These quotes are written by Claude Debussy in his book ‘Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater’. I took some of them, because they made me think….I wrote down my thoughts just the way they came to me…and will probably rewrite them over time…

On soloists

The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always a hope that something dangerous may happen.

C. Debussy

I find that we often go to a concert to see and hear how the impossible is done on an instrument. But did we hear music? Or a technical demonstration? Of course for a composer it is nice to know the limitations of an instrument, but what should a composer write when he found that out already? Music or tricks?

Specialisation (on one instrument) is for me the narrowing of my universe. It reminds me of those old horses who, in bygone days, worked the roundabouts and died to the well- known strains of the Marche Lorraine!

C. Debussy

I find that I like all instruments, I don’t have a particular like of dislike for any instrument. All instruments, when played well, are beautiful. I have always been learning to play different instruments, because I like discovering instruments. People always thought I was nuts when I was happily demonstrating a new instrument again, but since I am composing they think of this as a smart move

Musicians, on the other hand, do have that special like for the sound of their own instrument. Gary Karr (Double Bass soloist) said once: “Find the instrument that sounds the way you would love your voice to sound like when you are singing.” And those musicians can express everything on their instrument, for them, this is not a narrowing of their universe but setting a limit to become more creative. You could think of composers as indecisive musicians.

Or you could think of composers as lazy: not limiting their options and choose just one instrument to write for. It is the best way to discover how orchestration messes with the heart of your composition: the form, the notes, the chords, the melodies…Is your composition interesting when it is played on a piano? Or does that leave you empty handed?

On succes, vanity, status, ranking, standing

Though we may be certain that some great men have a stubborn determination always to break fresh ground, it is not so with many others, who do nothing but repeat the thing in which they have once succeeded.

C. Debussy

When you keep doing the same, you get the same result. When you like the result, that is not a problem. Keep doing the same, but don’t expect the magic to happen. When you wish for something new, you will have to go another path and try it many times to get it right. This is called learning. Children are very good at it, they keep trying to walk and in the end run through te garden. So, don’t be a pussy, be a child. Learn!

To be unique, faultless! The enthusiasm of society spoils an artist for me, such is my fear that, as a result, he will become merely an expression of society.

C. Debussy

Never underestimate your audience: when more than 8 people don’t like it: It’s just not good enough. I learned this doing improv theatre, the audience is always right. There is this thought that you might be able to write music to please the audience and the musicians. But this can’t be done: Audiences, musicians and conductors know, whether you wrote music that was true to your heart of just a composition to please. They will appreciate originality, they love that! So as a humble servant to musicians, conductors and audiences, you have to write true music. A composition should not only please them, but also the composer. Or it is not the true music that everybody will understand and appreciate.

Suddenly somebody tapped me on the shoulder, and said breathlessly: “You’ve won the prize!” Believe me or not, I can assure you that all my pleasure vanished! I saw in a flash the boredom, the vexations inevitably incident to the slightest official recognition. Besides, I felt that I was no longer free.

C. Debussy

I wrote the composition ‘Lorelei’ for the Wasbe 2019 composer competition. I had a lot of doubts while writing it, but in the end, I did write a composition that was really ‘me’. Then I found out who won, it was a composition commissioned by our local wind band and we had already heard it live in our own church. Such a coincidence!

But …I didn’t recall anything of the composition, not even the 5 notes they explained upfront.

I remember only that the percussionist had a very cunning way of dampening the low concert drum with his leg.

It was modern, a bit atonal, avant-garde. I recognized the style of that composition as the music I am trying to escape. It is this music that I feel has taken music away from me. I stole my love for classical music, it stopped me from playing new music.

So I know now in advance, I will never win that competition, but I might win the heart of musicians and audiences.

It is most noticeable that no one was ever known to whistle Bach. Such lip service has not been denied to Wagner when the doors of the concert rooms are opened and the pampered prisoners are released from their padded seats and there is heard in the streets the cheerful whistling of the Spring Song* or of the opening phrase of the Meister singers. I am well aware that, for many people, this is the pinnacle of fame for music. One may, however, think otherwise without an excess of abnormality.

C. Debussy

For me music is a remembering-game. I think that a composer did a great job, when people can whistle the melodie after a concert. The brain does really enjoy repetition in music, it wants to remember. When the music is too difficult to remember even while hearing it, music will never be really enjoyable for humans. It will be ‘mathematical’ music instead of ‘ psychological’ music. When I am at a funeral, what would comfort me? Atonal? Stockhausen? It’s not math you need, when your soul got scratches, is it?

In art the struggle is more often against oneself alone and victories so achieved are perhaps the finest. By a curious irony, however, we are afraid of a victory over ourselves, and it seems preferable to be quietly merged in the public or to imitate our friends, which amounts to the same thing.

C. Debussy

This is a very true point: It is really hard to write music that is true to your heart. You have to live the music to be able to write it and be sure it feels right. And you have to do that over and over and over… because you want something new and you in order to do that, you have to learn how to write it. Composing makes you very vulnerable, because you write what you are and there is no place to hide.

