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Achille-Claude Debussy (French: [aʃil klod dəbysi]; 22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions. In France, he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed.
Debussy's music is noted for its sensory content and frequent eschewing of tonality. The French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.
Claude Debussy was born on 22 August 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, the eldest of five children. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a china shop there; his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. The family moved to Paris in 1867, but in 1870 Debussy's pregnant mother fled with Claude to his paternal aunt's home in Cannes to escape the Franco-Prussian war. Debussy began piano lessons there at the age of seven with an Italian violinist in his early 40s named Cerutti; his aunt paid for his lessons. In 1871 he drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence to support her claim. His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent the next 11 years. During his time there he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. He also became a lifelong friend of fellow student and noted pianist Isidor Philipp. After Debussy's death, many pianists sought out Philipp for advice on playing his pieces.
From the start, though clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental. He challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished. The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber; and Chopin—the Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert, a relatively little-known piece but one requiring an advanced technique (it was originally intended to be the opening movement of a third piano concerto).
During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882 Debussy accompanied the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, as she travelled with her family in Europe and Russia. The young composer's many musical activities during these vacations included playing four-hand pieces with von Meck at the piano, giving music lessons to her children, and performing in private concerts with some of her musician friends. Despite von Meck's closeness with Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears to have had minimal effect on Debussy. In September 1880 she sent Debussy's Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky's perusal. A month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her, "It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity." Debussy did not publish the piece; the manuscript remained in the von Meck family, and it was sold to B. Schott's Sohne in Mainz, and published by them in 1932. A greater influence was Debussy's close friendship with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She and her husband, Henri, gave Debussy emotional and professional support. Henri Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, the son-in-law of his former teacher, Mme. Mauté de Fleurville.
As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L'enfant prodigue, Debussy received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887). According to letters to Marie-Blanche Vasnier, perhaps in part designed to gain her sympathy, he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters "abominable". Neither did he delight in the pleasures of the "Eternal City", finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.
In June 1885, Debussy wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying, "I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!"
Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima, based on a text by Heinrich Heine; the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La damoiselle élue (1887–1888), which was criticized by the Academy as "bizarre"; and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. The third piece was the first in which stylistic features of Debussy's later style emerged. The fourth piece was heavily based on César Franck's music and Debussy withdrew it. The Academy chided him for "courting the unusual" and hoped for something better from the gifted student. Even though Debussy's works showed the influence of Jules Massenet, Massenet concluded, "He is an enigma."
During his visits to Bayreuth in 1888–9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which had a lasting impact on his work. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Richard Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies. Wagner's extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy's way, but the German composer's influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine – Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes – are all in a more capricious style. Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie, who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces. During this period, both musicians were bohemians enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.
In 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. Although direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been identified in any of Debussy's compositions, the equal-tempered pentatonic scale appears in his music of this time and afterward.
Debussy's private life was often turbulent. At the age of 18 he began an eight-year affair with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, wife of a Parisian civil servant. The relationship eventually faltered following his winning of the Prix de Rome in 1884 and obligatory residence in Rome.
On his permanent return to Paris and his parents' home on the avenue de Berlin (now rue de Liège) he began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle ('Gaby') Dupont, a tailor's daughter from Lisieux, soon cohabiting with her on the Rue de Londres, and later the Rue Gustave Doré. During this time he also had an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged. Such cavalier behaviour was widely condemned, and precipitated the end of his long friendship with Ernest Chausson. He ultimately left Dupont for her friend Rosalie ('Lilly') Texier, a fashion model whom he married in 1899, after threatening suicide if she refused him. However, although Texier was affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well liked by Debussy's friends and associates, he became increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. In 1904, Debussy was introduced to Emma Bardac, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac, by her son Raoul, one of his students. In contrast to Texier, Bardac was a sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, and an accomplished singer. After despatching Lilly to her father's home in Bichain on 15 July 1904, Debussy secretly took Bardac to Jersey for a holiday. On their return to France, Debussy wrote to Texier from Dieppe on 11 August, informing her their marriage was over, but still making no mention of Bardac. Debussy briefly moved to an apartment at 10 av. Alphand. On 14 October, five days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Texier attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver while standing in the Place de la Concorde; she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. The ensuing scandal was to alienate Debussy from many of his friends, whilst Bardac was disowned by her family.
In the spring of 1905, finding the hostility towards them intolerable, Debussy and Bardac (now pregnant) fled to England, via Jersey. Bardac's divorce was finalized in May. The couple settled at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne from 24 July to 30 August 1905, where Debussy was to correct proofs to his symphonic suite La mer, and celebrate his divorce from Texier on 2 August.
