Achille Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862–March 25, 1918) was a French composer, who, along with Maurice Ravel, was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions. Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, 22 August 1862, the eldest of five children. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a shop where he sold china and crockery; his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. The family moved to Paris in 1867, but in 1870 Debussy’s pregnant mother sought refuge from the Franco-Prussian war with a paternal aunt of Claude’s in Cannes. Debussy began piano lessons there at the age of seven years with an Italian violinist in his early forties named Cerutti; his lessons were paid for by his aunt.
In 1871 Debussy drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence of her claim. His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent eleven years. During his time there he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. He also became a lifelong friend of fellow student and noted pianist Isidor Philipp.
From the start, though clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental. He challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished. The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber; and Chopin—the Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert, a relatively little-known piece but one requiring an advanced technique; it was originally intended to be the opening movement of a third piano concerto. During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882 Debussy accompanied the wealthy patroness of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, as she travelled with her family in Europe and Russia. The young composer’s many musical activities during these vacations included playing four-hand pieces with von Meck at the piano, giving music lessons to her children, and performing in private concerts with some of her musician friends.
In September 1880 von Meck she sent Debussy’s Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky’s perusal. A month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her, “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity.” Debussy did not publish the piece; the manuscript remained in the von Meck family, and it was sold to B. Schott’s Sohne in Mainz, and published by them in 1932. A greater influence was Debussy’s close friendship with Madame Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She and her husband gave Debussy emotional and professional support. Monsieur Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, the son-in-law of his former teacher, Mme. Mauté de Fleurville.
As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L’enfant prodigue, Debussy received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887). He did not delight in the pleasures of the “Eternal City”, finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable. Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima, based on a text by Heinrich Heine; the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La damoiselle élue (1887–1888), which was criticized by the Academy as “bizarre”; and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra.
During his visits to Bayreuth in 1888-9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which had a lasting impact on his work. Richard Wagner had died in 1883 and the cult of Wagnerism was still in full swing. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Wagner’s sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies. Wagner’s extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy’s way, but the German composer’s influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine—Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes—are all in a more capricious style. Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie, who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces.
In 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. Although direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been identified in any of Debussy’s compositions, the equal-tempered pentatonic scale appears in his music of this time and afterward. Beginning in the 1890s, Debussy developed his own musical language largely independent of Wagner’s style, collared in part from the dreamy, sometimes morbid romanticism of the Symbolist movement. The Deux Arabesques is an example of one of Debussy’s earliest works, already developing his musical language. Suite bergamasque (1890) recalls rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement. This suite contains one of Debussy’s most popular pieces, Clair de Lune. Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor (1893) paved the way for his later, more daring harmonic exploration.
Debussy became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé’s Symbolist gatherings. Influenced by Mallarmé, Debussy wrote one of his most famous works, the revolutionary Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, truly original in form and execution. He married Rosalie (‘Lilly’) Texier, a fashion model, in 1899. The three Nocturnes (1899), include characteristic studies in veiled harmony and texture as demonstrated in Nuages; exuberance in Fêtes; and whole-tones in Sirènes. Contrasting sharply with Wagnerian opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, premiered in 1902, after ten years of work. It would be his only complete opera. In France, he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903.
During this period Debussy wrote much for the piano, including the set of pieces entitled Pour le piano (1901); the evocative Estampes for piano (1903); and the first volume of Images pour piano (1904–1905). In the spring of 1905 Debussy made a trip to England where he corrected proofs to his symphonic suite La mer. Following his divorce from Texier he returned to Paris and eventually married Emma Bardac in 1908. They had a daughter, the composer’s only child, named Claude-Emma, affectionately known as ‘Chouchou’. Debussy wrote his famous Children’s Corner Suite (1908) for his beloved daughter.
During this period, as Debussy gained more popularity, he was engaged as a conductor throughout Europe. Larger scaled works included his orchestral piece Iberia (1907). The first book of Préludes (1910), twelve in total, proved to be Debussy’s most successful work for piano. The music for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s mystery play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911) is a lush and dramatic work, written in only two months. The last orchestral work by Debussy was the ballet Jeux (1912), written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Other late stage works, including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La boîte à joujoux (1913) were left with the orchestration incomplete. His last set of songs was the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913). The second set of Préludes for piano (1913) features Debussy at his most avant-garde. His last two volumes of works for the piano were the Études (1915) and the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos (1915).
Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) recaptures the inquisitive Verlainian classicism. With the sonatas of 1915–1917, there is a sudden shift in the style. These works recall Debussy’s earlier music, in part, but also look forward, with leaner, simpler structures. Despite the thinner textures of the Violin Sonata (1917) there remains an undeniable richness in the chords themselves. Debussy planned a set of six sonatas, but this plan was cut short by his death in 1918 so that he only completed three, for cello, flute-viola-harp, and violin. Further plans, such as an American tour, more ballet scores, and revisions of Chopin and Bach works for re-publication, were all cut short by the outbreak of World War I and his poor health. Debussy was diagnosed with the cancer in 1909 after experiencing hemorrhaging, and in 1916 underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations ever performed. The operation achieved only a temporary respite and died of rectal cancer at his Paris home on March 25, 1918, in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I.
The following works by Debussy are included in my collection:
Berceuse Heroique (1915).
Chanson de Bilitis (1897).
Children’s Corner (Suite; 1906, orch. Andre Caplet).
Danse (Tarentelle Styrienne, 1890; arr. Maurice Ravel).
Danses Sacree et Profane or Deux Danses for Chromatic Harp and Strings (Danse sacree et danse profane, 1904).
Douze Etudes (1915): Trois Etudes (#s 9, 10, 12; orch Michael Jarrell).
En Blanc et Noir (1915; orch. Robin Holloway).
(Three) Estampes (1903): Pagodes (#1), and La soiree dans Grenade (#2).
Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra (1890).
Images for Orchestra (1912) including Iberia.
Jeux, Poeme Danse (1913).
Khamma, legend dansee.
La Boite a Joujoux (The Toy Box, 1913), Ballet for Children.
La Mer (1905).
La Plus que Lente (Waltz; 1910/1912).
Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian (1911): Fragments Symphoniques.
L’enfant prodigue (cantata; 1884): Cortege et air de danse.
Le Roi Lear (King Lear; 1904): Fanfare d’ouverture and Le sommeil de Lear.
Le triomphe de Bacchus (1881; orch. Marius-Francois Gaillard).
L’Isle Joyeuse (1904; orch. Bernardino Molinari).
Marche Ecossaise sur un theme populare (Marche des Anciens Comtes de Ross; 1891/1908).
Nocturnes for orchestra (1899) , or Three Scenes at Twilight.
Pelleas et Melisande (1902): Symphonie (arr. Marius Constant).
Petite Suite (1889; orch. Henri Busser).
Pour le Piano Suite (1901): Sarabande (#2, Avec une elegance grave et lente; orch. Maurice Ravel).
Prelude a L’Apres Midi d’un Faune (1894).
Preludes, Book I (1910; orch. Colin Matthews).
Preludes Book 2 (1913; orch. Colin Matthews).
Premier Rhapsody for Orchestra with Principal Clarinet (1910).
Printemps, Symphonic Suite (1887).
Rhaspsodie for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (1911).
Six Epigraphes Antiques (1900; orch. Ernest Ansermet).
Suite Bergamasque (1905), including Clair de Lune.
Symphony in bm (1880).