Claude Debussy was a genius of the highest order and one of the most influential composers of all-time.
He eschewed the formal and pedantic traditions of 19th century and ushered classical music into a brave new world.
Modern listeners may not hear it, due to the passage of a century worth of music—much of which he influenced—but during Debussy’s era, his compositions were considered challenging, provocative, and original.
Debussy revolutionized tonality; he did not feel the need to use traditional western scales. He also employed exotic and textured harmonies.
His music is often labeled “impressionist,” but he despised the classification. Even so, Debussy was as influenced by art and poetry as he was by music.
Debussy inspired numerous composers including Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók. His creative sway extends far outside the realm of classical music to talents like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Branford Marsalis, and John Williams.
Debussy’s most famous works are Suite bergamasque (which includes his famous "Clair de lune”), Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Nocturnes, and La mer.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Claude Debussy was born Aug. 22, 1862. His father was a shop owner and his mother a seamstress. Claude had four younger siblings.
Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and moved to Paris in 1867. His stay in The City of Light was short.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Debussy and his mother fled to Cannes.
A gifted child, Debussy began to take piano lessons when he was seven. Soon after, he received tutelage from Marie Mauté de Fleurville. She told Debussy that she had been taught by Frédéric Chopin, but music historians have found no evidence to support her claim.
At ten, Debussy was talented enough to enter the Paris Conservatoire.
There, he was taught by several prominent musicians including Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, Émile Durand, César Franck, Albert Lavignac, and Antoine François Marmontel.
Debussy was an excellent pianist and adroit at sight reading. He could have tickled the ivories in a professional capacity but favored composition.
Debussy and Tchaikovsky
His first, and one of his most important musical experiences occurred in the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882. During those three seasons, he traveled all over Europe with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s wealthy patroness.
During these summer vacations, Debussy played piano with the patroness, taught her children music, and performed in a trio she established to entertain family and friends.
Despite being separated by a few degrees from Tchaikovsky, the Russian master had little effect on Debussy.
By Societe des Auteurs Photographes, Paris
[Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prix de Rome
In 1890, Debussy began a romantic relationship with a married woman, Marie-Blanche Vasnier. Their affair ended in 1884 when he won the prestigious Prix de Rome.
The Prix de Rome came with a scholarship to a renowned music academy in The Eternal City. He did not like his time in the Italian capital.
He found the curriculum unchallenging, the people banal, and the food distasteful.
The feeling was mutual. The academy found his compositions quite bizarre. The faculty had far greater hopes for a student with Debussy’s talent and brilliance.
In 1888, and again in 1889, Debussy made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, in Germany, to hear the operas of Richard Wagner.
Also, around this time, he met Erik Satie.
The music of Wagner, and the approach of Satie, made a lasting impression on Debussy.
Marriage and Affairs
Debussy married Rosalie Texier in 1899. Before that, he had a relationship with her friend Gabrielle Dupont.
During his relationship Dupont, Debussy had an affair with Thérèse Roger.
This type of behavior was typical of the composer and heavily disapproved of by those around him.
Texier was a fashion model who most people found affable. Nonetheless, Debussy grew weary of her mental and musical ignorance.
Also, he didn’t like the fact that she was barren and lost her looks to the ravages of time.
By Photographe inconnu : Claude Debussy
and Igor Stravinsky, 1910
(Bibliothèque de l'Opéra Garnier - Paris) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
In the last decade of the 19th century, Debussy wrote some of his most famous works, including Suite bergamasque (which contains Clair de Lune), String Quartet in G minor, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and Nocturnes.
In 1902, Debussy celebrated the premiere of his only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.
The production was a huge success.
In 1905, La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestra—better known as La mer—was performed publicly for the first time.
Reviews were mixed.
Between 1900 and 1910, Debussy several pieces for piano including Estampes, Images pour piano, Reflets dans l'eau, and Préludes.
In 1908, he penned Children's Corner Suite.
The worked was written for his daughter and contains elements of classicism and ragtime.
In 1904, while stilled married to Texier, Debussy began a relationship with a married woman, Emma Bardac. The two were introduced by Bardac’s son who was one of Debussy’s pupils.
In August of 1904, Debussy told Texier that their marriage was over. In October, Texier shot herself in the chest. While doctors were unable to remove the bullet, she survived the shooting.
The affair, and Texier’s attempted suicide, were huge scandals. In the wake of the events, many of Debussy’s friends became ex-friends and Bardac’s family disowned her.
To escape the tumult, Debussy and Bardac relocated to London. At this point in their relationship—the spring of 1905—Bardac was with child.
The couple returned to Paris in September and bought a house on what is now Avenue Foch. Debussy lived there for the rest of his life.
Their daughter, Claude-Emma, was born on Oct. 30. She’d die a year after her father from diphtheria.
Debussy and Bardac married in 1908.
Jeux, written in 1912, and premiering a year later, was the last orchestrated work Debussy completed. He composed the ballet for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
Unfortunately for Debussy, the work was panned and overshadowed by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which debuted a fortnight later.
Highlights of his final compositions were Études; Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé; Sonata for flute, viola, and harp; and a second set of Préludes for piano.
By Maixentais (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1909, Debussy was diagnosed with rectal cancer. In 1915, he received one of the world’s first colostomy operations. It did little to improve his condition.
Debussy finally succumbed to his cancer on March 25, 1918 in his Parisian home. He expired as German forces bombarded the city. Conditions of the first world war prevented a public funeral.
The chaos and destruction that surrounded Debussy’s final days were symbolic of his work and life.
He was at odds with the musical traditions and conventions of his time, but he refused to be confined.
His personal life was turbulent too. His behavior often alienated those around him.
It didn’t help that he was arrogant, guarded, and vexatious.
Despite these faults, Debussy was a supreme artist.
His cannon helped free classical music from an entrenched and rigid creative bureaucracy.
Selected Works by Debussy
Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire
L'enfant prodigue for soprano, baritone, and tenor and orchestra
Pelléas et Mélisande
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Claude Debussy was born Achille-Claude Debussy. In the 1890s, he flipped his forenames.
Debussy’s father served a year in prison for participating in a socialist revolt following the Franco-Prussian War.
In 1889, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. He incorporated elements of the genre into his own works.
Debussy finished just one opera, but he had plans for several more including adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher.
Debussy nicknamed his daughter, Claude-Emma, “Chouchou.”
Debussy occasionally supplemented his income as a music critic. He wrote under the name “Monsieur Croche.”
Listen to Debussy
Header image credit: Portrait painted by Donald Sheridan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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