Claude Debussy was a French composer who lived from August 22, 1862 to March 25, 1918. He was one of the most influential composers in the field of impressionist music along with his contemporary Maurice Ravel, although Debussy disliked the fact that the term was used to describe his music. Nevertheless, Debussy’s piano music was a very influential and helped bridge the gap between the Romantic Period and the Contemporary Period of Western music.
The Life of Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy was born into near poverty in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France on August 22, 1862, the oldest of five children. His father owned a shop that sold crockery and china, while his mother worked as a seamstress. Young Claude moved with his family to Paris in 1867, but his pregnant mother fled to Cannes in 1870 to seek refuge from the Franco-Prussian War. Claude began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. Debussy’s talent with the piano quickly became evident, and at the age of ten he entered the Paris Conservatory. His teachers and fellow students recognized and admired Debussy’s talent, but they found his attempts to create new sounds to be very strange. He was very experimental in his compositions, often favoring dissonances and intervals that weren’t widely used and were often frowned upon by musicians and composers of the time. He was also known as a particularly brilliant sight reader, and many of his instructors believed that he could have a successful career as a concert pianist even if they didn’t understand his original music.
In 1880, Debussy began a professional relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy patroness who is most well-known as a strong supporter of the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. For the next two years, Debussy spent his summers travelling with von Meck to Italy and Austria and living at her estate. During this time he gave music lessons to von Meck’s children and performed private concerts for her musician friends. Despite von Meck’s closeness to Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer and his work had little influence on Debussy; Tchaikovsky was in fact said to be dismissive of Debussy’s work, stating that it lacked unity or any fully expressed ideas.
In 1884, Claude Debussy won the Prix de Rome scholarship with his composition L’enfant prodigue, which enabled him to enroll at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome. He was a resident at the Villa Medici until 1887, but despite the prestige associated with the academy Debussy found it to be a stifling and depressing environment. Much like his instructors at the Paris Conservatory, the teachers at the Villa Medici believed that Debussy was very talented, but they were highly critical of his strange and experimental works. He was often too depressed to write any new music, although he was inspired by the considerable talent of fellow pianist and composer Franz Liszt.
Debussy was exposed to the works of Richard Wagner during visits to Beyreuth in 1888 and 1889. Although the emotionalism and bombast of Wagner’s work was quite different from Debussy’s quieter and more introspective compositions, Debussy was struck by Wagner’s striking harmonies and overall sensuousness of his work. Wagner’s influence can be heard in the Debussy pieces La demoiselle élue and Cinq poémes de Charles Baudelaire. Debussy was also highly influenced by the Javanese gamelan, a percussion ensemble that relies heavily on bells, gongs and xylophones. He was first introduced to gamelan music in 1889 at the Paris World Exposition. The rhythms and pentatonic scales used in gamelan music often made its way into Debussy’s music from this point on in his life, creating a unique sound that defined what many consider his mature period.
The first large-scale piece that Debussy composed during his mature period was the Nocturnes for orchestra. This was composed between 1893 and 1899 while Debussy was working on his only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. The opera debuted in 1902 and cemented Debussy’s status as one of the most controversial musical figures in France. Much of the score of Pelléas is quiet but with loud musical outbursts to reveal an underlying feeling of dread that permeates throughout the story.
It was in 1899, during the composition of the Nocturnes and Pelléas et Mélisande, that Debussy married fashion model Rosalie Texier. Despite the fact that Texier was well-liked by Debussy’s friends and associates, she wasn’t as sophisticated or musically sensitive as Debussy would’ve liked. The marriage lasted only five years, coming to an end in 1904 when Debussy met Emma Bardac, a wealthy and sophisticated woman who would later become Debussy’s second wife. Thanks to Bardac’s wealth, Debussy no longer had to worry about supporting himself financially. Debussy became more productive than ever during this time and composed some of his most lasting works such as La Mer in 1905, Ibéria in 1908 and two books of Debussy’s piano preludes between 1910 and 1912.
Debussy’s musical style changed slightly in his later years and became less accessible and appealing to the public. Because of this and because of the growing popularity of younger composers, interest in Debussy’s music started to decline. His final work was an unfinished project that was to consist of a group of six pieces for various instruments. He only completed three before dying of rectal cancer in Paris on March 25, 1918.