, gives his name as Cl. A. Debussy, but in later publications he is Claude Debussy.

Debussy came from modest circumstances: his father ran a china shop when Debussy was young and wanted him to be a sailor. Despite that parental wish, the future composer entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10. Unconventional from the start, he was critical of much of his education, though he did manage to win the coveted Prix de Rome. His composition teacher was Ernest Guiraud, best known today for supplying recitatives for Bizet's Carmen. Surprisingly, Debussy did not begin composition studies until late 1880.

While still a student, the composer met two women who greatly influenced his future. One was Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy Russian woman who had supported Tchaikovsky for many years despite never meeting him personally. Debussy was hired by her as a kind of house musician for periods of several months at a time, including the summers of 1880 and 1882. He taught her children piano, played duets with her, and performed with other musicians in a trio. He stayed with her family in various locales across Europe, including Florence, Vienna, and Moscow, and was exposed to a wide variety of Russian music at this time including, not surprisingly, that of Tchaikovsky. This employment was preceded by his equally romantic summer job of 1879: he played piano at the glorious château of Chenonceaux, which is built so that it extends partway across the Loire River.

The other important woman in the young composer’s life was Marie Vasnier. Debussy met her when he was just 18; she was 32 and had been married since the age of 17 to a man who was eleven years her senior. Both Marie and her husband befriended Debussy, and he rapidly fell in love and remained extremely close to her for many years. It is our great good fortune that she was a talented singer, for she inspired Debussy’s earliest songs, including Mandoline.

In 1883 Debussy was runner-up for the Prix de Rome; the following year he won with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue. The prize was a minimum of two years in Rome; Debussy barely stayed that long. He was reluctant to go in the first place, leaving only at the last possible moment, and before quitting Paris he copied thirteen of his songs (including Mandoline) into a manuscript, now called the “Vasnier Songbook,” that he presented to his beloved as a farewell gift.

Prix de Rome winners were expected to send annual large-scale works back to Paris; these could be either for orchestra or for chorus and orchestra. Among Debussy’s efforts was La damoiselle élue, which uses a female chorus, but it was finished only after he returned to Paris. At this time Debussy was an ardent Wagnerian, capable of playing Tristan by heart, and he visited Bayreuth in both 1888 and 1889. But he soon turned away from the German master, declaring that Wagner “was a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn,” and began to transform himself into a “musicien français.” This was done partly through close association with French writers and artists, including Stéphane Mallarmé, author of the poem “L’Après-midi d’un faune” that would be such an important inspiration for the composer. Debussy’s move away from German influence was also hastened by his exposure to music at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, where he heard a Javanese gamelan for the first time.

During much of the 1890s Debussy was involved in the composition of his only completed opera, the brilliant Pelléas et Mélisande. This was an almost literal setting of the very successful play by Maurice Maeterlinck that also inspired works by Fauré (gorgeous incidental music, 1898), Schönberg (symphonic poem, 1903), and Sibelius (incidental music, 1905). Debussy’s opera at first appeared to be headed for trouble: Maeterlinck caused serious difficulties because he wanted his mistress to play Mélisande (Mary Garden took the role instead), and the 1902 premiere was not especially successful. But the power of the work soon made itself felt, and Debussy became famous—at least in the world of music.

By this time Debussy was married; after living with Gabrielle Dupont for most of the 1890s, he wed Rosalie (Lilly) Texier in 1899 and (at least for a while) appeared to be very happy. In 1903, however, he met Emma Bardac, an artistically sensitive married woman who had previously been involved with Fauré. A great scandal ensued when Debussy moved in with Emma the following year; his wife attempted suicide and he lost many of his friends. The double divorce took years and the composer was not able to wed again until 1908, by which time he also had a child, a beloved daughter called Chouchou (born in 1905) but actually named Claude-Emma (Claude, unlike Achille, is also a woman’s name in French; the romantic origin of the child’s name is transparent).

Debussy’s last compositions are widely seen as paying homage to music from the distant past: his Violin Sonata, Cello Sonata, and Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola, for example, were all part of a projected series of six sonatas reminiscent of the eighteenth century (in concept rather than specific style). But they were written under both the cloud of World War I and the pain of the rectal cancer that killed the composer in March of 1918. His too-early death spared him, at least, from witnessing the death of his beloved daughter the following year.