After a brief visit to London, the couple returned to Paris in September, buying a house in a courtyard development off the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now Avenue Foch), where Debussy was to reside for the rest of his life. Their daughter (the composer's only child) Claude-Emma was born there on 30 October. Her parents were eventually married in 1908, their troubled union enduring until Debussy's death in 1918. More affectionately known as 'Chouchou', Claude-Emma was possibly the only person Debussy ever loved, and a great musical inspiration to him (she was the dedicatee of his Children's Corner suite). Debussy was to remark towards the end of his life, when gravely ill, that were it not for Chouchou, he might have committed suicide. She outlived her father by scarcely a year, succumbing to the diphtheria epidemic of 1919 after her doctor administered the wrong treatment.
Debussy died of rectal cancer at his Paris home on 25 March 1918, at the age of 55. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in 1909 after experiencing haemorrhaging, and in December 1915 underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations ever performed. The operation achieved only a temporary respite, and occasioned him considerable frustration (he was to liken dressing in the morning to "all the labours of Hercules in one"). His death occurred in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets to Père Lachaise Cemetery as the German guns bombarded the city. The military situation in France was critical, and did not permit the honour of a public funeral with ceremonious graveside orations. Debussy's body was reinterred the following year in the small Passy Cemetery sequestered behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling his wish to rest 'among the trees and the birds'; his wife and daughter are buried with him.
Rudolph Reti points out these features of Debussy's music, which "established a new concept of tonality in European music":
The application of the term "impressionist" to Debussy and the music he influenced is a matter of intense debate within academic circles. One side argues that the term is a misnomer, an inappropriate label which Debussy himself opposed. In a letter of 1908, he wrote "I am trying to do 'something different'—an effect of reality ... what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to [J.M.W.] Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art." The opposing side argues that Debussy may have been reacting to unfavourable criticism at the time, and the negativity that critics associated with impressionism. It can be argued that he would have been pleased with application of the current definition of impressionism to his music.
Beginning in the 1890s, Debussy developed his own musical language largely independent of Wagner's style, collared in part from the dreamy, sometimes morbid romanticism of the Symbolist movement. Debussy became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé's Symbolist gatherings, where Wagnerism dominated the discussion. In contrast to the enormous works of Wagner and other late-romantic composers, however, around this time Debussy chose to write in smaller, more accessible forms. The Deux arabesques is an example of one of Debussy's earliest works, already developing his musical language. Suite bergamasque (1890) recalls rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement. This suite contains one of Debussy's most popular pieces, Clair de Lune. Debussy's String Quartet in G minor (1893) paved the way for his later, more daring harmonic exploration. In this work he used the Phrygian mode as well as less standard scales, such as the whole-tone, which creates a sense of floating, ethereal harmony. Debussy was beginning to employ a single, continuous theme and break away from the traditional A-B-A form, with its restatements and amplifications, which had been a mainstay of classical music since Haydn.
Influenced by Mallarmé, Debussy wrote one of his most famous works, the revolutionary Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, truly original in form and execution. In contrast to the large orchestras so favoured by late-romanticism, Debussy wrote this piece for a smaller ensemble, emphasizing instrumental colour and timbre. Despite Mallarmé himself, and colleague and friend Paul Dukas having been impressed by the piece, it was controversial at its premiere. Nevertheless Prélude established Debussy as one of the leading composers of the era.
The three Nocturnes (1899), include characteristic studies in veiled harmony and texture as demonstrated in Nuages; exuberance in Fêtes; and whole-tones in Sirènes. Contrasting sharply with Wagnerian opera, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, after ten years of work. It would be his only complete opera. Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the opera proved to be an immediate success and immensely influential to younger French composers, including Maurice Ravel. These works brought a fluidity of rhythm and colour quite new to Western music.
La mer (1903–1905) essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement, although the middle movement, Jeux de vagues, proceeds much less directly and with more variety of colour. Again, the reviews were sharply divided. Some critics thought the treatment to be less subtle and less mysterious than his previous works and even a step backward. Pierre Lalo complained "I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea". Others extolled its "power and charm", its "extraordinary verve and brilliant fantasy", and its strong colors and definite lines.
During this period Debussy wrote much for the piano. The set of pieces entitled Pour le piano (1901) uses rich harmonies and textures which would later prove important in jazz music. His first volume of Images pour piano (1904–1905) combine harmonic innovation with poetic suggestion: Reflets dans l'eau is a musical description of rippling water; Hommage à Rameau, the second piece, is slow and yearningly nostalgic. It takes as its inspiration a melody from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1737 Castor et Pollux.
