Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy in 1908

Achille-Claude Debussy (French:  [aʃil klod dəbysi], [1] 22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918), known since the 1890s as Claude-Achille Debussy or Claude Debussy, [2] was a French composer. He and Maurice Ravel were the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music, though Debussy disliked the term when applied to his compositions. [3] He was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1903. [4] He was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed. [5]

Debussy's music is noted for its sensory content and frequent use of nontraditional tonalities. [6] 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. [7]

Early life

Street where Debussy was born

Debussy, the eldest of five children, was born Achille-Claude Debussy (he later reversed his forenames) [2] on 22 August 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Seine-et-Oise. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a china shop there; his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. 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. At the age of seven, he began piano lessons with an Italian violinist in his early 40s named Jean Cerutti, and his aunt paid for his lessons. In 1871 he drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, [8] who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence to support her claim. [9] His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent the next 11 years. During his time there he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, [10] piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. 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 his works.

Musical development

Debussy was experimental from the outset, favouring dissonances and intervals that were not taught at the Academy. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he so wished. [11] The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber, and Chopin's Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert. [12]

During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882, he accompanied Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as she travelled with her family in Europe. The young composer's many musical activities during these vacations included playing four-hand pieces with von Meck at the piano, giving music lessons to her children, and performing in private concerts with some of her musician friends. [13] Despite von Meck's closeness[ citation needed] to Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears[ to whom?] to have had minimal effect on Debussy.[ citation needed] In September 1880 she sent his Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky's perusal; a month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her: "It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity." Debussy did not publish the piece, and the manuscript remained in the von Meck family; it was eventually sold to B. Schott's Sohne in Mainz, and published by them in 1932. [14]

A greater influence was Debussy's close friendship with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money, embarking on an eight-year affair together. She and her husband, Parisian civil servant Henri, gave Debussy emotional and professional support. Henri Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine (the son-in-law of his former teacher Mme. Mauté de Fleurville).

Debussy at the Villa Medici in Rome, 1885, at centre in the white jacket

As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L'enfant prodigue, he 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). According to letters to Marie-Blanche Vasnier, perhaps in part designed to gain her sympathy, he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters "abominable". [15] 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. In June 1885, he wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying, "I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!" [16]

Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima (based on a text by Heinrich Heine); the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La Damoiselle élue (1887–1888) (which was criticized by the Academy as "bizarre", although it was the first piece in which the stylistic features of his later style began to emerge); and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, which was heavily based on César Franck's music and therefore eventually withdrawn by Debussy. The Academy chided him for "courting the unusual" and hoped for something better from the gifted student. Although Debussy's works showed the influence of Jules Massenet, Massenet concluded, "He is an enigma." [17]

During his visits to Bayreuth in 1888–9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which would have a lasting impact on his work. Like many young musicians of the time, he responded positively to Richard Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies. [18] Wagner's extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy's way, but the German composer's influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine – Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes – are all in a more capricious style.

Around this time he 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. [19]

In 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music. He incorporated gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, and ensemble textures into some of his compositions, most notably Pagodes from his piano collection Estampes. [20]

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