Claude Debussy Biography

Debussy’s harmony, melody, and orchestration were radical departures from both classic and Romantic idioms. They promoted a color-based approach to music and foreshadowed the nontonal language of the twentieth century.

Born: August 22, 1862; Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Died: March 25, 1918; Paris, France

The Life

Achille-Claude Debussy (ah-KEEL klohd dehbyew- SEE) was the eldest of five children born to Manuel-Achille Debussy and Victorine Manoury. When the family moved to Paris in 1867, the father took a succession of menial jobs, and the mother, who worked as a seamstress, schooled Debussy at home. His first contact with the sea occurred in 1869 at Cannes, in the South of France. The sensitive child was impressed by the size of this body of water and its constant change of color; as an adult, Debussy vividly recalled the sea “stretching out to the horizon.” In Cannes, Debussy took his first piano lessons with the Italian Jean Cerutti; two years later, he became the student of Mme Mauté de Fleurville, the poet Paul Verlaine’s mother-in-law, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. In 1872 Debussy was admitted to the Paris Conservatory, where he spent twelve years as a student. In 1880 Debussy met Nadezhda von Meck, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s patroness, and this enabled him to travel, as a musician of the household, to Switzerland, Italy, and Russia, in the process becoming acquainted with the music of Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Aleksandr Borodin. Having unsuccessfully proposed to the sixteenyear- old Sophie von Meck in 1880, Debussy turned his attention to the singer Marie Vasnier, his first true love and his muse,whoperformed many of the songs he composed in the 1880’s.

In 1884 hewonthe prestigious Prix de Rome, for which he had been preparing since 1881. Debussy spent 1885 and 1886 at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he complained about isolation and “having to compose music to order.” However, while there, he had the opportunity to play for Franz Liszt, to listen to the sacred music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso performed at Santa Maria dell’Anima, to study the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach, and to read the most recent magazines produced by the French Symbolists, whose philosophy was a reaction to realism, advocating a metaphorical and mysterious approach to the truth. In 1887 he returned to Paris, which was in the midst of a craze for Richard Wagner, a trend of definite appeal to Debussy, and where Symbolist poetry flourished. Within the next two years, the composer met Verlaine, StuartMerrill, and Pierre Louÿs and embraced their chief aesthetic: Poetry and music should be one. Debussy became acquainted with James McNeill Whistler, the painter of the famous views of the Thames titled Nocturnes. Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, J. M. W. Turner, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were also counted among his favorite painters. In 1891 he befriended the eccentric composer Eric Satie; their friendship lasted for nearly three decades.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 brought to Paris music from Northern and Eastern Europe, as well as from Africa, Arabia, and the Far East. Debussy was fascinated with the complex rhythmic polyphony, the timbre, and the pentatonic melodies of the Javanese gamelan orchestra, an ensemble comprising single-string instruments, a flute, and gongs and bells. Debussy’s later orchestral idiom– especially as seen in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, La Mer, and the series Images–reflected the influence of such rhythmic sophistication. After 1889, pentatonic scales became part of his vocabulary as well. In addition to being a composer, a conductor, and a performer, Debussy was a perceptive music critic. His first critical writings were published in the literary-artistic magazine La Revue blanche (1901) under the nom de plume “Monsieur Croche”; later, he was published in the daily Gil Blas (1903) and in La Revue S. I.M. (1912-1914). Several of these articles were later selected by Debussy as representative of his musical philosophy, and they were published posthumously as Monsieur Croche, antidilettant (1921).

After a tempestuous and long-standing affair with Gabrielle Dupont, Debussy married Rosalie (Lilly) Texier in 1899; the marriage was informally dissolved when the composer met Emma Bardac and started living with her in 1904. They were married in 1908; their daughter, Claude-Emma, affectionately called Chouchou, was the dedicatee of a piano suite Debussy composed between 1906 and 1908, Children’s Corner. Noted for its humorous slant, the suite incorporates a musical caricature of Muzio Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum and a French nursery song, “Dodo, l’enfant do,” which had been alluded to in Estampes and would be put to further use in the orchestral Images series. The first signs of cancer, the illness that would ultimately cause the composer’s death, appeared in 1909, while Debussy was visiting England. A colonoscopy was performed in 1915, and throughout his last years the composer was in physical pain, as well as depressed because of the events of World War I. He died in Paris on March 25, 1918. The Music Debussy’s fully matured style, already apparent in works of the late 1880’s, fuses several sources into a single, coherent, highly personal language, whose aesthetic foundation is that music should evoke moods and colors. In terms of harmony, this translates into treatment of discords as concords; intense use of chromaticism; abrupt modulations and rapidly shifting key areas; Russian-like modality; exploration of chord structures derived from pentatonic and whole-tone scales; and, above all, understanding harmony as a color-generating device.

His melodies are fluid, elastic, and highly ornamental, in the style of Oriental arabesques, and look like embellished improvisations frozen on the page. Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy began work on this five-act lyric drama in 1893, two years after returning from his second trip to Bayreuth, Germany, where he had seen Wagner’s operas Parsifal (1882), Die Meistersinger (1867), and Tristan und Isolde (1859). Debussy traveled to Ghent, in Belgium, to obtain Maurice Maeterlinck’s permission to adapt his Symbolist play as an opera libretto.Atragic love story involving a mysterious princess (Mélisande) and her husband’s half-brother (Pelléas), Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande went through a long period of gestation and continuous revisions: The premiere took place in 1902, but the composer continued to revise the score up to and beyond 1905, the year of its publication. Consistent avoidance of cadences, and the intersection of whole-tone scales and their chord-derivatives with chromatic and modal harmonies, infuse the opera with astonishing colors and suggest an atemporal quality.