The evocative Estampes for piano (1903) give impressions of exotic locations. Debussy came into contact with Javanese gamelan music during the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Pagodes is the directly inspired result, aiming for an evocation of the pentatonic structures employed by the Javanese music. Debussy wrote his famous Children's Corner Suite (1908) for his beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, whom he nicknamed Chouchou. The suite recalls classicism—the opening piece Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum refers to Muzio Clementi's collection of instructional piano compositions Gradus ad Parnassum, as well as a new wave of American ragtime music. In the popular final piece of the suite, Golliwogg's Cakewalk, Debussy also pokes fun at Richard Wagner by mimicking the opening bars of Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde.
The first book of Préludes (1910), twelve in total, proved to be his most successful work for piano. The Preludes are frequently compared to those of Chopin. Debussy's preludes are replete with rich, unusual and daring harmonies. They include the popular La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) and La Cathédrale Engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral). Debussy wanted people to respond intuitively to these pieces so he placed the titles at the end of each one in the hope that listeners would not make stereotype images as they listened.
Larger scaled works included his orchestral piece Iberia (1907), begun as a work for two pianos, a triptych medley of Spanish allusions and fleeting impressions and also the music for Gabriele D'Annunzio's mystery play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). A lush and dramatic work, written in only two months, it is remarkable in sustaining a late antique modal atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces.
During this period, as Debussy gained more popularity, he was engaged as a conductor throughout Europe, most often performing Pelléas, La Mer, and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. He was also an occasional music critic to supplement his conducting fees and piano lessons. Debussy avoided analytical dissection and attempts to force images from music, "Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic." He could be caustic and witty, sometimes sloppy and ill-informed. Debussy was for the most part enthusiastic about Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, worshipful of Chopin and Bach, the latter being acknowledged as "the one great master." His relationship to Beethoven was a complex one; he was said to refer to him as "le vieux sourd" (the old deaf one) and abjured one young pupil never to play Beethoven's music for "it is like somebody dancing on my grave." However, Debussy made other statements about Beethoven which seem to suggest an admiration tempered by critical views, as it was said: "Debussy liked Mozart, and he believed that Beethoven had terrifically profound things to say, but that he did not know how to say them, because he was imprisoned in a web of incessant restatement and of German aggressiveness." He also admired the works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Schubert and Mendelssohn fared much worse, the latter being described as a "facile and elegant notary".
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Debussy's harmonies and chord progressions frequently exploit dissonances without any formal resolution. Unlike in his earlier work, he no longer hides discords in lush harmonies. The forms are far more irregular and fragmented. These chords that seemingly had no resolution were described by Debussy himself as "floating chords", and were used to set tone and mood in many of his works. The whole tone scale dominates much of Debussy's late music.
His two last volumes of works for the piano, the Études (1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by the young Igor Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos, 1915). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915), though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism.
With the sonatas of 1915–1917, there is a sudden shift in the style. These works recall Debussy's earlier music, in part, but also look forward, with leaner, simpler structures. Despite the thinner textures of the Violin Sonata (1917) there remains an undeniable richness in the chords themselves. This shift parallels the movement commonly known as neo-classicism which became popular after Debussy's death. Debussy planned a set of six sonatas, but this plan was cut short by his death in 1918 so that he only completed three (cello, flute-viola-harp and violin) sonatas.
The last orchestral work by Debussy, the ballet Jeux (1912) written for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, contains some of his strangest harmonies and textures in a form that moves freely over its own field of motivic connection. At first Jeux was overshadowed by Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, composed in the same year as Jeux and premiered only two weeks later by the same ballet company. Decades later, composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué pointed out parallels to Anton Webern's serialism in this work. Other late stage works, including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La boîte à joujoux (1913) were left with the orchestration incomplete, and were later completed by Charles Koechlin and André Caplet, who also helped Debussy with the orchestration of Gigues (from Images pour orchestre) and Le martyre de St. Sébastien.
The second set of Préludes for piano (1913) features Debussy at his most avant-garde, where he uses dissonant harmonies to evoke specific moods and images. Debussy consciously gives titles to each prelude that amplify the preludes' tonal ambiguity and dissonance. He uses scales such as the whole tone scale, musical modes, and the octatonic scale in his preludes that exaggerate this tonal ambiguity, making the key of each prelude almost indistinguishable at times. The second book of Preludes for piano represents Debussy's strong interest in the indefinite and esoteric.
Performed by Robin Alciatore. Courtesy of Musopen
Arranged by Anne DeBlois, performed by the Advent Chamber Orchestra
Performed by Sarah Bassingthwaite
Performed by the United States Marine Corps Chamber Orchestra. Chamber orchestra arrangement of the Chamber music piece scored for string quintet.