It is striking how much sorrow and depression filled Debussy’s life. In addition to the numerous upheavals in his personal life and his long-lasting final illness, which began in 1909, he was plagued almost without cease by financial difficulties (for a period beginning in 1895 he received a monthly stipend from the publisher Georges Hartmann, but that did not last). Equally heartbreaking to us today is the fact that his creative years are strewn with an extraordinarily large number of projects begun and then abandoned. No other major composer has left so much unfinished work. But despite any regrets we may have about what might have been, Debussy remains one of the most brilliant and innovative composers in the history of Western art music. He left a treasury of almost unbelievable music that truly altered the history of sound.


Debussy wrote relatively little choral music. Aside from various lost, unfinished, or unpublished works we have a single piece for chorus alone, the Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898–1908). Works that pair chorus with orchestra include Le printemps (1882, with female chorus), Invocation (1883, with male chorus), the cantata La damoiselle élue, which uses women’s chorus (1887–1888), and the incidental music to Le martyre de St Sébastien (1910–1911). Far more famous than any of these is Sirènes, the third and final movement of Nocturnes, where the sixteen-voice women’s chorus wordlessly recalls the artful sirens of mythology; see the discussion above.

Mandoline, of course, is not originally a choral work but instead a song on a text by French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896). The composition dates from the period of Debussy’s infatuation with Mme Vasnier (it is dated 25 November 1882, in Vienna), and when the song was published in 1890 it was dedicated to her (the last one to be so), even though Debussy was no longer close to her or her family. Though it is now perhaps the most popular of the composer’s early songs, it did not receive a public performance until 1904. Alan Raines has arranged the song for three-part treble chorus, a version especially welcome given the paucity of choral writing by one of the greatest composers of fin-de-siècle Europe.

Text and Translation

Les donneurs de sérénades
Et les belles écouteuses
Echangent des propos fades
Sous les ramures chanteuses.

C’est Tircis et c’est Aminte
Et c’est l’éternel Clitandre
Et c’est Damis qui pour mainte
Cruelle fait maint vers tendre.

Leurs courtes vestes de soie,
Leurs longues robes à queues,
Leur élegance, leur joie
Et leur molles ombres bleues,

Tourbillonnent dans l’extase
D’une lune rose et grise
Et la mandoline jase
Parmi les frissons de brise.

The serenaders
And the beautiful listeners
Exchange idle talk
Under the singing branches.

It’s Tircis and it’s Aminte
And it’s the eternal Clitandre
And it’s Damis who, for many
A cruel one, makes many a tender verse.

Their short silk jackets,
Their long trailing gowns,
Their elegance, their joy,
And their soft blue shadows

Swirl in the ecstasy
Of a moon pink and gray,
And the mandolin chatters
Among the shivers of the breeze.

Verlaine’s poem comes from his second collection, Fêtes galantes (1869), which was to inspire many songs by Debussy. Mandoline (also set by Fauré, in 1891) is an especially musical text, with its references to serenaders, singing branches, and of course the mandolin itself. Tircis, Aminte, Clitandre, and Damis are all pastoral names in keeping with the outdoor theme of the poem. Tircis is the name of a shepherd in La Fontaine’s Fables, for example, while Aminte is the subject of a pastoral by Torquato Tasso, and Clitandre appears, paired with Pierrot, in another Debussy song written the same year as Mandoline.

Debussy chooses a spritely 6/8 meter for his setting. The harmonic ambiguity that characterizes much of his music is present from the start. The piano part opens with an octave grace note to a held G (the arrangement is in the same key as the original song) and then proceeds to strumming chords that are composed of the stacked fifths G, D, and A. Not coincidentally, these are the pitches of the three lowest strings of a mandolin, and while strumming is used for all plucked string instruments, it is especially typical of a mandolin. The voices enter over this mildly dissonant yet appropriate accompaniment with a melody that at first suggests d minor before an unexpected G# intrudes. We are off and running with a song whose harmonic dips and sways both match the swirling of the characters and make it more challenging for singers to learn than one might anticipate.

