Claude Debussy quotes

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Claude Debussy

Birthdate: 22. August 1862
Date of death: 25. March 1918
Other names: Claude A. Debussy, Claude Achille Debussy

Achille-Claude Debussy , known since the 1890s as Claude-Achille Debussy or Claude Debussy, was a French composer. He and Maurice Ravel were the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though Debussy disliked the term when applied to his compositions. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. He 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 use of nontraditional tonalities. The prominent 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.

„Music is the space between the notes.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving (2001) by Jonathan G. Koomey, p. 96; since at least 2010 similar statements are also sometimes attributed to Mozart, and a similar remark, apparently one of Ben Jonson, is quoted in "Notes to Cynthia's Revels, in The Works of Ben Jonson: With Notes Critical and Explanatory, and a Biographical Memoir (1875), edited by William Gifford, Vol. 2, in notes to p. 223, on p. 551: Division, in music, is "the space between the notes of music, or the dividing of the tones."
Unsourced variants:
Music is the silence between the notes.
The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.
The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.
Variant: Music is the space between the notes.

„There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen“

—  Claude Debussy

Letter to Paul Dukas (1901)
Context: I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.

„I do not practise religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225
Variant translation: Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion. The whole expanse of nature is reflected in my own sincere and feeble soul. Around me the branches of trees reach out toward the firmament, here are sweet-scented flowers smiling in the meadow, here the soft earth is carpeted with sweet herbs. … Nature invites its ephemeral and trembling travelers to experience these wonderful and disturbing spectacles — that is what I call prayer.
As quoted in The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 240
Context: I do not practise 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 marvelous 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.

„Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are part of Infinity. … There is nothing more musical than a sunset.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music (1996) by Don Michael Randel
Context: Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are part of Infinity. … There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little — the book of Nature.

„Works of art make rules but rules do not make works of art.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought (1992) by John Paynter, p. 590
Unsourced variant: Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.

„I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have.“

—  Claude Debussy

Letter to Paul Dukas (1901)
Context: I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map.

„Music should humbly seek to please; within these limits great beauty may perhaps be found.“

—  Claude Debussy

Quoted in French Music : From the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (1951) by Martin Cooper, p. 136, and in Debussy and Wagner (1979) by Robin Holloway, p. 207
Context: Music should humbly seek to please; within these limits great beauty may perhaps be found. Extreme complication is contrary to art. Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.

„Collect impressions. Don’t be in a hurry to write them down.“

—  Claude Debussy

Debussy in a letter to his pupil Raoul Bardac (1906)
Context: Collect impressions. Don’t be in a hurry to write them down. Because that’s something music can do better than painting: it can centralise variations of colour and light within a single picture — a truth generally ignored, obvious as it is.

„I want no purely musical developments which are not called for inevitably by the text. In opera there is always too much singing. Music should be as swift and mobile as the words themselves.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Debussy (1989) by Paul Holmes, p. 36
Context: Music would take over at the point at which words become powerless, with the one and only object of expressing that which nothing but music could express. For this, I need a text by a poet who, resorting to discreet suggestion rather than full statement, will enable me to graft my dream upon his dream — who will give me plain human beings in a setting belonging to no particular period or country. … Then I do not wish my music to drown the words, nor to delay the course of the action. I want no purely musical developments which are not called for inevitably by the text. In opera there is always too much singing. Music should be as swift and mobile as the words themselves.

„It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (2003) by Simon Trezise, p. 120
Context: It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you. All people come to music to seek oblivion.

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„Art is the most beautiful deception of all!“

—  Claude Debussy

Unsourced variant: Art is the most beautiful of all lies.
The Life of the Creative Spirit
Context: Art is the most beautiful deception of all! And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory. … Let us not disillusion anyone by bringing too much reality into the dream.

„Composers aren't daring enough.“

—  Claude Debussy

Debussy Letters (1987) edited by Francois Lesure and Roger Nichols
Context: Composers aren't daring enough. They're afraid of that sacred idol called "common sense", which is the most dreadful thing I know — after all, it's no more than a religion founded to excuse the ubiquity of imbeciles!