Performed by the United States Marine Corps Chamber Orchestra. Chamber orchestra arrangement of the Chamber music piece scored for string quintet.
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Although Pelléas was Debussy's only completed opera, he began several opera projects which remained unfinished, his fading concentration, increasing procrastination, and failing health perhaps the reasons. He had finished some partial musical sketches and some unpublished libretti for operas based on Poe's The Devil in the Belfry (Le diable dans le beffroi, 1902–?1912) and The Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher, 1908–1917) as well as considered projects for operas based on Shakespeare's As You Like It and Joseph Bedier's La Legende de Tristan.
Further plans, such as an American tour, more ballet scores, and revisions of Chopin and Bach works for re-publication, were all cut short by the outbreak of World War I and his poor health.
Some people have claimed that Debussy structured parts of his music mathematically. Roy Howat, for instance, has published a book contending that Debussy's works are structured around mathematical models even while using an apparent classical structure such as sonata form. Howat suggests that some of Debussy's pieces can be divided into sections that reflect the golden ratio, frequently by using the numbers of the standard Fibonacci sequence.
Debussy had a wide range of influences. Among the Russian composers of his time, the most prominent influences were Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky. It can be inferred that from the Russians "Debussy acquired his taste for ancient and oriental modes and for vivid colorations, and a certain disdain for academic rules." Specifically, Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov directly influenced one of Debussy's most famous works, Pelléas et Mélisande. In addition to the Russian composers, one of Debussy's biggest influences was Richard Wagner. According to Pierre Louys, Debussy "did not see 'what anyone can do beyond Tristan.'" After Debussy's Wagner phase, he started to become immensely interested in non-Western music. He was drawn to unorthodox approaches to composition that non-Western music used. Specifically, he was drawn to a Javanese Gamelan, which was a musical ensemble from the island of Java that played an array of unique instrumentation including gongs and metallophones. He first heard the gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Debussy was not as interested in directly citing his non-Western influence in his music, but instead used his non-Western influence to shape his unique musical style in more of a general way.
Debussy was just as influenced by other art forms as he was by music, if not more so. He took a strong interest in literature and visual art and used these mediums to help shape his unique musical style. Debussy was heavily influenced by the French symbolist movement, an art movement from the 1880s that influenced art forms such as poetry, visual art, and theatre. He shared the movement's interest in the esoteric and indefinite and rejection of naturalism and realism. Specifically, "the development of free verse in poetry and the disappearance of the subject or model in painting influenced Debussy to think about issues of musical form." Debussy became personally acquainted with writers and painters of the movement and based his own works off of those of the symbolists. One of Debussy's main influences was the famous poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who "held the idea of a 'musicalization' of poetry." In other words, Mallarmé drew strong connections between music and his poetry. Debussy wrote "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune", which was directly influenced by Mallarmé's poem "Afternoon of a Faun". Like the symbolists in respect to their own art forms, Debussy aimed to reject common techniques and approaches to composition and attempted to evoke more of a sensorial experience for the listener with his works. Since his time at the Paris Conservatoire, Debussy believed he had much more to learn from artists than from musicians who were primarily interested in their musical careers.
Above all, Debussy was inspired by nature and the impression it made on the mind; he called "mysterious Nature" his religion. He made a pantheistic profession of faith: 'I do not practice religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvellous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpetted earth, ... and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. ... To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! ... that is what I call prayer.'
Contemporary painter James McNeill Whistler who lived in France for a period of time had a profound influence on Debussy. In 1894, Debussy wrote to violinist Eugène Ysaÿe describing his Nocturnes as "an experiment in the different combinations that can be obtained from one color—what a study in grey would be in painting." Although it is not known what it is meant by this statement, one can observe in his music a careful use of orchestral, textural, and harmonic 'shading'.
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Claude Debussy is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His innovative harmonies were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century, particularly Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Ned Rorem, George Gershwin, and the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as the influential Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. He also influenced many important figures in jazz, most notably Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, George Shearing, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Jimmy Giuffre, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Herbie Hancock. Furthermore, he had a profound impact on contemporary soundtrack composers such as John Williams because Debussy's colourful and evocative style translated easily into an emotional language for use in motion picture scores. In 1999, The Art of Noise released a concept album titled The Seduction of Claude Debussy. The group blended the music of Debussy with drum and bass, opera, hip hop, jazz, and narration, and described the album as "the soundtrack to a film that wasn't made about the life of Claude Debussy". In 2000, the band released Reduction, a limited-edition album composed mainly of outtakes from this album.
Leopold Stokowski, in an article, pointed out the identification of composers including Debussy with the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, providing an inspiration for non-contrapuntal music.[clarification needed]
Debussy's name has posthumously been given to a number of discoveries. These include:
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