The four stanzas of the poem are clearly delineated in an ABCA form, with the C section especially marked by a temporary slowing of the tempo via duplet rhythms. This is coupled with a shift (also temporary, as we might expect) to E Major before the song modulates back to the opening vocal melody. Debussy tacks on a light-hearted “la la la” closing in a solid C Major (or almost—transient flats keep intruding in the accompaniment) before ending exactly as he began, with a solo piano G preceded by an octave grace note leap—a G that, because it is the fifth of the final sonority, rather than the tonic, leaves us not quite as settled as we might expect.


This is one of those pieces where the music’s not so hard, but the words are the problem.

That’s a joke.  Nocturnes is famous for its wordless women’s chorus in the third and final movement.  The composition was completed at the end of an incredible decade of creation that included the songs of Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1890), the keyboard works Deux arabesques and the wonderful Suite bergamasque that includes the famous Clair de lune (both around 1890), his first set of Fêtes galantes songs (1891), the terrific String Quartet (1893), the epochal Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), the Prose lyriques songs (1895), the first version of Pelléas et Melisande (1895), the Chansons de Bilitis (1898), and work on both the gorgeous Pour le piano and his only real stand-alone choral composition, the Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans.  Debussy said that writing Nocturnes was more trouble than writing his (five-act) opera. 

Nocturnes began in 1894 as a work for solo violin and orchestra, intended for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931); his ensemble had premiered Debussy’s String Quartet.  Debussy’s initial version assigned the first nocturne’s accompaniment to strings alone, the second’s to flutes, four horns, three trumpets, and two harps, and the third’s to a combination of the two groups.  Ysaÿe declined to perform the work, however, and all material for that version is now lost. 

Debussy returned to the work in December 1897, jettisoning the solo violin and the quirky orchestration, and completed it in December 1899, though he continued to revise the orchestration for years thereafter.  The work was dedicated to Georges Hartmann, publisher of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and provider of the monthly stipend that kept Debussy afloat financially.  The first performance, by the orchestra of the Concerts Lamoureux on 9 December 1900, was of the first two movements only (more on that below), and they weren’t much of a success.  The first full performance was almost eleven months later, on 27 October 1901, and wasn’t a hit either, as the chorus was out of tune.  Debussy unkindly referred to the singers in that performance as “little cows who tried to repesent the Sirens;” one critic likened the vocal parts to the modes of ancient Greek music.  By 1913 the first and third movements had been choreographed, with veils providing a key prop. 

What, then, is a nocturne?  The general meaning is that of a “night” piece, and it’s taken various shapes over the centuries.  If you ever studied medieval music, you probably learned that the monastic office that takes place during the night hours, “Matins” (yes, the name refers to “morning”) consisted of one or more sections known as “nocturns” that included, among other things, the chanting of psalms, antiphons, responses, and so on.  When it comes to instrumental music, though, we must fast forward to the eighteenth century, where the “notturno” was a work usually performed outdoors at night (ca. 11:00 p.m.); the term covers a variety of possibilities, with some works including voices.  The most famous “night” piece of this time is, of course, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 (“A Little Night Music.”)

The term “nocturne” proper first turns up as a name for keyboard works by Irish pianist John Field (1782–1837).  These works were important predecessors to Chopin’s nineteen evocative compositions with the same title (in chronological order, Opp. 72, 9, 15, 27, 32, 37, 48, 55, 62).  Many other piano and orchestral “night” works and movements were written over the next two centuries; they include the Nocturne movement in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the series of keyboard works by Fauré, the Nocturne in the third symphony of Vaughan Williams, the “Night Music” movement in Bartók’s Out of Doors piano suite, the Nocturne movement in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings (the movement sets Tennyson’s “The splendour falls on castle walls”; Holst sets the same text in his music for The Princess but doesn’t label it a nocturne), and Britten’s song cycle Op. 60, Nocturne, which consists of seven songs for tenor, seven obbligato instruments, and strings. 

With Debussy, however, the standard meaning was not necessarily what he had in mind.  The (unsigned) program for the first performance states that “The title ‘Nocturne’ in this case takes a more general and above all decorative meaning.  It refers not to the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather to everything that the word conjures up in impressions and in plays of light.”  It’s also quite possible that Debussy drew some inspiration from the evocative paintings of his friend James Whistler, fifty or so in number, that bear the title “Nocturne.” 

