One of the greatest and most influential of twentieth century composers, Claude Debussy's harmonic innovations opened new doors for generations of composers. One of the first to break away from the grip of Richard Wagner with his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, he stands alongside Cézanne and Mallarmé as a founding father of French modernism.
Born in St Germain-en-Laye on 22 Aug 1862, Debussy had his first piano lessons in 1870 and was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire in 1872. After abandoning his ambitions as a virtuoso he studied piano accompaniment, harmony and, eventually, composition in Ernest Giraud's class.
In 1882, Tchaikovsky's patron Mme. von Meck offered Debussy work teaching the piano to her children. His employment was cut short when von Meck discovered that he had fallen in love her 15 year-old daughter Sonja.
Working as an accompanist to support himself, he was a Prix de Rome runner-up in 1883 and in 1884 won the competition with the cantata L'enfant prodigue. Debussy would not have a comparable success with the critics until Pelléas et Mélisande was first performed in 1902.
Debussy thus embarked on a number of years of financial hardship during which time he came into contact with the symbolist movement and immersed himself in Wagnerism, visitng Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889. However, he soon realised that he would have to free himself from Wagner's pervasive influence.
In 1889 he saw the Javanese Gamelan at the Universal Exposition in Paris, and was also fascinated by the visual arts, in particular the Japanese artist Hokusai and Turner. Indeed, Debussy often described his music in pictorial terms, which perhaps led to the unfortunate term 'impressionistic' being applied to his work, a word that the composer claimed was 'just about the least appropriate term possible'.
In 1890 Debussy came into contact with Mallarmé and the work of Poe and Maeterlinck. The latter evidently led to the opera Pelléas et Mélisande which, when finally performed in 1902, was a huge international success.
Marriage came in 1899 to a model, Lilly Texier, but Debussy met the love of his life, Emma Bardac, four years later, prompting Lilly's attempted suicide. Debussy and Emma moved in together and had a daughter, Claude-Emma for whom the composer wrote the delightful Children's Corner.
In 1901 Debussy embarked on a parallel career as a critic, writing firstly for the Revue blanche and later for Gil Blas and the Revue musicale S.I.M. He wrote in support of Rameau and the French tradition, objecting to the dominance of German art in French cultural life. A further career as a conductor began in 1908 with a performance of his symphonic sketches La mer.
By 1909, however, the first symptoms of rectal cancer appeared. Debussy lived another decade, composing important works such as the ballet Jeux for Diaghilev's ballet russes, and travelling all over Europe. By 1918, though, he was confined to his room and died on 25 March.
A master of the French symbolist movement and a genuine innovator in the fields of harmony, timbre and orchestration, Debussy's influence was felt by Bartók, Berg, Webern, Varèse, Messiaen and Boulez. His orchestral and piano works have also proved particularly popular among audiences and have won prominent positions in the repertory.
- MIDI FILE - from Chanson No.1 (1'33'')
- MIDI FILE - from Chanson No.2 ( 1'45'')