„People don't very much like things that are beautiful — they are so far from their nasty little minds.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Debussy : Musician of France (1957) by Victor Illyitch Seroff, p. 172

„There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.“

—  Claude Debussy

Quoted in An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (1981) by Nat Shapiro, p. 268
Unsourced variant: There is no theory. You have only to listen. Fantasy is the law.
Context: There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth — an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.

„Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist's soul under restraint?“

—  Claude Debussy

On his music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911), in a 1911 interview, as quoted in Dancing in the Vortex : The Story of Ida Rubinstein (2001) by Vicki Woolfe, p. 56
Context: Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist's soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d'Annunzio's mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church.
Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.

„When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225
Variant translation: Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion. The whole expanse of nature is reflected in my own sincere and feeble soul. Around me the branches of trees reach out toward the firmament, here are sweet-scented flowers smiling in the meadow, here the soft earth is carpeted with sweet herbs. … Nature invites its ephemeral and trembling travelers to experience these wonderful and disturbing spectacles — that is what I call prayer.
As quoted in The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 240
Context: I do not practise 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 marvelous 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.

„To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225
Variant translation: Before the passing sky, in long hours of contemplation of its magnificent and ever-changing beauty, I am seized by an incomparable emotion. The whole expanse of nature is reflected in my own sincere and feeble soul. Around me the branches of trees reach out toward the firmament, here are sweet-scented flowers smiling in the meadow, here the soft earth is carpeted with sweet herbs. … Nature invites its ephemeral and trembling travelers to experience these wonderful and disturbing spectacles — that is what I call prayer.
As quoted in The Life of the Creative Spirit (2001) by H. Charles Romesburg, p. 240
Context: I do not practise 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 marvelous 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.

„Music would take over at the point at which words become powerless, with the one and only object of expressing that which nothing but music could express.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Debussy (1989) by Paul Holmes, p. 36
Context: Music would take over at the point at which words become powerless, with the one and only object of expressing that which nothing but music could express. For this, I need a text by a poet who, resorting to discreet suggestion rather than full statement, will enable me to graft my dream upon his dream — who will give me plain human beings in a setting belonging to no particular period or country. … Then I do not wish my music to drown the words, nor to delay the course of the action. I want no purely musical developments which are not called for inevitably by the text. In opera there is always too much singing. Music should be as swift and mobile as the words themselves.

„I believe the principle fault of the majority of writers and artists is having neither the will nor the courage to break with their successes, failing to seek new paths and give birth to new ideas.“

—  Claude Debussy

The Life of the Creative Spirit
Context: I believe the principle fault of the majority of writers and artists is having neither the will nor the courage to break with their successes, failing to seek new paths and give birth to new ideas. Most of them produce them twice, three, even four times. They have neither the courage nor the temerity to leave what is certain for what is uncertain. There is, however, no greater pleasure than going into the depth of oneself, setting one's whole being in motion and seeking for new and hidden treasures. What a joy to find something new in oneself, something that surprises even ourselves, filling us with warmth.

„I wish to write down my musical dreams in a spirit of utter self-detachment. I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naïve candour of a child. No doubt, this simple musical grammar will jar on some people. It is bound to offend the partisans of deceit and artifice. I foresee that and rejoice at it.“

—  Claude Debussy

As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 226
Context: I wish to write down my musical dreams in a spirit of utter self-detachment. I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naïve candour of a child. No doubt, this simple musical grammar will jar on some people. It is bound to offend the partisans of deceit and artifice. I foresee that and rejoice at it. I shall do nothing to create adversaries, but neither shall I do anything to turn enmities into friendships. I must endeavour to be a great artist so that I may dare to be myself and suffer for my faith. Those who feel as I do will only appreciate me more. The others will shun and hate me. I shall make no effort to appease them. On that distant day — I trust it is still very far off — when I shall no longer be a cause of strife, I shall feel bitter self-reproach. For that odious hypocrisy which enables one to please all mankind will inevitably have prevailed in those last works.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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