Debussy’s Nocturnes are tripartite, with the first movement representing “Nuages” (clouds), the second “Fêtes” (festivals), and the third “Sirènes” (sirens).  The anonymous program from the first performance describes the movements as follows (translation from the Critical Edition of the score, though I’ve tweaked that for Sirènes):

Nuages: This is the unchanging aspect of the sky with the slow and melancholy movement of the clouds, extinguishing in a gray softly tinted with white.

Fêtes: This is the movement, the dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with flashes of sudden light.  It is also the episode of a procession (a dazzling and fantastic vision) passing through a party and getting entangled with it.  But the backdrop remains, persists, and it is still the party and its mix of music, of luminous dust participating in the overall rhythm.

Sirènes: This is the sea and its innumerable rhythms; then, among the waves silvered by the moon, one hears the mysterious song of the Sirens laugh and pass on. 

Here’s the original French of this last in case you want to do your own translation:  “C’est la mer et son rythme innombrable, puis, parmi les vagues argentées de lune, s’entend, rit et passe le chant mystérieux des Sirènes.” 

We singers, of course, represent the mythical Sirens, women whose songs could drive men at sea to destruction.  Sirens show up in, among other places, the Odyssey (they are on an island near Scylla and Charybdis; Odysseus has his sailors fill their ears with wax to save themselves. Odysseus alone, lashed to the mast, hears their song—high-pitched and clear-toned, according to Homer—that tempts him with the knowledge of all things); in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts (where the lute-playing of Orpheus, more beautiful than the Sirens’ song, saves the Argonauts); and in Plato’s Republic, where Sirens make the famous music of the spheres, unheard by humans (the eight heavenly bodies each produce a separate pitch sung by a Siren; the eight notes make up the scale).  Sirens also lose a singing contest with the Muses, though sometimes they are considered daughters of the Muses.  In artistic representation Sirens can be birds with women’s heads; half women, half birds; or just beautiful women (choruses normally opt for the last in performances of Debussy).  Representations can include musical instruments as well.  In the Middle Ages Sirens acquire fish-tails.  Their strong association with death presents a negative view of both women and music, with allegorical representation of lust and the desire for knowledge (shades of Eve!) among other things.  But their celestial music could also waft souls heavenward.

As noted, the Nocturnes are famous for their use of wordless chorus, a practice found in numerous other pieces from the well-known Humming Chorus in Madama Butterfly (1903),  Daphnis and Chloe of Ravel (1912; Ravel had made a two-piano version of Sirènes in 1901), and Holst’s Planets (finished 1916) to the obscure Poème roumain of 1897 by George Enescu (don’t know that work?  It’s actually rather nice.  I have it on a CD with his sexy First Roumanian Rhapsody, the work by which he remains best known).  The Nocturnes weren’t even the first time Debussy used wordless chorus.  In his unfinished Printemps, written during his stay in Rome, he states that the “choral part is wordless and treated, rather, as a section of the orchestra.”  The chorus has the same orchestral role in Nocturnes, and Denis Herlin, editor of the Critical Edition, believes that Debussy was the very first to use a wordless women’s chorus in any capacity.  No clues in the score, though, as to what vowel sound we should use. 

Performing forces for Nocturnes are 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 harps, timpani, cymbals, side drum, five-part strings (though each part is divisi from time to time) and—ready for this?—sixteen women’s voices.  Yes, you read that correctly—sixteen: eight sopranos and eight mezzos.

“Ha!” you are thinking, as does pretty much every singer or choral conductor who’s seen the score.  Sixteen women against the full orchestra?  Unless eight of their names are Gerhilde, Helmwige, Waltraute, Schwertleite, Orlinde, Siegrune, Grimgerde, and Rossweisse (Brünnhilde’s eight Valkyrie sisters), how are they going to be heard? 

Well, if you had sixteen members of the Metropolitan Opera chorus, or similar professional chorus, they could probably do the trick.  But we all know that professional orchestras rely on (good) amateur choruses when they need choral voices, and, in general, sixteen just won’t do it.  For one thing, the parts themselves are often divisi, so that you sometimes have a grand total of two (2!) voices on an individual line. 

However—Debussy had something rather different in mind than what we modern performers expect.  In an unpublished letter of 1903, quoted in the Critical Edition, Debussy wrote “I would ask you to make sure that the chorus is placed within the orchestra and not in front, which would result in an effect diametrically opposite to that which I am looking for: this vocal group should not be more prominent than any other section of the orchestra.  In short, they should not stand out, but rather blend in.” 

