Achille Claude Debussy was a composer born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France on the 22nd August 1862 and was the eldest of 5 children. He is often credited with being the first composer who wrote in the ‘Impressionist’ style and he certainly was admired and very influential. In 1864, the family moved to Paris after the closure of the shop that Debussy’s father owned.
In 1870, Debussy, along with his mother and sister, fled to Cannes to stay at his aunt’s house, to escape the Siege of Paris that occurred during the time of the Franco-Prussian War. It was while he was there, that he first started piano lessons, encouraged by his aunt.
At the age of ten, Claude Debussy’s early musical talent shone through and he gained a place at the prestigious music college the Conservatoire de Paris, initially studying piano. However, he soon found more interest in composition in his own innovative style, even though his tutors did not approve! Debussy did well at college and in 1874, he was awarded the ‘Deuxième Accessit’ for his solo performance of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. A year later, he exceeded this, advancing to ‘Premier Accessit.’
1879 saw Debussy begin a summer job at the upmarket Château de Chenonceau, as their resident pianist. It was during this time, that Debussy started his first compositions, Ballade à la lune and Madrid, princesse des Espagnes. A year later, he found employment in Nadezhda von Meck’s household. She was a Russian businesswoman, with a keen interest in the arts, and had a special artistic relationship with composer Tchaikovsky. Between 1880 and 1882, Claude Debussy was able to travel with the family around Europe and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake became the inspiration for Debussy’s piano duet of three dances as well as his composition entitled Piano Trio in G major.
Towards the end of 1880, the now 18-year-old Debussy, became the piano accompanist for Marie Moreau-Sainti’s signing class. Here he met Marie Vasnier, who he became fond of and held in high regard. She became his inspiration to compose and received many song dedications from him. Debussy continued studying at the Conservatoire at this time also.
Claude Debussy began to ruffle feathers at the Conservatoire, as his compositions did not follow standard compositional rules. However, this did not stop him winning the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious French award in music for his piece entitled L'enfant prodigue. Winning this also entitled him to attend the French Academy in Rome, to further enhance his studies; he stayed here between 1885 and 1887. He continued to follow his own unique style and he was rebuked by his tutors for submitting four pieces that they said were “bizarre, incomprehensible and unperformable.”
1887 saw Claude Debussy return to Paris. Two years later, he attended the Paris Exposition Universelle, where he first heard Javanese gamelan music. This music appealed to him because of its textures, rhythms, scales and melodies. Debussy’s style was further influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s music when he was present at two of his concerts. He also met Erik Satie in 1890, whose equally unique compositions meant the two became firm friends. In 1890, Debussy began composing one of his most well-known works, Clair de Lune. It was not completed until 1905 and became very recognisable. In 2010, it was arranged for cornet and brass band by composer James McFadyen, which features on Jim Hayes's debut album, 'Dial M for Midnight.' In 1893, he began living with Gabrielle Dupont, with whom he was having a relationship at the time.
Debussy resumed his composition of piano pieces, songs and other pieces. These did not really make a large impact in society, although some were performed in public. A significant event occurred in May 1893, when Debussy went to the premier of the play Pelléas et Mélisande. He decided he wanted to adapt this play into an opera and after gaining permission, set about doing so. He completed his first draft of this a year later. It was during this time, that Debussy’s recognition as a composer accelerated, as he produced other successful pieces.
Romance blossomed in the form of Marie-Rosalie Texier (Lilly) and the two married in October 1899. Unfortunately, their incompatibility was too much to bear and the marriage only lasted about five years.
Claude Debussy began to divide his time between composing and teaching and in 1901, became a music critic of the art and literary magazine, La Revue Blanche. Here, under a pen name, he got to have his say on other composers, institutions, conductors, musical politics and even audiences! His critical writings were later published after he died, as a book!
January 1902, saw the final completion and start of rehearsals, of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The following three months saw Debussy being very busy with these rehearsals, but it finally opened on the 30th April 1902 and quickly became a notable success.
Debussy’s recognition as a composer continued to heighten, particularly when he was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1903, the highest order of merit that can be awarded in France. Unfortunately, this period was a turbulent time for Debussy’s personal life. He met and quickly became attracted to Emma Bardac. He told his wife that their marriage was over and set up home on his own on his return to Paris. After a spell in England, Debussy and Bardac bought a home in Paris, that Debussy saw out the rest of his life in.
Claude Debussy’s most considerable orchestral work, La Mer, was premiered in Paris in October 1905, to an initially mixed response. October also saw the birth of his only child, Claude-Emma. Unfortunately, her life was cut short by diphtheria in 1919. Debussy and Bardac married in 1908. Sadly, the following year, he was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer. During this time, Debussy’s compositions began to feature more in concerts both in France and abroad.
In 1915, Debussy had an operation for the cancer, which unfortunately, only achieved a short-term respite. Although his health continued to decline, on the 14th September 1917, he managed to give one final concert, which was the premier of his Violin Sonata. By 1918, he was bedridden at home and died aged 55 on the 25th March that year.