The fluid, quasi-recitative style of the vocal parts, already present in many of Debussy’s songs, stems from limited melodic ranges, pitch repetition, and extraordinary rhythmic variety. Somewhat in the spirit of Wagner’s music, heroes and situations are characterized through specific motives; these journeys through multiple hypostases suggest alterations in both characters and events. In a similar vein, the orchestral interludes connecting the various scenes take on narrative function and suggest emotions not overtly expressed by the heroes. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. This orchestral piece was originally intended as incidentalmusic to a dramatic monologue based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The proposed scope was never achieved; the music was described by Debussy as “a general impression of the poem.” The whole work is generated from a single motive heard in the flute in the first four measures, later reprised, transformed, reharmonized, reorchestrated, and extended. Orchestral colors and dynamic ranges are of astounding variety, from subtle and refined pianissimos to luscious fortes. In this, as in his works for piano solo, Debussy showed himself to be the master of an arabesquelike, quasi-improvisatory style, probably based on similar treatments by Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin in their works of Oriental inspiration.

In most of his Symbolist and mature works, Debussy cultivated instrumental color for its own sake and for evoking a certain atmosphere. In Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Debussy utilized instruments familiar and expected in late Romantic orchestras, but also small, antique cymbals to convey the idea of spatial and temporal remoteness of the lascivious faun’s musings. Additional color was created through division of strings as well as muted brass. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun perhaps best illustrates the composer’s belief that the substance of music resides in sound color and rhythm. The Sea. Debussy’s longtime love affair with the sea, his father’s sea stories, Turner’s sea paintings (which the composer might have seen during his visits to London in 1902 and 1903), and Katsushika Hokusai’s Japanese seascapes have all been cited as extramusical sources for these three symphonic sketches composed between 1903 and 1905.

The Sea might be understood as a cyclical symphony in three related movements, all based on pentatonic material and employing timbre as a building block. Adepiction of light and color changes on the sea as the day progresses from early morning to noon, the first movement (“From Dawn to Noon on the Sea”) exploits gamelanlike sonorities; the second (“Wave Play”) involves ostinatos, chromaticism, and glissandi in the harp as well as timbre innovations, such as the use of muted trumpets in fortissimo to represent perpetual yet unpredictable aquatic motion; and the third (“Dialogue of Wind and Sea”) alternates two themes, pitched against each other as if in a state of natural combat, with the sea theme in the lower strings and the wind theme in the oboes, English horn, and bassoon. Images, Series 1 and Images, Series 2. This piano suite series comprises six delicate etchings (three in each book); among these are depictions of ephemeral, shimmering reflections of light in water; muffled bell sounds traversing dense leafage; and water splashing as goldfish play in a bowl in a frenzy of trills and tremolos.

The second piece in Images, Series 1 is an homage to Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, and it tells of Debussy’s fascination with the French clavecinists (or harpsichordists) of the eighteenth century. The second piece in Images, Series 2 uses the gamelan effect to depict the majestic descent of the moon on an Oriental temple. Préludes. Debussy, who revered J. S. Bach and Chopin (both of whom had penned keyboard preludes), was an exquisite piano player. The two books of Préludes offer a singular view of this genre: All pieces (with the exception of No. 11 in Book 2) have descriptive or evocative titles, and all use a fully developed Debussyan idiom. Some are evocative of dances and rhythms of Italy and Spain (“The Hills of Anacapri” in Book 1; “La Puerta del Vino” in Book 2); others are obvious narrative programmatic music (“La Cathédrale engloutie” in Book 1, a musical adaptation of the legendary cathedral of Ys in Brittany, emerging from water to the sound of bells, organ pedal, and Gregorian chant). Études.

Each study in this cycle, composed in 1915 and dedicated to the memory of Chopin, is an in-depth exploration of one major piano technique. There are finger exercises in Nos. 1 and 6; intervalbased exercises in Nos. 2, 4, and 5 (studies in thirds, sixths, and octaves, respectively); and chord- and arpeggio-based exercises in Nos. 11 and 12. Thus Debussy turned from symbolism, mystery, and subtle evocation to “pure music,” as he described it in a letter to composer Igor Stravinsky. Musical Legacy Debussy viewed his works as musical echoes of Symbolist poetry rather than as musical extensions of Impressionist painting. His constant preoccupation with sound color led to instrumentation experiments of unique refinement, possibly equaled only in some of Maurice Ravel’s works. Contemporary reception of his music was mixed: Some critics denounced it as unmoving, emotionless, or Impressionistic, and Debussy’s stylistic idiosyncrasies were dubbed Debussyism. Stravinsky, Giacomo Puccini, and Béla Bartók admired Debussy’s harmonic language, and Max Reger, Gustav Holst, Cyril Scott, and Aaron Copland were all influenced by him. Debussy was France’s true musical modernist.