Several points here: first, choruses (at least sometimes in this period) would be in front of the orchestra.  More importantly, Debussy wanted the singers “within” the orchestra.  I have never seen, heard, or done a performance that does this, but evidently they do exist. Certainly the idea is an amazing one, where the voices really would arise from within the musical texture.  And here sixteen (really good) voices would seem to make sense, as any more singers than that crammed into the substantial Debussyan orchestra would make things rather crowded.  In fact, there wasn’t enough room at the premiere to include the singers—hence the truncation to the score (Nocturnes wasn’t the only piece to suffer; the men’s chorus had to be omitted from Liszt’s Faust Symphony when it was performed in the same venue, the hall of the Nouveau-Théâtre in Paris).

Nowadays, of course, the chorus is typically placed in back of the orchestra, and you’d be hard put to find a rendition with fewer than two dozen singers, and more often 40 or more.  But it’s fascinating to imagine performing smack in the midst of the orchestra, and I would love to try it one day—as long as we could still be audible.  The movement is named for us, after all. 

Debussy does a great job of interspersing us throughout the movement, bringing us in on the second measure and then alternating our vocal bits with purely orchestral writing throughout—really a nice evocation of our intermittant Siren calls.  There’s lots of gradual addition among the parts (when we come in again after rehearsal 1, for example) and plenty of trading back and forth among the different voice parts, though these days most choruses double up sopranos and mezzos (e.g. at rehearsal 2, giving the top mezzo line to sopranos and the bottom to mezzos, and then spliting the soprano line that follows the same way).  Same with the very nice trade-off among voices with our entrance after rehearsal 5.  The section beginning four before rehearsal 10 and lasting for the next twelve measures is especially interesting, with the same (or slightly varied) material exchanged among the four voice parts (though again most choruses simplify things by reassigning the parts so that singers don’t go crazy with voice-crossing). 

A word on editions.  Here’s the material that editors work from: Debussy’s “short score” (this lays out the basic material for the work, but not the full orchestration), Debussy’s full orchestral score, two incomplete sets of proofs for the first edition (there was a third set of proofs, now lost), the first edition itself (from 1900 or 1901), two copies of the first edition that each have corrections in Debussy’s hand (and they disagree with each other), and a set of early orchestral parts, filled with errors.  Whew!  Plus, in 1930 (a dozen years after Debussy’s death), the French publisher Durand (not the publisher of the original score) brought out a revised edition.  The revised edition, though, had its own set of problems, and in 1999 Durand brought out a new edition as part of the Debussy critical edition—the most complete and definitive version of a very complicated piece as far as musical sources go. 

It’s the 1930 score that most people know and that most (but not all) performances use.  Some use the “original” version that lacks all of the many changes (improvements!) Debussy made.  Thus, the atmospheric alternating open fifths in both harps that open Sirènes are missing—boo!  More crucially for singers is the passage beginning eight measures before the conclusion of the work.  In Debussy’s revision, this opens with a short clarinet motive that is immediately repeated by the mezzos; the same thing happens in the following measure.  In the original, the clarinets are silent.  Instead, the “clarinet” part is sung by the mezzos.  Thus, rather than “clarinet motive/mezzo motive/clarinet motive/mezzo motive” for those two measures, we have the same motive presented four times in a row by the mezzos.  Aside from the fact that this is much less interesting musically than the alternation Debussy substituted, it is MUCH easier for us to get our pitches if we’re just echoing the clarinets.  Otherwise we need to wrench our C# E from the previous (and continuing) sonority of the seventh chord G B D F, creating two minor second dissonances.  Not nice, even if we do get a bit of help from the earlier trumpet melody, which includes a C#. 

Those who prefer to use the new critical edition must give up a lovely part of the version usually played.  At rehearsal number 5 mezzos begin our descent from the Db.  Two measures after 5, the lowest voices begin the rocking motion between Eb and Db.  Two measures later the motion slows down.  In the first edition and the 1930 Durand score the lowest voices have two measures of half note alternation between Eb and Db followed by a whole note on Db (tied to the previous half note) against rocking motion in the horns.  But apparently the second of those “half-note” measures is a mistake on the part of the original publisher, and the part should instead be a single measure of half notes tied to the whole note measure—women thus not singing against the horns.  I do love singing against the horns there, though, so I take some consolation in knowing that Debussy (apparently) did not “correct” this printer’s error and thus sanctioned our hanging on into the orchestral sonority at that point.

