Debussy, Claude (1862–1918)

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DEBUSSY, CLAUDE (1862–1918)


French composer.

Achille-Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, on 22 August 1862. He may be considered one of the foremost composers in Western music of the concert hall, and he influenced church, film, and jazz music. Debussy's family was unstable, and he received no formal education of importance. He attended the Conservatoire de Paris from 1872 to 1884, studying composition with Ernest Guiraud (1837–1892) and organ briefly with César Franck (1822–1890). Debussy won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition in 1884 and traveled to Rome for intensive study, but as a cultural rebel he despaired of what he considered an outmoded musical language among the academicians. The 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris enabled him to hear authentic Asian music, and with that his feeling for polyphonic sonority caught fire. In the 1890s he lived the bohemian life in Paris with Gaby Dupont (1866–1945), appreciating the iconoclastic spirit of the cabaret, and indulged a profusion of decadent impulses, ranging from Rosicrucianism to the esoteric sensuality of Pierre Louÿs (1870–1925), whose 1899 Chansons de Bilitis he set to music. Debussy left Gaby to marry Lilly Texier that year, but in 1904 he began life with Emma Moïse Bardac (1862–1934), a beautiful and artistic woman of wealth. In 1905 Emma and Debussy divorced their spouses. Their daughter, Emma-Claude, the composer's only child was born in 1905; they married in 1908. A sometime conductor and pungent critic, Debussy often struggled to make ends meet but was aided by his publisher, Jacques Durand (1865–1928).

Arguably the most important compositions of Debussy's youth were the opera scene in Théodore de Banville's Diane au bois (1886; Diana of the wood) and the lyric poem for voices and orchestra La damoiselle élue (1888; Blessed damozel), after Dante Gabriel Rossetti; both show Debussy's early Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. His orchestral Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894; Prelude to the afternoon of a faun) was written in response to a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and has become his most-heard composition. Its coordination of tone color as an agent in structure, ambivalence toward conventional use of themes, and revolutionary tonal language led the way in twentieth-century modernism. The revolutionary if "noiseless" opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1893–1902) was received with enthusiasm by young moderns such as Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) but was disparaged by the old guard for its unconventional lyricism, which seemed to turn traditional opera on its head. This symbolist opera established Debussy as the foremost avant-garde musician in France in the early part of the century, and its structure includes leit-motifs derived from Richard Wagner (1813–1883) but absorbed within a compositional method altogether his own. Debussy's Trois Nocturnes (Three nocturnes) for orchestra of 1899; his "symphonic sketches" La mer (1905; The sea); the 1913 ballet Jeux (Games); pathbreaking piano sets including the Japanese-flavored Estampes, the Images, and twenty-four Preludes for piano; and song sets on texts by Banville, Paul Verlaine, and Mallarmé: all confirmed the composer's standing. Of these, some commentators argue that La mer signals the creative high point of his career.

Debussy left an indelible mark for all succeeding composers with his psychologically evocative harmonies, alternately tonal (modal, pentatonic, octatonic, or mixed) or chromatic (in a way, following Richard Wagner). Critics also point to the Douze Études (Twelve Études) for piano (1915), which, unlike the vast majority of Debussy's works, convey no extra-musical associations, but instead pose abstract technical problems.

An early biographer, Louis Laloy, said insightfully that Debussy learned more from poets and painters than from musicians. Thus the composer responded to the impressionism of the painters Claude Monet (1840–1926) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917) by combining the strength of his design with an apparent spontaneity and sensuality. Debussy used stream of consciousness and abhorred anything blatant, a stance that recalled the symbolist poets as well, and with them he was moved by Wagner's depth psychology and interconnections among the arts. Debussy anticipated the harsh, dark emotions of the central European expressionists, whose sensibilities he shares, and who haunt parts of the opera Pelléas Debussy sketched with its settings of Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and Devil in the Belfry. French folk song, nationalist and ethnic influences from the Orient, Spain, and Russia, and African American music figure in his kaleidoscopic but exquisitely structured idiom.

Debussy the modernist was constantly evolving stylistically, surpassing and frequently confusing even his admirers; in his inclusivism and in his challenge to expected evolution in musical history, he anticipated postmodernism. A reference to the French classical traditions of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) and François Couperin (1668–1733), emphasizing clarity and the modification of old forms, occupied certain works, from his youth to the end of his life, notably in the incomplete set of chamber sonatas of 1918. Even the world of childhood and its simplicity marked his music, as in the 1908 piano suite Children's Corner, dedicated to his young daughter, "Chouchou." He defended Mediterranean values vigorously as World War I proceeded and remarked that certain of his last works were an offering to France's war effort, such as songs based on the poetry of François Villon (1431–1463?) and Charles d'Orléans (1391–1465). As obscure a forum as the (Indiana) Daleville Journal, in announcing his death in April 1918, recognized Debussy's role as the twentieth-century progenitor in music: "His work was not understood or even liked by all, but the world will not forget who led the way."

See alsoExpressionism; Modernism.


Briscoe, James. Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research. New York, 1990.

Briscoe, James R., ed. Debussy in Performance. New Haven, Conn., 1999.

Howat, Roy. Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Lockspeiser, Edward. Debussy: His Life and Mind. 2 vols. London, 1962–1965. Cambridge, U.K., 1978.

——. Debussy. 5th rev. ed. London, 1980.

Parks, Richard S. The Music of Claude Debussy. New Haven, Conn., 1990.

Smith, Richard Langham, ed. Debussy Studies. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Trezise, Simon, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Debussy. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

James R. Briscoe