Claude-Achille Debussy

Claude-Achille Debussy was a French composer, best known for his work in impressionist music (though he preferred himself that his compositions were not labeled as such). Undoubtedly one of the most popular and important composers, he remains widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His music and compositional radicalism has inspired a broad spectrum of composers, from Ravel and Stravinsky to minimalist Steve Reich and Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

Born in Saint Germain en Lave, France, Claude was the first of five children born to a shop owner father and a seamstress mother. Though the family moved to Paris when Debussy was five, they soon relocated to Cannes due to the Franco-Prussian war. It was there when he began his piano lessons and entered the Paris Conservatory by the age of ten. He spent eleven years studying at the school, taking classes in composition, music history, theory, harmony, piano, organ, and solfege. Though Debussy was undoubtedly talented, he had a reputation for being experimental and temperamental, challenging the ideas and teachings of his professors and writing intervals and dissonances that others found displeasing. An accomplished pianist, he gave several public performances and could have very easily had a highly successful career had he continued to play professionally, instead of composing.

In 1884, twenty-two year old Debussy won the acclaimed Prix de Rome with his L’enfant prodigue, a one-act cantata. As part of his prize, he received a four-year residency at the French Academy in Rome to further his studies. However, during his time there, he was often unimpressed and bored with many elements of the institute. Moreover, he found Italy to be not to his liking, not finding enjoyment in the works of Donizetti and Verdi. Debussy’s compositions were few and far between during these four years, as he was left uninspired and unable to write.

Debussy wrote of his own desire to finally write in whatever way he wanted, saying “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamored of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas.”

The pieces he wrote during his stay at the Academy were criticized as being “bizarre” and too unusual, though his pieces drew from the writings of Franck and Massenet. When Debussy visited Bayreuth in 1888, he was introduced to the style of Richard Wagner, who had just passed away five years earlier. Debussy was drawn into the form and harmony in Wagner’s writings, which influenced several of his works from the late 1890s. At the same time, Debussy was introduced to Erik Satie, a composer who was also an experimental composer in his own right. The two became friends in their struggle to find success publicly and financially. It was also around this time when Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music, which features the pentatonic scale. Though other elements of gamelan music are not apparent in his music, the same pentatonic scale can be heard in several different works written at this time.

From a romantic perspective, Debussy’s life can best be described as complex, if nothing else. Once he returned to Paris in 1889, he began a stormy relationship with Gabrielle Dupont, a tailor’s daughter. They remained together, even living together for a period of time, for nine years, although Debussy had a brief affair with another woman. Eventually, he left Dupont for her friend Rosalie Texier, whom he married in 1899. In 1904, he met Emma Bardac, an accomplished singer. They began a secret romance, and Debussy eventually wrote to Rosalie that their marriage was over. Rosalie attempted suicide, but survived, and the couple was divorced in 1905. Emma became pregnant and the entire scandal alienated Debussy from his friends and colleagues, while Emma was disowned by her family. The couple welcomed their daughter, Claude-Emma, in October of 1905, and married in 1908. Claude-Emma was the composer’s only child, and died of diphtheria in 1919.

Debussy died in Paris, succumbing to cancer in 1918 after being diagnosed in 1909. At the time of his death, France was in the middle of the German Spring Offensive of World War I, and a public funeral or ceremonious burial was not permitted. Eight months after his death, he was reinterred in the Passy Cemetery, and is buried with his wife and daughter.

Frequently reflecting upon the troubles or situations in his own life, Debussy’s music is unique in his involvement of the senses and bridges the gap between Romantic music to an early approach at modernist music. At the same time this shift was occurring, there was a French literary and art movement called symbolism, from which Debussy drew inspirations for his compositions.

The influence of art forms other than music was very strong in Debussy’s writings. He was greatly interested in visual art as well as literature, and became close friends with several visionaries in the French symbolist movement, an art movement in 1885 that took interest in the rejection of naturalism and realism. One friendship was with the poet Mallarmé—in fact, his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) was directly influenced by Mallarmé’s poem “Afternoon of a Faun”.

Musically, Debussy’s works contain the following characteristics: occasional absence of tonality, use of parallel chords, frequent bitonal chords or bitonality, whole-tone and pentatonic scales, and sudden modulations. His approach to music was to reject common practice, instead focusing on crafting and fostering a style of music which evoked the senses for a more aesthetically pleasing experience for the listener. This avant-garde school of thinking was started during his tenure at the Paris Conservatory and stayed with him throughout his life. Though considered highly unconventional at the time, his compositions and attitude towards music helped him become one of the biggest inspirations for other composers and made him have a strong presence in music today.

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