In terms of actual performance, the Peters piano/vocal score of 1989 lets you see what’s going on musically when you’re not singing, in contrast to the Durand vocal score of 1999 that, dreadfully, includes no instrumental part at all.  You’re supposed to just count rests and pluck your part out of thin air.  For myself I prefer to sing from the miniature score.

The musical style of Sirènes is pure Debussy (though we should remember that this is one of the pieces that really establishes that style).  Take harmony, for example.  In Sirènes we have key signatures throughout the work, starting with B major (five sharps), moving to Gb major (six flats) at rehearsal 5, then C major (or A minor; more on that shortly—the point is, no sharps or flats) at rehearsal 9, and then back to B major at rehearsal 10.  Well, that’s quite a little tour around our various tonal options, and not a progression you’re going to find earlier in the century.  On second glance it’s not *quite* as impossible as it might seem, because Gb is the enharmonic dominant (F#) of B major, and a modulation to the dominant is a standard harmonic move in common-practice tonality.  However!!!  We almost never feel as if we are in any of these keys, because Debussy is uninterested in establishing the normal kinds of harmonic stability, harmonic tension, and harmonic resolution that drives the music of pretty much everyone before him.  Strong cadences?  Normally avoided like crazy.  To give just a few examples of Debussy’s harmonic treatment here: the first sonority of the movement is an open fifth on F# (the dominant of B), and we enter on a clear F# major triad, but it doesn’t sound like the dominant because Debussy hasn’t established B as the tonal center and doesn’t really intend to do so—by measure 5 the A# required in B major has moved to A natural, and so on.  When we eventually switch to the Gb major key signature we do have a good clear resolution on—well, not actually Gb, as the key signature suggests, but rather the dominant Db.  When Debussy eliminates sharps and flats in the key signature at rehearsal 9, implying either C major or A minor, our first pitch is that very strong C#, a note belonging to neither key.  Really, almost the only time Debussy seems to pay attention to the key signature is at the very end, where we do finally conclude in B major. 

Debussy keeps us guessing harmonically as well through slithery chromatic lines; he likes the whole tone scale (look at our part in the measure before 10, with G# A# B C# against E F# G# A# and down again); then in the next measure we’ve got the unstable diminished triad of D# F# A—boy do I love coming in on that A natural!; and so on.  Of course the slinky lines help evoke our treacherous Sireny identity (the association of chromatic movement with unstable women goes back to the sixteenth century), but Debussy uses this kind of melodic writing pretty much anywhere in his mature music.  All this means it’s not easy to get a handle on just where we are tonally, which is what Debussy intended.  And of course his brilliance is that it all makes aural sense anyway. 

Another feature absolutely typical of Debussy is his incredible rhythmic flexibility.  Both 12/8 and 4/4 are used, with a few oddball measures, thrown in here and there, but any kind of metric accent destroys the mood Debussy wants to create.  He likes having all sorts of different rhythms going on simultaneously, with various parts playing off against each other and thus thickening the texture.  I’m quite fond of rehearsal 5, for example, where our mezzo A-B-C-B-A etc. is staggered on the offbeat against the straightforward presentation of the same pitch sequence in the violins and violas.  This makes it all the more powerful when the orchestra lines up rhythmically, such as in the three measures beginning at rehearsal 7 (with yet more rhythmic flexibility between the large-scale triplet notation and the expressive tempo indications). 

There’s much more to be said about Debussy’s style, but a key thing to remember is the unbelievably significant role he played in pulling music into the twentieth century.  It’s arguable that no composer was more important than Debussy in turning his back on compositional expectations while providing a viable and lasting alternative—certainly much more so than Stravinsky or Schönberg, two composers usually named for their crucial role in modernism.  No one could conjure an evocative image better than Debussy, and composers have been stealing his tricks now for more than a century.

