Debussy and Popular Culture

Debussy’s world was not restricted to fashionable Parisian salons and prestigious European concert venues.  While hobnobbing with the Impressionists and Symbolists, Debussy also played the piano in the crowded cafés of Montmartre. The composer was familiar with singers and popular entertainers of the music halls and was a regular at the famous Chat Noir cabaret, a hotspot of political radicalism and artistic experimentation.  His friends from this circle included the poet Jean Moréas, author of the Symbolist Manifesto, and Erik Satie, the eccentric composer and self-described “phonometrician” (one who measures sounds).  One of Debussy's favorite pastimes was going to the circus, where he marveled at the techniques of the trapeze artist and the trombonist in the circus band.

Debussy’s biting music criticism was published in the literary magazine La Revue Blanche and the daily newspaper Gil Blas.  His writings reveal his close attention to the sounds of his surroundings, to the relationships among the arts, and to the hierarchies within them.  Paris's buoyant consumer culture, Debussy suggested, challenged standard definitions of “high” art, "popular" art, and their relationship to one another.  The works included in Debussy’s Paris reflect the debates about art, taste, and class that occupied the composer during his lifetime.

Image Credit: Félix Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon).French, 1820–1910. Claude Debussy, 1905. Photograph