HumanitiesWeb.org - Claude Debussy - The Painterly Composer [Biography]
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
WelcomeHistoryLiteratureArtMusicPhilosophyResourcesHelp
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Forms Glossary
pixel

Debussy
Index
Biography
Selected Works
Quotations
According To...
Recordings
Suggested Reading
Other Resources
Chronology
Related Materials

Search

Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc
FEEDBACK

(C)1998-2013
All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
26 June, 2013

Claude Debussy
Biography



"Art is the most beautiful deception of all. And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory. People come to music to seek oblivion: is that not also a form of deception?"

Some people call Claude Debussy a musical Impressionist, comparing his music with the paintings of Monet and Renoir. Others speak of him as a musical Symbolist, using sounds to stir feelings and sensations in the listener's mind in much the same way as Symbolists poets, such as Baudelaire and Verlaine, used words and phrases. Regardless of how one interprets Debussy's music, it undeniably has a subtle and a magical power over the imagination.

Claude Debussy was born 22 August, 1862, at St. Germain-en-Laye, France. From the age of ten on, Debussy was a brilliant student at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique, where he won the highest prizes for composition - including the Prix de Rome for his cantata L'Enfant prodique. He was also a rebel and would often alarm his professors by sitting at the piano and playing chords that broke every textbook rule. What he was beginning to do was search for a new musical language, and slowly but surely he found it.

He wrote for the piano as no one before him had ever dreamed of: Sometimes the notes were bunched together, while other times they were laced at the ends of the keyboard; and pedals were used to make notes and harmonies shift and blend. He found inspiration in the same images as those that attracted the French Impressionist painters - clouds, rain, wind, water, sunlight, and shadow. The result was a new and magical world of sound that inspired several generations of classical and jazz musicians.

By the time he was 18, during his summer vacations, the young Debussy was much in demand as a pianist at fashionable gatherings. Eventually his name reached the ears of the Russian socialite Madame Nadezhda von Meck, patron of Tchaikovsky, and the talented rebel joined her musical circle for a while.

Debussy had a history of stormy relationships with women. In 1889, while still a teenager, Debussy had begun a nine-year affair with Gabrielle Dupont. The partnership was punctuated with scandals, including a period when Debussy became engaged to the singer Thérèse Roger, as well as a suicide attempt by Gabrielle. Debussy married Lily Texier in 1899, but left her for Emma after five years. As a result, Lily attempted suicide. However, it seems the arrival of Chou-Chou, his daughter with Emma, in 1905, had a settling effect on Debussy. He and Emma married in 1908 and stayed together for the remaining ten years of his life.

Debussy reached his musical maturity during the closing years of the 19th century, when the Late Romantic period of Liszt and Wagner was coming to an end and many composers were looking for new musical paths to take. He took his inspiration from many artistic sources; Wagner's music, the art and music of the Orient, Impressionist painters such as Degas, poetry, and the sinuous lines and pastel shades of contemporary Art Nouveau. From these sources, he forged a musical style that is both original in its harmonies, rhythms, and musical tones, and often quietly beautiful.

Debussy's influence on the music of the 20th century, from the concert hall and opera house to the world of jazz, has been immense. His finest works, including his orchestral masterpiece La mer and many of his piano pieces, sound as original and effective today as they did a century ago.

Claude Debussy died of cancer on 25 March, 1918, at the age of 55.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

Personae

Terms Defined

Referenced Works