The Composer Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy (French, 1862–1918) was one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though both composers disliked the term. Debussy’s use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed. He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in his native France in 1903.
Childhood and Youth
Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France as Achille-Claude Debussy but later reversed his forenames. He was the oldest of five children. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a shop, his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. When Debussy was 4, the family moved to Paris in 1867, but in 1870, Debussy's pregnant mother fled with Claude to his paternal aunt's home in Cannes to escape the Franco-Prussian War. Debussy began piano lessons there at the age of seven with an Italian violinist and Debussy’s aunt paid for his lessons. In 1871 he drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent the next 11 years. He also became a lifelong friend of fellow student and distinguished pianist Isidor Philipp. After Debussy's death, many pianists sought Philipp's advice on playing Debussy's works.
Debussy was argumentative and experimental from the outset, although clearly talented. He challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished.
Around 1980, Debussy met singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. At age 18, Debussy embarked on an eight-year affair with her. She and her husband gave Debussy emotional and professional support.
During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882, Debussy accompanied Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as she travelled with her family in Europe. In September 1880 she sent Debussy's Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky's perusal. A month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her that the piece was very pretty but much too short. Not a single idea would be expressed fully, the form was terribly shriveled, and it would lack unity. Debussy did not publish the piece, but it was eventually sold to B. Schott's Sohne in Mainz, and published in 1932, twelve years after Debussy’s death.
As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L'enfant prodigue, Debussy at age 22, received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887). He did not enjoy his time there and neither did he delight in Italian opera, as he found the operas of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.
During his visits to Bayreuth in 1888–9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which would have a lasting impact on his work. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Richard Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies, but Wagner's extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy's way. Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie, who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces. Both musicians were bohemians during this period, enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.
On his permanent return to Paris he began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle Dupont, a tailor's daughter and moved in together with her. During this time he also had an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged. He ultimately left Gabrielle Dupont for her friend Rosalie Texier, a fashion model whom he married in 1899, at age 37, after threatening suicide if she refused him. However, although Texier was affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well liked by Debussy's friends and associates, he would become increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. Her looks had prematurely aged, and she was unable to bear children.
In 1904, Debussy met Emma Bardac, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac. Emma Bardac was a sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, and an accomplished singer. Debussy secretly took Bardac for a holiday. On their return, Debussy wrote to Texier that their marriage was over. Five days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Texier attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver while standing in the Place de la Concorde. She survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. The ensuing scandal was to alienate Debussy from many of his friends, whilst Bardac was disowned by her family.
In 1905, Debussy and Bardac purchased a house off Avenue Foch where Debussy would reside for the rest of his life. Their daughter Claude-Emma was born in October 1905 and remained the composer's only child. She was a great musical inspiration to Debussy and the dedicatee of his Children's Corner suite. Claude-Emma outlived her father by scarcely a year, succumbing to the diphtheria epidemic of 1919 after her doctor administered the wrong treatment.
Debussy died of rectal cancer at his home on 25 March 1918, at the age of 55. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in 1909 after experiencing haemorrhaging, and in December 1915 underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations ever performed. The operation achieved only a temporary respite. His death occurred in the midst of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the German Spring Offensive of World War I. The military situation in France was critical, and did not permit the honor of a public funeral with ceremonious graveside orations. Debussy's body was reinterred the following year in the small Passy Cemetery, fulfilling his wish to rest 'among the trees and the birds'. His wife and daughter are buried with him.
Debussy’s music is noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of atonality. The prominent French literary style of his period was known as Symbolism, and this movement directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant. Some people have claimed that Debussy structured parts of his music mathematically. Roy Howat, for instance, has published a book contending that Debussy's works are structured around mathematical models even while using an apparent classical structure such as sonata form. Howat suggests that some of Debussy's pieces can be divided into sections that reflect the golden ratio, frequently by using the numbers of the standard Fibonacci sequence.