It is far more easy to just listen to other composers and imitate them. People will accept what you made, because they remember the original. It is also way easier to write more ‘mathematical’ music, based upon classical systems: form, harmonic progressions.Because when you follow the system, your music will turn out ‘right’.

I don’t know how it feels for people to write atonal music, I can’t do that, because I don’t hear music in that. But when I hear that music, mostly my brain is working hard to try to grasp the idea. It is searching for parts that fit together, for patterns to remember. But the brain cannot do that with that kind of music easily. I have the same problem with minimal music, I don’t hear music there. My brain just shuts off and goes in a ‘stand-by’-mode, doing nothing at all. All this music feels like an equation to me. Like a numbering system thought through.

On orchestration

He spoke of an orchestral score as if it were a picture. He seldom used technical words, but the dimmed and slightly worn elegance of his rather unusual vocabulary seemed to ring like old coins. I remember a parallel he drew between Beethoven’s orchestration— which he visualised as a black-and- white formula resulting in an exquisite gradation of greys— and that of Wagner, a sort of many-coloured “make-up” spread almost uniformly, in which, he said, he could no longer distinguish the tone of a violin from that of a trombone.

C. Debussy

For me, this is just spot on! I like to orchestrate in a way that you hear the instruments discuss the theme. It is a respectful conversation where everybody can be heard. Sometimes some choirs argue the same sentence and mix their sound-colors. There are emotions, extremes, but the most beautiful music makes an instrument shine in a solo. I always look for ‘moments of fame’ for all the instruments in an orchestra. Even the tuba, because the tuba is just a low instrument, it is not a bass.

On Form

Beethoven’s real teaching then was not to preserve the old forms, still less to follow in his early steps. We must throw wide the windows to the open sky; they seem to me to have only just escaped being closed for ever. The fact that here and there a genius succeeds in this form is but a poor excuse for the laborious and stilted compositions which we are accustomed to call symphonies.

C. Debussy

Symphonies have historically grown from a musical form that was designed to entertain an entire evening, including a dancing moment. But we ended up sitting in a chair the whole evening listening to music that was designed to listen to, dance to and end the evening with a bang! So, indeed, we should either change the form or start dancing at the Menuet. I like the dancing idea, who wouldn’t like to stretch their legs during a concert?

A symphony is usually built up on a chant heard by the composer as a child. The first section is the customary presentation of a theme on which the composer proposes to work; then begins the necessary dismemberment; the second section seems to take place in an experimental laboratory; the third section cheers up a little in a quite childish way interspersed with deeply sentimental phrases during which the chant withdraws as is more seemly; but it reappears and the dismemberment goes on; the professional gentlemen, obviously interested, mop their brows and the audience calls for the composer.

But the composer does not appear. He is engaged in listening modestly to the voice of tradition which prevents him, it seems to me, from hearing the voice that speaks within him.

C. Debussy

I think nowadays that is also happening with modern classical music. There is a new modern tradition, composers are supposed to write that way. Let me quote a composer I met lately: “When I finished the conservatory I could finally write the music I liked.” How is that for an education? All that time wasted on something you didn’t want in the first place.

Let’s be honest: When most people find themselves reading the program for entertainment during a concert….Did they hear music in the first place? Or just sounds? Music is more than just sounds, a locomotive makes rhythmic sounds, but we don’t think of that a music.

Liszt’s genius is often disordered and feverish, but that is better than rigid perfection, even in white gloves.

C. Debussy

No one has given utterance to the best within us in tones more gentle or profound: he (Moussorgski) is unique, and will remain so, because his art is spontaneous and free from arid formulas.

C. Debussy

I love these quotes, it really frees my mind from thinking I should be ‘normal’ to be a successful composer. There is this tradition in windbands with powerful militaristic music. I wanted to be able to do that, but listening to Debussy I decided that I will never make that kind of music sound great. I better leave that to others and write my own music.

You can hear in many compositions that composers are not doing very well mentally. I don’t know if that is why they started composing in the first place. Debussy talks a lot of composers only loving their music, not humans. I feel like these man were forcing their music upon people, without respecting them: Musicians, conductors nor audiences. I think that is just not right. Music should bring people together, not split groups of musicians in schools, trends or fashions. I don’t hear music in a-tonal compositions, but probably other people do. So when people want that, play it. But don’t try to make me like that music, because I never will.

Since that music is the ‘fashion’, I will not be a popular composer in the famous classical music-halls. But I didn’t want my music there in the first place, I want it out in the real world with real people. So they share time, pleasure, emotions and hard work. It’s a better way for music to connect people than putting them in a hall on seats to sit still and listen.

The concerts are not the interesting part of having your music played, its the people playing together, learning, laughing that makes me want to be a great composer for a comfortable level 3 wind-orchestra.

On nature and (the source of) music

Musicians listen only to the music written by cunning hands, never to that which is in nature’s script. To see the sun rise is more profitable than to hear the Pastoral Symphony.

C. Debussy

I think Debussy meant composers instead of musicians. Because for them, this is even more true than for musicians.

Music was never for Massenet the cosmic voice heard by Bach and Beethoven: to him it was rather a delightful avocation.

