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1862 1918

Claude Debussy

Debussy, Claude
  • Frenchman Claude Debussy offered a musical alternative to Romanticism. Because he reinterpreted or discarded many of the laws of traditional harmony and form, he is considered one of the fathers of modern music.

Vital Statistics

Born: Aug. 22, 1862, St. Germain-en-Laye
Died: March 22, 1918, Paris, of colorectal cancer
Nationality: French
Genre: 20th Century
Performed as: Pianist
During the composer's lifetime: Symbolist poetry and Impressionist painting flourished. Northeast France was annexed by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War (1871), then reacquired after World War I.

Biographical Outline

  • Education: Debussy was enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire in 1872. (He never attended regular school). In 1884, he won the Conservatoire’s main composition prize, the Prix de Rome.
  • Bohemian life, 1888-1902: He joined the café society of Symbolist poets and writers, such as Stéphane Mallarmé. He composed his now-famous orchestral piece Prélude à ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’ (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”) based on a Mallarmé poem, at the poet’s request.
  • Exotic Exhibition, 1889: At the Paris World’s Fair, Debussy heard a Javanese gamelan (tuned percussion orchestra), which helped lead him away from traditional musical forms and sounds. He also met unknown composer Erik Satie, whose untraditional ideas also influenced him in this direction
  • Fan base, 1902: The success of Debussy’s lone opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, led to the French musical craze called “Debussyism.”
  • Critic, 1901: Under the pen-name “Monsieur Croche” (Croche=quarter-note), Debussy wrote some influential music criticism.
  • Conducting debut, 1908: Most of Debussy’s orchestral works were coolly received at their premieres, causing Debussy to step in for a performance of Le mer (The Sea, 1905). It was more successful under his baton.
  • Impressionism, 1910: Many of his experimental Preludes For Piano (1910-13) have evocative, visual titles (“Footsteps in the Snow,” “Sunken Cathedral”) that suggest Impressionist paintings.
  • Last years, 1915-18: The summer of 1915 was productive for Debussy, but at the end of the year he underwent his first treatment for cancer, and his working pace slowed before his death.

Fun Facts

  • High-level contacts: In 1880, he babysat for Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron. He visited Florence, Italy and Russia in her family's company.
  • Painter: “I love painting almost as much as music” he told the composer Eduard Varèse in 1911. He also told his first biographer that poets and painters had taught him more than musicians. The first edition cover of his work La mer, features an illustration by the great Japanese artist Hokusai.
  • Insider: In 1912, he helped Stravinsky perform a sneak preview of The Rite of Spring in a friend’s living room.
  • Patriotism: He dedicated his final works to the French cause during World War I, and signed them “Claude Debussy... French musician”
  • In his own words: “There are no rules: pleasure is the law”

Recommended Biography

  • Paul Roberts, Claude Debussy. 20th Century Composers (Phaidon, 2008)
  • Roger Nichols, The Life of Debussy. Musical Lives (Cambridge, 1998). Short, but the author published an influential biography of the composer (1973), now out of print.
  • Victor Lederer, Debussy: The Quiet Revolutionary. Unlocking the Masters (Hal Leonard, 2007)
  • The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, ed. Simon Trevise. (Cambridge, 2003). Scholarly but accessible opening essays on the composer’s life are interesting and important. Discussions of the music tend to be more technical.
  • Debussy Remembered, ed. Roger Nichols (Amadeus, 2003). Interviews and reminiscences from people who knew Debussy.

Explore the Music

  • Experimenter: Debussy was an experimenter, and his music, up until his late period, emphasizes color and sensuous sound-washes, scales outside the usual major-minor keys, blurring of formal edges, and new ideas about musical expression. But his incredible ear and sheer musicality have ensured the popularity of his music and its permanent place in the classical repertory.
  • Wagnerian: Debussy knew all of Wagner’s works and, like his Symbolist poet friends, was influenced by them. This influence gradually receded as he found his own creative voice, but he acknowledged to his composer friend, Emmanuel Chabrier, as he was completing the first version of Pelleas, that he was fighting “the ghost of old Klingsor, alias Richard Wagner.”
  • Opera Guy: Although he completed only one opera, Debussy was involved with, or thinking about theater projects throughout his life. He left behind several incomplete or barely begun pieces. One of his huge scores, Le martyre de San Sebastien, (The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, 1911) is incidental music to a play.

Recommended Websites

Debussy - Favorite Piano Works look inside Debussy - Favorite Piano Works By Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Piano Collection. Softcover. 240 pages. G. Schirmer #LB2070. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50486500)

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Songs of Claude Debussy look inside Songs of Claude Debussy (The Vocal Library). By Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Arranged by James R. Briscoe. High Voice. Vocal Collection. 168 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.660164)

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