Claude Debussy

(22 August 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye - 25 March 1918, Paris)


Claude-Achille Debussy was a French composer, one of the most influential composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is well known today for developing a highly original system of harmony and musical structure which is rooted in the Impressionistic ideals. Although he wasn't born in a family with musical background, at the age of 7 he began taking piano lessons from an Italian violinist named Cerutti. After 2 years he continued his studies under Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin.

His talents soon became noticed and, at the age of 10, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied the piano (under Antoine François Marmontel), composition (with Ernest Guiraud), music history/theory (with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray) and harmony (with Émile Durand) for the next 11 years. 

Debussy's youth was spent in circumstances of great turbulence, his family's financial situation was precarious. Later, after he came under the patronage of a Russian millionairess, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck (also a patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), he soon began traveling throughout Europe during his long summer vacations. In 1884 he won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child). This prize consisted in a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a 3-year stay at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies.

He soon began developing his style, a great influence was the singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier, which he accompanied and after, had an affair with. A fine example of his early style is well illustrated in one of his best known compositions, Clair de lune. The title refers to a folk song that was the conventional accompaniment of scenes of the love-sick Pierrot in the French pantomime. His earliest works include: the symphonic ode Zuleima, the orchestral piece Printemps, the cantata La Damoiselle élue, and the Fantasie for piano and orchestra.

The main musical influence on Debussy's later works were represented by Richard Wagner and the Russian composers Aleksandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. After a relatively bohemian period, during which Debussy formed friendships with many leading Parisian writers and musicians (not least of which were Mallarmé, Satie, and Chausson), the year 1894 saw the enormously successful premiere of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) -- a truly revolutionary work that brought his mature compositional voice into focus. His seminal opera Pelléas et Mélisande, completed the next year, would become a sensation at its first performance in 1902. The impact of those two works established Debussy as one of the leading composers of the era.

Debussy wrote much for the piano during this period. The set of pieces entitled Pour le piano (1901) uses rich harmonies and textures which would later prove important in jazz music. His first volume of Images pour piano (1904–1905) combines harmonic innovation with poetic suggestion: Reflets dans l'eau is a musical description of rippling water, whilst second piece Hommage à Rameau is slow and yearningly nostalgic, taking a melody from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1737 Castor et Pollux as its inspiration. The evocative Estampes for piano (1903) give impressions of exotic locations. Debussy came into contact with Javanese gamelan music during the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Pagodes is the directly inspired result, aiming for an evocation of the pentatonic structures employed by Javanese music.

In his later years, it is the pursuit of illusion that marks Debussy’s instrumental writing, especially the strange, other-worldly Cello Sonata. This noble bass instrument takes on, in chameleon fashion, the character of a violin, a flute, and even a mandolin. Debussy was developing in this work ideas of an earlier period, those expressed in a youthful play he had written, Frères en art (Brothers in Art), where his challenging, indeed anarchical, ideas are discussed among musicians, painters, and poets.

Debussy's mature musical style established a new concept of tonality in European music. He wasn't a big fan of the stereotyped harmonic procedures of the 19th century or the traditional orchestral usage of instruments. In his last works, the piano pieces En blanc et noir, (1915; In Black and White) and in the Douze Études (1915; “Twelve Études”), Debussy had branched out into modes of composition later to be developed in the styles of Stravinsky and the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

The application of the term "Impressionist" to Debussy and the music he influenced is a matter of intense debate within academic circles. One side argues that the term is a misnomer, an inappropriate label which Debussy himself opposed. Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed.

Here  you can find a list of Claude Debussy's works arranged by genre.