Home: Overview: Biographies: Claude-Archille Debussy

Claude-Archille Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the western side of Paris. His parents were shopkeepers who sold small china and hardware. He was the oldest son from a family of seven. Claude Debussy came from a poor family.

Claude Debussy was mostly self taught, read extensively and kept a good association with artists. Plus, he kept up with the movement of the arts in France and in other countries. His mother's friend, Madame Antoinette Maute de Fleurville heard Claude Debussy play the piano when he was ten years old. Madame Antoinette Maute de Fleurville was so impressed, she offered to give Claude Debussy piano lessons. Madame Antoinette also inspired Claude Debussy to take a entrance examination at the Paris Conservatoire. Claude Debussy was accepted as one of the eight musicians out of thirty-eight candidates. Claude Debussy studied music for the next ten years.

His career grew as he won competitions at the Grand Prix de Rome for the L'Enfant Produique composition. Debussy studied in Rome and Russia. At the age of twenty-five, he returned to Paris. At this time, he met his first contacts with the literary world. He met James McNeil Whistler, Odilon Redon, Paul Verlaine, Henri de Regnier, Jule Laforgue, Filliers de l'Isle Adam and Pierre Louys.

One of his earliest influences was Pre-Raphaelities in England and the poetry of D. G. Rossetti.

Claude Debussy was married twice. Once to Rosalie Texier, also known as Lilly in 1899 and to Emma Bardac in 1905. He had one daughter, Claude-Emma by Emma Bardac.

In the early 1900's, the war put Debussy into shock. He stopped composing for a long time. At this time, Claude Debussy felt that if he wasn't making music, he had no reason for existing.

Later, his thoughts returned to music and wrote a letter to Dr, Pasteur Valléry-Radot. "I have begun to write a little music, mostly so as not to forget it completely, very little for my own satisfaction.." This was the end of Debussy's musical life. Debussy wanted to explore his style and include more French tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Some critiques say he was taking a step backwards, but on the other hand, he was also looking forward. The music he composed during this periods was considered abstract.

In a letter he wrote to Valléry-Radot, three years before his death, he said "I still have so much to say. There are so many things in music which have never yet been done-for example the human voice-I don't think it has ever been fully exploited." During Debussy's last years, he wrote twelve Etudes, written three years before this death.

Debussy died in Paris, on March 25, 1918, at sixty-two, due to the German bombs.

In tribute to Debussy's death, P. J. Toulet, who collaborated with Debussy in a opéra called "As you like it", wrote a letter to Pasteur Valléry-Radot. Toulet wrote:" Et je ne vous dis rien-car il y en aurait trokp a dire-de ce que m'inspire cette mort du point de vue de 'art francais don't il represente si parfaitement, par sa musique, ces claires profondeurs qui semblent empruntées de la mer." "I can't tell you-because there would be too much to tell-what an impression his death has made on me, especially in regard to French art of which he represents so perfectly in his music that transparent profundity that seems to have been borrowed from the sea.." P. J. Toulet.


Artistic Expression:

Debussy was a genius who had an extraordinary gift of fitting music to words. At first, Debussy labeled his music impressionist.

Claude Debussy was interested in the harmonic capabilities of the piano, unlike the modern school composers who were interested in the piano as a percussion instrument. Debussy focused on the pedal by blending and the tones to create different levels of harmonies in sequential chords. His level of detail was aimed at a specific note and extending the sound with the pedal after lifting his finger from the keyboard.

The pedal played an important part of Debussy's piano music interpretation. It is written that Debussy was fond of the "half-pedaling" effect. This effect was consisted by raising the dampers by depressing the loud pedal and allowing them to come in contact for a split second with the vibration of releasing the pedal and pressing it again.

Debussy wanted to make the piano perform as a platform to create atmosphere and color. He treated the piano as a singing voice.

Debussy was said have developed his musical style slowly. His music style changed between his earlier works and his latest works. The Suite Bergamasque, created in 1890, is an example of his softer techniques.

In 1892, Debussy wrote this symphonic piece, Pelléas et Mélisande, inspired by a poem written by his friend Stéphane Mallarmé in 1872. Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, an opéra piece which stands out as a masterpiece among other opéras. It was written with full atmosphere. It was considered a landmark in the history of opéra. It marked a new view in the development of lyric drama as compared in our modern day opéra. However, it is important to note that Debussy was influenced by the Symbolists. There are two famous works, the Prélude á l' aprés-midi d'un Faune and Pelléas et Mélisande were directly influenced by poets, Stéphane Mallarmé and Mauriece Maeterlinch. Stéphane Mallarmé was a regular who gathered at the apartment in the Rue de Rome and Mauriece Maeterlinck was a friend.

