Achille-Claude Debussy (French: ; 22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though he himself disliked the term when applied to his compositions. In France, he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. 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.
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Debussy’s music is noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of atonality. The French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.
Claude Debussy was born on 22 August 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, the eldest of five children. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a china shop there; his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. The family moved to Paris in 1867, but in 1870 Debussy’s pregnant mother fled with Claude to his paternal aunt’s home in Cannes to escape the Franco-Prussian War. Debussy began piano lessons there at the age of seven with an Italian violinist in his early 40s named Cerutti; his aunt paid for his lessons. In 1871 he drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence to support her claim. His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent the next 11 years. During his time there he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. He also became a lifelong friend of fellow student and distinguished pianist Isidor Philipp. After Debussy’s death, many pianists sought Philipp’s advice on playing Debussy’s works.
From the outset, although clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental. He challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished. The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber; and Chopin—the Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert.
During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882 Debussy accompanied the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, as she travelled with her family in Europe. The young composer’s many musical activities during these vacations included playing four-hand pieces with von Meck at the piano, giving music lessons to her children, and performing in private concerts with some of her musician friends. Despite von Meck’s closeness with Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears to have had minimal effect on Debussy. In September 1880 she sent Debussy’s Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky’s perusal. A month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her, “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity.” Debussy did not publish the piece; the manuscript remained in the von Meck family, and it was sold to B. Schott’s Sohne in Mainz, and published by them in 1932. A greater influence was Debussy’s close friendship with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She and her husband, Henri, gave Debussy emotional and professional support. Henri Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, the son-in-law of his former teacher, Mme. Mauté de Fleurville.
Debussy’s private life was often turbulent. At the age of 18 he began an eight-year affair with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, wife of a Parisian civil servant. The relationship eventually faltered following his winning of the Prix de Rome in 1884 and obligatory residence in Rome.
On his permanent return to Paris and his parents’ home on the avenue de Berlin (now rue de Liège) he began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle (‘Gaby’) Dupont, a tailor’s daughter from Lisieux, soon cohabiting with her on the rue de Londres, and later the rue Gustave Doré. During this time he also had an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged. Such cavalier behaviour was widely condemned, and precipitated the end of his long friendship with Ernest Chausson. He ultimately left Dupont for her friend Rosalie (‘Lilly’) Texier, a fashion model whom he married in 1899, after threatening suicide if she refused him. However, although Texier was affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well liked by Debussy’s friends and associates, he became increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. Moreover, her looks had prematurely aged, and she was unable to bear children. In 1904, Debussy was introduced to Emma Bardac, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac, by her son Raoul, one of his students. In contrast to Texier, Bardac was a sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, and an accomplished singer. After despatching Lilly to her father’s home at Bichain in Villeneuve-la-Guyard on 15 July 1904, Debussy secretly took Bardac to Jersey for a holiday. On their return to France, Debussy wrote to Texier from Dieppe on 11 August, informing her their marriage was over, but still making no mention of Bardac. Debussy briefly moved to an apartment at 10 avenue Alphand. On 14 October, five days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Texier attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver while standing in the Place de la Concorde; she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. The ensuing scandal was to alienate Debussy from many of his friends, whilst Bardac was disowned by her family.
Debussy died of rectal cancer at his Paris home on 25 March 1918, at the age of 55. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in 1909 after experiencing haemorrhaging, and in December 1915 underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations ever performed. The operation achieved only a temporary respite, and occasioned him considerable frustration (he was to liken dressing in the morning to “all the labours of Hercules in one”). His death occurred in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets to Père Lachaise Cemetery as the German guns bombarded the city. The military situation in France was critical, and did not permit the honour of a public funeral with ceremonious graveside orations. Debussy’s body was reinterred the following year in the small Passy Cemetery sequestered behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling his wish to rest ‘among the trees and the birds’; his wife and daughter are buried with him.
Chords, featuring chromatically altered sevenths and ninths and progressing unconventionally, explored by Debussy in a “celebrated conversation at the piano with his teacher Ernest Guiraud”.
Rudolph Reti points out these features of Debussy’s music, which “established a new concept of tonality in European music”:Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of tonality;Frequent use of parallel chords which are “in essence not harmonies at all, but rather ‘chordal melodies’, enriched unisons”; some writers describe these as non-functional harmonies;Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords;Use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scale;Unprepared modulations, “without any harmonic bridge.”
He concludes that Debussy’s achievement was the synthesis of monophonic based “melodic tonality” with harmonies, albeit different from those of “harmonic tonality”.