A personal note

I first sang this with Sir Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  We sang it in both Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, and we also recorded it.  That recording is now out of print, which is a shame—it really is gorgeous!  So singing the work again brings back lots of good memories: the magic of being in the closed Symphony Hall for the recording sessions, working with a superb conductor, a summer night at Tanglewood—and of course the unsurpassable glory of singing Debussy, a composer who so rarely turned to choral writing.  How immensely satisfying, at the end of this long gorgeous work, to resolve to that final low B, perfectly set up, perfectly delayed, perfectly sustained against triple p strings, harp and string harmonics!  What a gift!

Works (selected)

A complete works edition, published by Durand-Costallat, is in progress.


  • Children’s Corner
    (includes The Snow is Dancing)
  • Deux arabesques
  • En blanc et noir (for two pianos)
  • Estampes
    Pagodes / Soirée dans Grenade / Jardins sous la pluie
  • Études, Bks. 1 & 2
  • Images, Series 1 (1905)
    Reflets dans l’eau / Hommage à Rameau / Mouvement
  • Images, Series 2 (1907)
    Cloches à travers les feuilles / Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut / Poissons d’or
  • L’Isle joyeuse
  • Pour le piano
  • Preludes, Bks. 1 & 2
  • Suite bergamasque (includes Clair de lune)


  • Ariettes oubliées
  • Chansons de Bilitis
  • Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire
  • Clair de lune
  • En sourdine
  • Fêtes galantes, Sets 1 & 2
  • Mandoline
  • Le Promenoir des deux amants
  • Proses lyriques
  • Trois ballades de Villon
  • Trois Chansons de France
  • Trois poèmes de Mallarmé


  • Cello Sonata
  • Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola
  • String Quartet in gm
  • Syrinx for solo flute (Flûte de Pan /
    Piece for Psyché)
  • Violin Sonata

Choral Works/Cantatas

  • La Damoiselle élue (with women’s chorus)
  • L’Enfant prodigue (w/solo voices; no chorus)
  • Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans


  • Images
    Gigues / Iberia / Rondes de printemps
  • La Mer (autograph manuscript of short score in Sibley Library!)
  • Nocturnes (wordless women’s chorus in Mvt. 3)
    (Nuages / Fêtes / Sirènes)
  • Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune
    (Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun)


  • Jeux (for Diaghilev’s Ballets russes)
  • Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien (for dancer Ida Rubinstein)
  • Pelléas et Mélisande


The bibliography on Debussy is extensive. Selected items are given below.

Debussy’s Writings

Beginning in 1901 Debussy wrote music criticism, first for Revue blanche and then for Gil Blas, under the name of Monsieur Croche. François Lesure collected and published these writings as Monsieur Croche et autres écrits; an English translation by Richard Langham Smith is available as Debussy on Music (Secker and Warburg, 1977).

Debussy’s Correspondence, 1872–1918 has been published by Gallimard (2005). A selection of letters, translated by Roger Nichols, appears in Debussy Letters (Faber and Faber, 1987).


Roger Nichols, The Life of Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 1998) is a short but helpful book for the non-specialist that includes a very useful annotated bibliography. Longer studies, now somewhat dated, include:

  1. Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 2 vols. (2nd ed., 1978)
  2. Marcel Dietschy, A Portrait of Claude Debussy (Clarendon Press, 1990). This is an English translation by William Ashbrook and Margaret C. Cobb of a book originally published in 1962 as La Passion de Claude Debussy. The translators have edited and corrected the original, provided more source references, and omitted some of the author’s personal comments.
  3. Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist (first published in 1937 and reprinted, unabridged and slightly corrected, by Dover in 1967). Though not always accurate, this first American biography of the composer has several useful features, including a translation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune as well as an extended section on the composer’s music that is helpfully organized by pieces within genre.

Reference Works

  • François Lesure, Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Claude Debussy (Minkoff, 1977).
  • James R. Briscoe, Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research (Garland, 1990).
  • François Lesure, Claude Debussy (Minkoff, 1975). This is an iconography.
  • Debussy’s song texts are annotated in Margaret G. Cobb, The Poetic Debussy, trans. Richard Miller (2nd ed., University of Rochester Press, 1994).

Other Studies

  • Simon Tresize, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Richard Langham Smith, ed., Debussy Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Roger Nichols & Richard Langham Smith, Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (Cambridge Opera Handbook, Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Not surprisingly, there is no study of Debussy as a choral composer.

Revised January 2018