Klavier Festival Ruhr
zur deutschen Version English language selected Petruschka
Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy

In December 1911 Claude Debussy wrote to his Swiss friend Robert Godet:

“Are you aware that a young Russian musician named Igor Stravinsky with an instinctive genius for color and rhythm lives near you in Clarens? I’m sure that both he and his music will give you infinite pleasure. […] His music is full of feeling for the orchestra […]. He is afraid of nothing nor is he pretentious. It is music that is child-like and untamed. Yet the layout and the co-ordination of ideas is extremely delicate. If you have an opportunity of meeting him do not hesitate!” 1

Claude Debussy in Paris (1910); photo by Igor Stravinsky (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle)
Initial encounters

The first meeting between Debussy and Stravinsky dates back to the summer of 1910. On 25th June, when the twenty-eight-year-old St. Petersburg composer presented his ballet The Firebird to the Parisian public, Debussy was seated in the audience at the première. Not only did the spectacular performance turn the previously unknown Stravinsky over night into a worldwide celebrity, it also earned him somewhat ambiguous praise from his sharp-tongued colleague: “It is not perfect but in many ways it is nevertheless very fine because music is not subservient to the dance […].” 2

For Stravinsky, the acquaintance with the famous French composer two decades his senior was unquestionably a special event. Debussy was a modernist trailblazer who opened up new paths for music at the turn of the century. During his years of study in St. Petersburg, Stravinsky had became acquainted with several Debussy compositions. In his memoirs, he later described the critical way in which the musicians in his milieu – the conservative circle associated with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – responded to Debussy’s music:

“At a concert where one of the latter’s [Debussy] works was on the programme I asked Rimsky-Korsakov what he thought of it. He answered in these very words: ‘Better not listen to him; one runs the risk of getting accustomed to him and one would end by liking him.’ But such was not the attitude of his disciples – they were more royalist than the King. The rare exceptions discoverable among them served only to prove the rule.” 3

Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy in the latter’s apartment in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Paris; photo by Erik Satie, June 1910 (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle)
Petrushka and The Rite of Spring

One year after the première of The Firebird, Debussy’s subdued admiration turned into undisguised enthusiasm. In June 1911 he attended a performance of Stravinsky’s second ballet, Petrushka, and was deeply impressed by the “orchestral infallibility,” “sonorous magic,” and “unbridled power” of the music. After a close reading of the score, he wrote to Stravinsky in April 1912:

“Thanks to you I have passed an enjoyable Easter vacation in company of Petrouchka, the terrible Moor and the delicious Ballerina. I can imagine that you spent incomparable moments with the three puppets… I don’t know many things of greater worth than the section you call ‘Tour de passe-passe’… [Debussy refers to the passage in Tableau I in which the three puppets come alive.] There is in it a kind of sonorous magic, a mysterious transformation of mechanical souls which become human by a spell of which, until now, you seem to be the unique inventor. Finally there is an orchestral infallibility that I have found only in Parsifal. You will understand what I mean, of course. You will go much further than Petrouchka, it is certain, but you can be proud already of the achievement of this work.” 4

But hardly two months later the now thirty-year-old Russian composer came up with a new surprise. One Sunday afternoon the influential French critic Louis Laloy invited Debussy, his wife, and Stravinsky to his home. On 2nd June 1912, almost exactly one year before Stravinsky’s third ballet, The Rite of Spring, received its scandalous and legendary première at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, a private reading of the not quite finished work was given at the piano in Laloy’s home. The French critic recalled the memorable event in his memoirs:

“Debussy agreed to play the bass. Stravinsky asked if he could take his collar off. His sight was not improved by his glasses, and pointing his nose to the keyboard and sometimes humming a part that had been omitted from the arrangement, he led into a welter of sound the supple, agile hands of his friend. Debussy followed without a hitch and seemed to make light of the difficulty. When they had finished there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and which had taken life by the roots.” 5

Letter from Claude Debussy to Igor Stravinsky, 13th April 1912, p.1 (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle) Claude Debussy at the home of Ernest Chausson (Source gallica.bnf.fr/ Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Reminiscences and echoes

Though his memory of the private performance of The Rite of Spring pursued Debussy for months “like a beautiful nightmare,” he felt closer to the musical world of Petrushka. His enthusiasm for this work is reflected in several of his later compositions, such as the second volume of his Préludes, the ballet Jeux which he wrote for Sergej Diaghilev, and the unfinished children’s ballet La boîte à joujoux (“The Toy Box”). All these works have passages that recall Stravinsky and invite interpretation as echoes or reminiscences of Petrushka.

Conversely, Stravinsky’s music contains some allusions to Debussy. Particularly interesting in our context is Act I of his opera Le rossignol (“The Nightingale”), which was composed between November 1908 and August 1909 and thus before The Firebird. Here Debussy’s influence is especially noticeable in the treatment of the orchestra. But even Stravinsky’s later works, when the influence was no longer direct, have elements that can be traced back to Debussy.

Portrait of Claude Debussy, Lausanne, 1914 (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle)
Dedications and tributes

The personal relations between Debussy and Stravinsky, though cordial, were not free of tension. Debussy felt not only inspired but put under pressure by the bold innovations of his younger colleague. He feared he might lose his influence among younger composers and accused Stravinsky in the early years of World War I of striking out in a questionable direction. Here, for example, is his letter of 15th October 1915 to Robert Godet: “Stravinsky himself is leaning dangerously in the direction of Schoenberg, but nevertheless remains the most wonderful orchestral technician of our time.” 6

Despite these occasional tensions and qualms, the relations between the two men were marked by respect and mutual esteem. Their admiration found expression in a number of dedications. The final movement of Debussy’s En blanc et noir for two pianos, composed in summer 1915, is dedicated to Stravinsky, who for his part had already given his elder colleague the dedication to his cantata Le roi des étoiles for male chorus and orchestra (1911-12).

When Debussy died in Paris in March 1918 after a long illness, Stravinsky honored his colleague with a musical tribute:

“I was sincerely attached to him as a man, and I grieved not only at the loss of one whose great friendship had been marked with unfailing kindness towards myself and my work, but at the passing of an artist who, in spite of maturity and health already hopelessly undermined, had still been able to retain his creative powers to the full, and whose musical genius had been in no way impaired throughout the whole period of his activity.” 6

When the Parisian Revue Musicale published a memorial supplement to Debussy, Stravinsky submitted a chorale that would, a short while later, form the final section of his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a single-movement piece for twenty-four woodwind and brass instruments dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy.

Achille-Emile-Othon Friesz: Claude Debussy on his deathbed (Source gallica.bnf.fr/ Bibliothèque nationale de France) Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments, autograph full score, p. 1 (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle)
Further Reading

Edward Lockspeiser: Debussy: his life and mind (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 178-88.

Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), esp. pp. 770-78.


1 Quoted from Edward Lockspeiser: Debussy: his life and mind (Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 180.

2 Ibid., p. 179.

3 Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography (London: Marion Boyars, 1975), p. 18.

4 Quoted from Lockspeiser, Debussy (see note 1), pp. 180f.

5 Ibid., p. 181.

6 Ibid., p. 185.

7 Stravinsky, Autobiography (see note 3), p. 90.