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. In a letter of 1908, he wrote “I am trying to do ‘something different’—an effect of reality … what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to
List of worksList of compositions by Claude Debussy by genreList of compositions by Claude Debussy by Lesure numbers
Beginning in the 1890s, Debussy developed his own musical language largely independent of Wagner’s style, collared in part from the dreamy, sometimes morbid romanticism of the Symbolist movement. Debussy became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé’s Symbolist gatherings, where Wagnerism dominated the discussion. In contrast to the enormous works of Wagner and other late-romantic composers, however, around this time Debussy chose to write in smaller, more accessible forms. The Deux arabesques is an example of one of Debussy’s earliest works, already developing his musical language. Suite bergamasque (1890) recalls rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement. This suite contains one of Debussy’s most popular pieces, Clair de Lune. Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor (1893) paved the way for his later, more daring harmonic exploration. In this work he used the Phrygian mode as well as less standard scales, such as the whole-tone, which creates a sense of floating, ethereal harmony. Debussy was beginning to employ a single, continuous theme and break away from the traditional A-B-A form, with its restatements and amplifications, which had been a mainstay of classical music since Haydn.
Influenced by Mallarmé, Debussy wrote one of his most famous works, the revolutionary Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, truly original in form and execution. In contrast to the large orchestras so favoured by late-romanticism, Debussy wrote this piece for a smaller ensemble, emphasizing instrumental colour and timbre. Despite Mallarmé himself, and colleague and friend Paul Dukas having been impressed by the piece, it was controversial at its premiere. Nevertheless Prélude established Debussy as one of the leading composers of the era.
The three Nocturnes (1899) include characteristic studies in veiled harmony and texture as demonstrated in Nuages; exuberance in Fêtes; and whole-tones in Sirènes. Contrasting sharply with Wagnerian opera, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, after ten years of work. It would be his only complete opera. Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the opera proved to be an immediate success and immensely influential to younger French composers, including Maurice Ravel. These works brought a fluidity of rhythm and colour quite new to Western music.
La mer (1903–1905) essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement, although the middle movement, Jeux de vagues, proceeds much less directly and with more variety of colour. Again, the reviews were sharply divided. Some critics thought the treatment to be less subtle and less mysterious than his previous works and even a step backward. Pierre Lalo complained “I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea”. Others extolled its “power and charm”, its “extraordinary verve and brilliant fantasy”, and its strong colors and definite lines.
During this period Debussy wrote much for the piano. The set of pieces entitled Pour le piano (1901) uses rich harmonies and textures which would later prove important in jazz music.
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 the Javanese music. Debussy wrote his famous Children’s Corner Suite (1908) for his beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, whom he nicknamed Chouchou. The suite recalls classicism—the opening piece Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum refers to Muzio Clementi’s collection of instructional piano compositions Gradus ad Parnassum, as well as a new wave of American ragtime music. In the popular final piece of the suite, Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, Debussy also pokes fun at Richard Wagner by mimicking the opening bars of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde.
The first book of Préludes (1910), twelve in total, proved to be his most successful work for piano. The Preludes are frequently compared to those of Chopin. Debussy’s preludes are replete with rich, unusual and daring harmonies. They include the popular La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) and La Cathédrale Engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral). Debussy wanted people to respond intuitively to these pieces so he placed the titles at the end of each one in the hope that listeners would not make stereotype images as they listened.
Larger scaled works included his orchestral piece Iberia (1907), begun as a work for two pianos, a triptych medley of Spanish allusions and fleeting impressions and also the music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s mystery play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). A lush and dramatic work, written in only two months, it is remarkable in sustaining a late antique modal atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces.
During this period, as Debussy gained more popularity, he was engaged as a conductor throughout Europe, most often performing Pelléas, La Mer, and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. He was also an occasional music critic to supplement his conducting fees and piano lessons. Debussy avoided analytical dissection and attempts to force images from music, “Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic.” He could be caustic and witty, sometimes sloppy and ill-informed. Debussy was for the most part enthusiastic about Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, worshipful of Chopin and Bach, the latter being acknowledged as “the one great master.” His relationship to Beethoven was a complex one; he was said to refer to him as “le vieux sourd” (the old deaf one) and abjured one young pupil never to play Beethoven’s music for “it is like somebody dancing on my grave.” However, Debussy made other statements about Beethoven which seem to suggest an admiration tempered by critical views, as it was said: “Debussy liked Mozart, and he believed that Beethoven had terrifically profound things to say, but that he did not know how to say them, because he was imprisoned in a web of incessant restatement and of German aggressiveness.” He also admired the works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Schubert and Mendelssohn fared much worse, the latter being described as a “facile and elegant notary”.
Debussy’s harmonies and chord progressions frequently exploit dissonances without any formal resolution. Unlike in his earlier work, he no longer hides discords in lush harmonies. The forms are far more irregular and fragmented. These chords that seemingly had no resolution were described by Debussy himself as “floating chords”, and were used to set tone and mood in many of his works. The whole tone scale dominates much of Debussy’s late music.
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His two last volumes of works for the piano, the Études (1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by the young Igor Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos, 1915). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915), though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism.