Featured composer: Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy, portrait by Marcel Baschet (1884)
A young Claude Debussy (1884)
French composer Achille-Claude Debussy, also known as Claude-Achille Debussy or Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Seine-et-Oise. Debussy was one of the most prominent figures in Impressionist music and among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Debussy’s music was noted for its frequent use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism. The Symbolism movement, popular in France at the time, inspired his composing and his cultural participation.

He began piano lessons at the age of 7 and at 10 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was a student for 11 years. He was an extraordinary pianist and could have had a professional career as such. He performed much of the literature of Beethoven, Schumann, Weber, and Chopin.

During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882, Debussy traveled with Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. In 1880, she sent Debussy’s Danse bohémienne to Tchaikovsky. “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short,” he wrote. “Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity,” said Tchaikovsky. The manuscript remained in the von Meck family and was eventually sold to B. Schott’s Sohne in Mainz and published in 1932.

A few of Debussy’s early works on IPA Source

Fleur des blés (1880)
IPA Text: https://www.ipasource.com/catalog/product/view/id/5991/category/364

Rêverie (1880)
IPA Text: https://www.ipasource.com/catalog/product/view/id/5987/category/364

Fantoches (1882)
IPA Text: https://www.ipasource.com/catalog/product/view/id/5956/category/364

Mandoline (1882)
IPA Text: https://www.ipasource.com/catalog/product/view/id/11917/category/364

Chanson espagnole (1883)
IPA Text: https://www.ipasource.com/catalog/product/view/id/11926/category/364

Debussy won the Prix de Rome for composition with his piece L’enfant prodigue. His award was a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Villa Medici where he completed a four-year residence beginning in 1885. He was unhappy at the academy and often was unable to compose. One collection of art songs on IPA Source from this time period is Ariettes oubliées:

Claude Debussy ca 1908, foto av Félix Nadar
Claude Debussy, 1908
Debussy was inspired by and admired Franz Liszt’s keyboard skill. Debussy’s work was also influenced heavily by Jules Massenet. In the late 1880’s Debussy was exposed to Richard Wagner’s work, which had a lasting impact on his own compositions. As Debussy’s musical language evolved, his work was much more reflective of the Symbolist Movement of the time. By the time his opera Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in 1902, after ten years of work, it was very different from any Wagnerian opera. It was to be his only completed opera.

A few more of Debussy’s compositions on IPA Source

Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire (1887–1889)

Listen to Barbara Hendricks, soprano; Michel Béroff, piano: https://youtu.be/UxciBOjcWsQ

Proses Lyriques (1892-1893)

Le promenoir des deux amants (1904-1910)

Debussy had a number of affairs, including one with Emma Bardac while he was married to Rosalie Texier. The situation was so controversial and they experienced so much rancor that Debussy and Bardac fled France for England. Bardac and Debussy had one daughter, Claude-Emma.

Partly due to his failing health, Debussy left several operatic projects unfinished, including two based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe: The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher. He was also considering an opera based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Debussy was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. Debussy died of cancer on March 25, 1918.

View our entire collection of Claude Debussy texts: https://www.ipasource.com/composer/d/debussy-claude-1862-1918.html