Claude Debussy - the Composer
Created | Updated Mar 27, 2009
There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law.
- Claude Debussy
Achille-Claude Debussy was born on 22 August, 1862, in St Germain-en-Laye near Paris. His father was a shopkeeper, and he received the beginning of his education at home with his mother. He started learning piano aged seven with Cerruti, and went to the Paris Conservatoire to continue his training when he was 11.
It became clear that Debussy wasn't going to be a piano virtuoso while at the Conservatoire. His composition and improvisations didn't obey the rules of harmony and style laid down by his professors, and they considered his style dangerous.
Despite this, Debussy won the prestigious Prix De Rome with the cantata L'enfant prodigue in 1884 after having been runner-up the previous year. This entitled him to study in Rome at the Villa de Medici, and then have a concert performed of exclusively his own work at the end of his time there. Debussy studied between 1885 and 1887. He hated Rome, and for his concert insisted they perform a work called Printemps, which those responsible for the prize didn't like. However, Debussy would not be shifted, and so the concert did not go ahead.
From 1880 to 1882, Debussy was employed by Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck1, a wealthy widow, to teach her children piano and to accompany their singing. He travelled to Switzerland, Russia and Italy with her family. In the summers of 1888 and 1889 Debussy visited Bayreuth to meet Wagner and to hear his works.
Personal Life and Suicide Attempts
Debussy had a turbulent personal life. In 1889 he began a nine-year affair with Gabrielle Dupont, and a brief but concurrent affair with the singer Therese Roger. He married his first wife, Rosalie Texier, known as Lily, in 1899. He left her in 1904 for Emma Bardac, who was already married, and who divorced her husband for Debussy. Debussy married Bardac in 1908, and they stayed together for the rest of his life. They had a daughter, Claude-Emma.
Neither Rosalie nor Gabrielle were happy when their relationships with Debussy split. In fact, they were both so upset that they both shot themselves (on separate occasions). Happily, neither woman managed to kill herself.
Debussy was devoted to his daughter, Claude-Emma, whom he nicknamed Chouchou. He wrote his Children's Corner suite and The Toybox for her.
Debussy fell ill in 1910, with what was later diagnosed as rectal cancer. The illness sapped his strength; in addition he was severely depressed by the events of the Great War. Despite these adversities, he continued to compose and perform. His last public performance was in May 1917, where he played the piano accompaniment at the premiere of his violin sonata. He died on 25 March, 1918, aged 55.
Debussy was influenced by the art and literature of his day as well as by other composers. Some of the major influences on Debussy's work are listed below.
The Late Romantic style of music - contemporary with his early life - had a great influence on Debussy. He acknowledged a great debt to Chopin in the prefaces to his books of Etudes. He also admired the style of Liszt. On Debussy's visits to Bayreuth in 1888 and 1890, he was impressed with Wagner's style, especially his use of chromaticism (scales), and his rich orchestration.
Impressionist painting started in Paris during Debussy's life, and he was keenly interested in the concept of creating an impression of something, rather than an accurate depiction. The impressionist painters, including Degas, Monet, and Renoir, rebelled against the formalist painting style of their day. They captured the light and colour of a scene on the canvas, but didn't record every minuscule detail of their subjects. Their painting was described as 'impressionist' by a critic.
Debussy greatly enjoyed reading contemporary Symbolist Poetry, and set many such poetic works to music.
Debussy was an innovative composer. He spent long periods at the piano, trying out new combinations of notes - creating 'chords' which broke all the accepted conventions of musical harmony. He took those original harmonies, used new rhythms, such as jazz and ragtime concepts, and unconventional scales2, combining all these new elements delicately into works which were designed to give the listener a sound 'impression' of their subject.
Because Debussy's enduringly popular works are those for piano, with some orchestrations, he is thought of as principally a composer for piano, then orchestra, but he was in fact a prolific and varied composer. Only a few key works are listed in each of the categories below.
Debussy started work on five operas, including two based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe (The Devil in the Belfry, and The Fall of the House of Usher), but he completed only one of them, Pelease et Melisande, based on a story by Maeterlinck. It was first performed in 1902.
He composed scores for four ballets. The more notable ones being:
- Jeux - his last major orchestral work, which starred Nijinsky at its premiere
- La boite a joujoux (The Toybox) - written for his daughter
His output includes 34 pieces best classified as dramatic works, including operatic extracts, and music to accompany contemporary poetry. The better-known ones are:
- Music to accompany 'As You Like It' (1886)
- Chansons de Bilitis (1900)
- Orphee Roi (1907)
- Le marchand de reves (1909)
- Masques et bergamasque (1909)
Scores for 14 orchestral pieces of various sorts exist. A cross-section is listed below.
- Symphony in B minor (1880)
- Printemps (Symphonic suite with female chorus) (1887)
- Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune (1892)
- La mer (1903)
- Danse sacree at danse profane (1904)
- Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra (unfinished)
Some pieces from his body of work in this area are listed below.
- Nocturne and scherzo for 'cello and piano (1882)
- String quartet No. 2 (the only one published) (1894)
- Rapsodie for clarinet and piano (1910)
- Syrinx for flute (1913)
- Sonata for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano (1915)
- Sonata for violin and piano (1917)
Debussy composed 35 songs, most based on contemporary poetry. Few are still performed.
Thirty-eight piano works by Debussy - many of them suites of pieces - have been published. Some of the enduringly popular pieces are listed below.
- Suite bergamasque (1890)
- Nocturne (1892)
- Jardins sous la pluie (1903)
- L'isle joyeuse (1904)
- Children's Corner (1906)
- Preludes (Book 1) - including La cathedrale engloutie - (1910)
- Preludes (Book 2) (1912)
- Etudes (1915)