The Lives and Music of Bach and Debussy

Submitted by Libby on Wed, 09/27/2017 - 22:43

Johann Sebastian Bach and Claud Debussy were two of the most influential musicians in the world. They published songs they wrote, played instruments, and were brilliant when it came to music. Yet both their lives and their styles differ vastly, from the wild life of one to the disciplined way of the other; from one’s greed and self-interest to the other’s humility and hope in God. How did both come to play such a big part in the development of music in such different ways?

For Johann Sebastian Bach, he used his talent as a way to give glory to God. Born in Eisenach, 1685, Johann was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius. Historians do not know much about that period in the boy’s life, but it is assumed that he taught his son music theory and how to play violin when little Johann was still small. He was, however, forced to grow up soon when his parents both died in 1694. This left Johann with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who took him into his household to look after him. Despite being told not to, Johann studied music with all the fullness of his heart, progressing steadily under his brother’s good teaching. This led him to become one of the best musicians of his time. After going to a music college for some time, he graduated and began to play and compose music for church services. He explained once, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

Unlike Bach, Claude Debussy was born the oldest of five children. Growing up in the late 1800s, he and his mother fled from Paris to his aunt’s home in Cannes. It was soon after that his family and friends realized his talent of music, which prodded his aunt to send him to a musical conservatory, where he stayed till twenty-one. Coming out of college, he created music after his own style. Following vaguely the form of traditional music up to that point in time, he added flourishes, with a taste of discord that later usually resolved. His music professors were in no way pleased to have him break out in such a new way, but Debussy kept on with his own style, fashioning a new beauty in the history of music. After that, he led a rather turbulent life, chasing after fame, glory, and affection. He played with the hearts of women, divorced twice, and finally was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of fifty-five. He in no way sought to honor God with his music or his life, seeking only self-glorification.

Yet both Bach and Debussy wrote beautiful music. Bach produced new preludes and fugues each week for church, and along the way he composed other beautiful works that are known all over the world, such as “inventions” and “sinfonias”. Debussy, also, spent much of his time in music, thinking up melody lines and building songs around them. In the earlier part of his life, he stuck closer to the classical and romantic forms of music, although, often he brought changes to modify the true forms. This added a new dimension to the music and a new beauty as well. As he matured, however, he explored more dissonant chords and lines. He did not seek to please anyone other than himself with his music. Wilfrid Mellers, author of over twenty musical studies and biographies, explained about him, “When asked by a grumpily puzzled professor what "rules" he followed, Debussy is said to have retorted, mon plaisir — ‘whatever I please’”, and so did not care if professionals condemned him for breaking tradition. As Bach strived to please God and the church with his music, Debussy strayed from that God-given purpose, leading to the strong dissonance we find in many of his later pieces.

These differences in style and character are often attributed to the lives they led during their childhoods and the people who influenced them at that age. Debussy’s aunt and mother wanted him to go to school and to become famous in his time. Their motivation was to glory in their son and nephew’s glory. Bach, even though he lost his parents so young, was taken in by his brother and his brother’s wife, who brought him up, not to seek self-glory, but to glorify God. Bach’s motivation and purpose stemmed from his desire to please God and follow him with his heart and soul and music, which was instilled in him during his childhood. All of this influenced what they did with their lives, which in turn impacted what kind of music they created. Yet, as different as they were, both loved music, and with this love, they brought beauty and life that has shaped the world of music that we know today.

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The way composers' lives affected their music is so fascinating to me, and gives me so much more appreciation for the pieces I don't enjoy as much (ie, lots of Schoenberg!). I am thankful, too, for common grace so that we can enjoy beautiful music even from men and women who have worldviews and lifestyles that don't honor God!
I did not know much about Debussy, so thank you for sharing!