His friendship with Maeterlinck became strained after he gained permission to turn Pelleaus into an opéra in 1902. Maeterlinck was offended when Debussy refused to cast his mistress in the role of Melisasnde. The part was given to Mary Garden instead..

Stéphane Mallarmé also became jealous of Debussy's music.

This is a small except of Mallarmé's poem. "The daydream of a faun drowsing in the noonday hear of some Mediterranean valley long ago, his sleep troubled by vision of amorous nymphs arousing him to an illusory pursuit ending in deception."

The first nights of Pelléas were reviewed as a disgrace. After a few more performances, it reestablished itself. Debussy broke new ground in the treatment of the voices and the orchestra. The orchestra was never of been obtrusive. It reflected the action of the stage. Thanks to this new technique, some critics say it opened and closed an epoch. It closed because there was no successor and opened because modern music took a new turn and opéra took on a new art form.

There have been many lyrical dramas since, but never one on the same level as Pelléas.

In the La soree dans Grenade, he included Spanish rhythms. This piece was created in 1903. Debussy's middle period includes the six Images-Reflects dansi'eau, Hommage a Rameau and Mouvement in 1905 and Cloches a travers les feuilles, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut and Poissons d'or created in 1907. These pieces include increased harmonies with many spaces in chords. These pieces are said be ones that reflect old French customs and the musical traditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth century which was a period in history that gave fancy titles of the musical pieces. The title of the Poissons d'or piece is said to be inspired by a Japanese lacquer tray or screen illustrating gold-fish. In the case of the Chloches a travers les feuiller title, Debussy' friend, Louis Laloy suggested this title. Louis Laloy was a Chinese scholar and a authority of Oriental art that lived in the French countryside.

The titles of his pieces were the inspiration of this composition. In the twelve Préludes, each piece was said to be entirely pictorial with its own title.

After the Etudes, Debussy also wrote six Sonata's, one of which was for the cello and the piano. Each Sonata was written for a different instrument. Debussy wrote these pieces intending to keep the classic French tradition alive and unaffected by foreign influences. This was a patriotic expression, sometimes considered as a nationalist outlook on music history. However, he incorporated the spirit of the Italian Commedia dell' arte in one of the Violin Sonata's. These Sonata's are the beginnings of the neo-classic period of abstract music.

During this time, while ill, Debussy wrote a letter to his friend Robert Godet, a critic and essayist. Debussy said, the Violin Sonata would be interesting "from a documentary point of view and as an example of what a sick man can write in time of war". This prompted him to ask whether this was proof of how little a man's feeling are concerned with what is occupying his brain ("du peu que nous sommes dan les aventures oú s'engage notre cerveau. L'esprit souffle ou il veut").

In 1917, Debussy played the piano, which was part of his sonata at a concert in Paris on May 1917. This was his last appearance.


Debussy's piano teaching methods:

One of Debussy's former students, Marguerite Long, noted that she remembered him saying: to make their hands "enter dedan"-get inside the piano, rather than strike it from above. This method encouraged his students to imagine the keys rising towards the fingers, like a magnet.


Abridged list of compositions:

• Pelléas et Mélisande - Opéra, a mystery in five acts
• Le Martyre de saint Oú - Opéra, a mystery in five acts, The Martyrdom of Saint-Sebastian

Orchestral Works
• Juex
• Three Nocturnes - 1898, Symphony Orchestra
• L'aprés-mide d'un Faune - Symphony Orchestra
• Nauges, Fêtes, Sirénes - Impressionistic Symphony Orchestra

Piano Works
• Puerta del Vino, Les fées sont de'exquises danseuses, Feux d'artifice.
• Twelve Etudes
• Suite Bergamaque - 1890
• Pour le Piano
• Estampes - 1903

• Ariette oubliées
• C'est l'extase
• Cinq poéms de Baudelaire
• Images: Ibéria, Gigues, Rondes de Printemps
• Trois Ballades de Francois Villon
• Trois poemes de Stéphane Mallarmé
• Ariettes oubliees
• Chansons de Bilitis
• Trois poems de Stéphane Mallarmé

Choral Works
• La Damoiselle élue

• Mein Leben
• Oper und Drama - 1851
• Zukunftsmusic, Music of the Future - 1860
• Der Venusbery - 1842

Choral Work
• Das Liebesmahl der Apostel
• Fêtes Gilantes - songs from the first series of Baudelaire, Chorus
• La Damoiselle élue - Chorus and solo voices
• Trois chansons de Charles d'Orleans - Chorus

Incidental Music
• Faust
• Konig Enzio

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