Claude Debussy uprooted Western tradition at the end of the 19th century and produced one of the most striking and original bodies of work ever created. He was a musical revolutionary who refused to be bound by the conventional 18th and 19th century musical styles or rhetoric. Stravinsky called him, “in all senses the 20th century’s first musician.” Pierre Boulez said that his music, “represents the beginning of a new era. The art of music begins to beat with a new pulse.”
Using Eastern as well as Western sonorities, Debussy’s music is unpretentious, luminescent, and refined. Color, mood, and atmosphere take precedence over line and structure. He once said, “Generally speaking, I feel more and more that music, by its very essence, is not something that can flow inside a rigorous, traditional form. It consists of colors and of rhythmized time.” There is a wealth of fantasy in Debussy’s music. He eschewed rhetoric. He would not shake his clenched fist like Beethoven. The lightenings and tempests of Wagner were alien to his world. His sensibilities were not attuned to the heroic. Claude Debussy was a dreamer, and his compositions were his dreams.
As one observer said, “Debussy was the poet of mists and fountains, clouds and rain, of dusk and glints of sunlight through the leaves. He was moonstruck and seastruck, a lost soul under a vast sky illuminated by distant stars. His music begins where poets run out of words, where painters run out of paint.” Thus, although he vehemently rejected the characterization of his music as impressionistic, he became known — understandably — as an Impressionist.
Debussy wrote this sonata in 1915, at a time when he was suffering from terminal cancer and while France was still locked in a devastating war with Germany. The piece was part of a set of six, but he died before the final four could be completed.
In a letter to Igor Stravinsky about this project, Debussy said, “I have been writing nothing but pure music in our old form, which graciously does not impose [Wagnerian] ring-cycle efforts upon the auditory faculty.” In reflecting on the finished product, he said, “I can’t say whether one should laugh or cry, maybe both at the same time.”
Beyond this, I have nothing to say. It’s preferable to let Claude speak for himself.