C. Debussy

This is the most difficult to explain. It is the difference between composers who have this inner drive to express themselves in music. Who are not compleet human beings without this expression. And there are composers who ‘want to write music’. They are very different composers. Composers who ‘must’ write are composers prone to vulnerability. Their work is so personal that you critique them when you critique their work:

The best people posses a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity to sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues makes them vulnerable, they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.

E. Hemingway

On (hearing) the composer (in his work)

Meanwhile, there has been much discussion of the genius of Cesar Franck, but never a word about his unique quality, simplicity. Unhappy and misunderstood as he was, he still had the heart of a child, so fundamentally good that he could, without a trace of bitterness, contemplate the wickedness of mankind and the perversity of things.

C. Debussy

Cesar Franck is always a worshipper of music, and you can take it or leave it; no power on earth can induce him to interrupt a period which he considers just and necessary; however long it is, it must be gone through.

C. Debussy

Here lies all the difference between the impure art of Wagner, with its peculiar beauty and seduction, and the art of Franck, which renders service to music without expecting any return. What he takes from life he restores to art with a modesty which is almost selfless. When Wagner takes from life he conquers it, places his foot on its neck and forces it to shriek the name of Wagner louder than the trumpets of Fame.

C. Debussy

I have to research Cesar Franck, this sounds interesting.

I don’t think you can separate the artist from the music. When something happens to the composer, his music must change. Because when you are a composer, and you express yourself through your music, how could it be different? A changed person writes changed music.

I always feel emotionally bad playing Wagner, Mahler and other harsh proud male composers. This is why I don’t like particularly Beethoven, you hear his unhappy void personal life. This black-white and grey’s in his work as described earlier by Debussy, must be an expression of his personality. His music doesn’t sound happy or magical, it’s just him being Beethoven.

On ‘the music makes the emotion’

For him (Paul Dukas) music is an inexhaustible store of forms, of pregnant memories which allow him to mould his ideas to the limits of his imaginative world. He is the master of his emotion and knows how to keep it from noisy futility. That is why he never indulges in those parasitic developments which so often disfigure the most beautiful effects. When we consider the third movement of his sonata, we discover under the picturesque surface an energy that guides the rhythmic fantasy with the silent precision of steel mechanism.

C. Debussy

I like this idea of ‘a rhythmic fantasy with the silent precision of steel mechanism’. You can already sense what that will sound like. Debussy uses nice words to describe music.

The same energy prevails in the last part, where the art of distributing emotion appears in its highest form; one might even call this emotion constructive, since it displays a beauty akin to perfect lines in architecture, lines that dissolve into and are keyed to the spatial colour of air and sky, the whole being wedded in a complete and final harmony.

C. Debussy

The architecture of the sound clouds and sound colors are important aspects of creating an emotional experience. I have this discussed in ‘The necklace and the state of the building’

On playing the room, echo’s and silences

Surely you know that a genuine appreciation of beauty can only result in silence? Tell me, when you see the daily wonder of the sunset have you ever thought of applauding?

C. Debussy

Indeed, when you are taken aback by the wonder of music, you don’t feel the need to applaud.

I should add that I do not suggest the “wholesale” but the “grand” plan (of music played outside in the city);I do not suggest plaguing the echoes to repeat great masses of sound, but using them to prolong a harmonic dream in the soul of the crowd.

The murmuring of the breeze would be mystically mingled with the rustling of the leaves and the scent of the flowers, since music can unite all of them in a harmony so completely natural that it seems to become one with them.

C. Debussy

I like the way Debussy thinks about the effect of music outside, the effect on people. But he also notices that sounds from outside and his music will mingle. When you are at an organ concert in a church, there are also these ‘church sounds’ going on: some-one buys a candle, coins, tourists enter and sit down, the benches creak, clothes rustle. These sounds become part of your composition as well.

When it is a question of making people forget their domestic cares, nothing can be too sublime; if the aim be to snatch them away from life, to give them exact interpretations of it, however excellent, must be harmful.

C. Debussy

The way I experience it, composing is a brutally honest art-form. Music can be painful to write or hear. So yes, I think that people will get absorbed in work of a brutal honest quality. Again this might be because they recognize and remember while listening. I think we all share the same emotions and experiences a human beings, and music is a great way to share that. Honestly, I also like dancing a lot, because you share music, space and movements. Even if the music isn’t that great, dancing is a very uniting activity.

On ‘entertaining’ the audience

We could glean valuable hints for this from the entertainments arranged by the Javanese princes, where the fascination of speech without words, that is to say of pantomime, almost attains perfection, since it is rendered by action and not by formulas. The trouble about our theatre is that we have tried to confine it to the intellectual element alone.

C. Debussy

I think about this and compare the effect with the foto-sync idea of Stephen Melillo: How images can give your music more impact, not distract from it. I think a puppet-theatre fits well in this idea of pantomime and music. I will have to research this to have the best pantomime puppets with my music.

It must not be a theatre in which the gilding catches the eye unpleasantly, but a bright, cheerful house, attractive to everyone.

C. Debussy

I would love my puppet-theatre to be that: Bright cheerful and attractive to everyone. Let’s start compose some music!

Categorized as Composers

By Anneloes Wolters