Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. He was a highly influential composer of the 20th century. His melodies and harmonies did for music what the the Impressionist painters of his time did for art. He is sometimes called the father of Impressionist music, a title he distained. His major works include Clair de lune (“Moonlight,” in Suite bergamasque, 1890–1905), Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and La Mer (1905; “The Sea”).
Listen to this piano roll recording of Debussy playing Clair de Lune:
Debussy showed his musical gift on the piano by the age of nine. In 1873 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition for eleven years.
While living with his parents in a poverty-stricken suburb of Paris, he was hired by a Russian millionairess, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, to play duets with her and her children. He traveled with her to her palatial residences throughout Europe during his long summer breaks from the Conservatory.
In 1884 Debussy won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child). He was awarded a three-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome to pursue his creative work. He fled from the Villa Medici after two years and returned to Paris. He associated with several women of dubious reputation. His first wife, Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier, a dressmaker, whom he married in 1899, shot herself, though not fatally.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:
In the course of his career, which covered only 25 years, Debussy was constantly breaking new ground. He said that exploration was the essence of music. His single completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed in 1902), demonstrates how Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work,” which encouraged artists to draw on different art forms to create a cohesive whole) could be adapted to portray subjects like the dreamy nightmarish figures of this opera who were doomed to self-destruction. Debussy and his librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck, said that they were haunted by the terrifying tale of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. In his seascape La Mer (1905) he was inspired by the ideas of the English painter J.M.W. Turner and the French painter Claude Monet.
Debussy’s work cannot be judged on the musical level alone. “One must seek the poetry in his work,” said his friend, the French composer Paul Dukas. There is not only poetry in his music; there is often an inspiration from painting. “I love painting [les images, a generic term that might apply to the whole of Debussy’s work] almost as much as music itself,” he told the Franco-American composer Edgard Varèse.
In 1905 Debussy’s illegitimate daughter, Claude-Emma, was born. (He had divorced Lily Texier in 1904 and subsequently married his daughter’s mother, Emma Bardac.) Debussy’s spontaneity and sensitive nature are particularly noticeable in his piano suite, Children’s Corner, which he wrote for his daughter, nicknamed Chouchou.
Seong-Jin Cho plays “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner:
Debussy did not adhere to the harmonic practices of the 19th century. He formulated a “21-note scale” designed to “drown” the sense of tonality. Debussy also challenged the traditional way orchestras used instruments. For example, he rejected the idea that string instruments should be predominantly lyrical. The pizzicato scherzo from his String Quartet (1893) and the writing for the violins in La Mer, conveying the rising storm waves, introduce a new concept of string color. In fact, in his music, the conventional utilization of the orchestra, with its rigid woodwind, brass, and string departments, becomes deconstructed sort of in the manner of the Impressionist painters. Each instrument becomes almost a soloist, as in a vast chamber-music ensemble.
Debussy’s life was cut short by cancer on March 25, 1918.
Information for this article came from the Britannica website.