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Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy's Beau soir (Beautiful Evening), one of his youthful works, represents a stage of orthodox romanticism which later lessened with musical mastery. With poetic texts taken from a collection entitled Les aveux (Confessions) by Paul Bourget, a personal friend, Debussy depicts the poet's desire to be happy and enjoy life on a gorgeous evening, even though death is inevitable.

Beau soir, like many of Debussy's early songs, is difficult to date, as manuscripts were usually undated and their publication often occurred many years later. Clues have been found in the dedications as well as in the choice of song text. The composer's first brush with songwriting was made with the more conventional romantic verse of Alfred de Musset and Bourget, poets to whom he did not return upon encountering the work of Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarmé. Thus, it has been determined that the memorable and frequently revisited Beau soir was written somewhere around 1878, while Debussy was studying at the Paris Conservatoire and still signing his work Achille, a birth name he dropped upon reaching maturity.

After three years of preparatory studies with Mauté de Fleurville, once claimed to be a pupil of Chopin, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11. He studied solfège with Lavignac, piano with Marmontel, and harmony with Emile Durand. His achievements there were sporadic and his discipline shaky; however, he won first honorable mention in piano in 1875, took the first medal for solfège in 1876, and shared second prize in the piano competition with the future critic, Camille Bellaigue, in 1877. The following year, at the age of 16, he made a fleeting visit to London, where he heard Pinafore. It was around this time that Beau soir was composed. Shortly thereafter, he met Tchaikovsky's patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and was taken along on her travels throughout Europe and Russia, as pianist in a group of household musicians.

Even though composing vocal music did not win Debussy the majority of his fame, his abilities in this genre were remarkable. In his biography of the composer, Oscar Thompson wrote: "If Debussy had been almost exclusively a composer of songs, like Hugo Wolf,...he still would have been one of the most distinctive and individual figures in music. The essence of Debussy's musical personality is in the songs, and they exhibit virtually every facet of his art." Debussy understood, with great depth, the significance of the art form and that, "music and poetry are the only two arts that move in space." He explained that, "Musicians who do not understand poetry should not set it to music. They can only spoil it." As the gently flowing rhythm of Beau soir clearly indicates, Debussy's talents were comprehensive enough to give honor, through song, to the poetic arts.