Life and career
Debussy was born on 22 August 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Seine-et-Oise, on the north-west fringes of Paris.[n 2] He was the eldest of the five children of Manuel-Achille Debussy and his wife, Victorine, née Manoury. Debussy senior ran a china shop and his wife was a seamstress. The shop was unsuccessful, and closed in 1864; the family moved to Paris, first living with Victorine's mother, in Clichy, and, from 1868, in their own apartment in the Rue Saint-Honoré. Manuel worked in a printing factory.
In 1870, to escape the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Debussy's pregnant mother took him and his sister Adéle, to their paternal aunt's home in Cannes, where they remained until the following year. During his stay in Cannes, the seven-year-old Debussy had his first piano lessons; his aunt paid for him to study with an Italian musician, Jean Cerutti. Manuel Debussy remained in Paris and joined the forces of the Commune; after its defeat by French government troops in 1871 he was sentenced to four years' imprisonment, although he was only made to serve one year. Among his fellow Communard prisoners was his friend Charles de Sivry, a musician. Sivry's mother, Antoinette Mauté de Fleurville, gave piano lessons, and at his instigation the young Debussy became one of her pupils.[n 3]
Debussy's talents soon became evident, and in 1872, aged ten, he was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris, where he remained a student for the next eleven years. He first joined the piano class of Antoine François Marmontel, and studied solfège with Albert Lavignac and, later, composition with Ernest Guiraud, harmony with Émile Durand, and organ with César Franck. The course included music history and theory studies with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, but it is not certain that Debussy, who was apt to skip classes, actually attended these.
At the Conservatoire, Debussy initially made good progress. Marmontel said of him "A charming child, a truly artistic temperament; much can be expected of him". Another teacher was less impressed: Emile Durand wrote in a report "Debussy would be an excellent pupil if he were less sketchy and less cavalier." A year later he described Debussy as "desperately careless". In July 1874 Debussy received the award of deuxième accessit[n 4] for his performance as soloist in the first movement of Chopin's Second Piano Concerto at the Conservatoire's annual competition. He was a fine pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career had he wished, but he was only intermittently diligent in his studies. He advanced to premier accessit in 1875 and second prize in 1877, but failed at the competitions in 1878 and 1879. These failures made him ineligible to continue in the Conservatoire's piano classes, but he remained a student for harmony, solfège and, later, composition.
With Marmontel's help Debussy secured a summer vacation job in 1879 as resident pianist at the Château de Chenonceau, where he rapidly acquired a taste for luxury that was to remain with him all his life. His first compositions date from this period, two settings of poems by Alfred de Musset: "Ballade à la lune" and "Madrid, princesse des Espagnes". The following year he secured a job as pianist in the household of Nadezhda von Meck, the patroness of Tchaikovsky. He travelled with her family for the summers of 1880 to 1882, staying at various places in France, Switzerland and Italy, as well as at her home in Moscow. He composed his Piano Trio in G major for von Meck's ensemble, and made a transcription for piano duet of three dances from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.[n 5]
Prix de Rome
At the end of 1880 Debussy, while continuing in his studies at the Conservatoire, was engaged as accompanist for Marie Moreau-Sainti's singing class; he took this role for four years. Among the members of the class was Marie Vasnier; Debussy was greatly taken with her, and she inspired him to compose: he wrote 27 songs dedicated to her during their seven-year relationship. She was the wife of Henri Vasnier, a prominent civil servant, and much younger than her husband. She soon became Debussy's mistress as well as his muse. Whether Vasnier was content to tolerate his wife's affair with the young student or was simply unaware of it is not clear, but he and Debussy remained on excellent terms, and he continued to encourage the composer in his career.
At the Conservatoire, Debussy incurred the disapproval of the faculty, particularly his composition teacher, Guiraud, for his failure to follow the orthodox rules of composition then prevailing.[n 6] Nevertheless, in 1884 Debussy won France's most prestigious musical award, the Prix de Rome, with his cantata L'enfant prodigue. The Prix carried with it a residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further the winner's studies. Debussy was there from January 1885 to March 1887, with three or possibly four absences of several weeks when he returned to France, chiefly to see Marie Vasnier.
Initially Debussy found the artistic atmosphere of the Villa Medici stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the accommodation "abominable". Neither did he delight in Italian opera, as he found the operas of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. He was much more impressed by the music of the 16th-century composers Palestrina and Lassus, which he heard at Santa Maria dell'Anima: "The only church music I will accept." He was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, who visited the students and played for them. In June 1885, Debussy 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!"
Debussy finally composed four pieces that were submitted 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), the first piece in which the stylistic features of his later music began to emerge; and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, which was heavily based on Franck's music and was eventually withdrawn by Debussy. The Academy chided him for writing music that was "bizarre, incomprehensible and unperformable". Although Debussy's works showed the influence of Jules Massenet, the latter concluded, "He is an enigma." During his years in Rome Debussy composed – not for the Academy – most of his Verlaine cycle, Ariettes oubliées, which made little impact at the time but was successfully republished in 1903 after the composer had become well known.
Return to Paris, 1887
A week after his return to Paris in 1887, Debussy heard the first act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Concerts Lamoureux, and judged it "decidedly the finest thing I know". In 1888 and 1889 he went to the annual festivals of Wagner's operas at Bayreuth. He responded positively to Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies, and was briefly influenced by them, but, unlike some other French composers of his generation, he concluded that there was no future in attempting to adopt and develop Wagner's style. He commented in 1903 that Wagner was "a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn".
Gamelan orchestra, circa 1889
In 1889, at the Paris Exposition Universelle, Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music. The gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, and ensemble textures appealed to him, and echoes of them are heard in "Pagodes" in his piano suite Estampes. He also attended two concerts of Rimsky-Korsakov's music, conducted by the composer. This too made an impression on him, and its harmonic freedom and non-Teutonic tone colours influenced his own developing musical style.[n 7]
Marie Vasnier ended her liaison with Debussy soon after his final return from Rome, although they remained on good enough terms for him to dedicate to her one more song, "Mandoline", in 1890. Later in 1890 Debussy met Erik Satie, who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition. Both were bohemians, enjoying the same café society and struggling to stay afloat financially. In the same year Debussy began a relationship with Gabrielle (Gaby) Dupont, a tailor's daughter from Lisieux; in July 1893 they began living together.
Debussy continued to compose songs, piano pieces and other works, some of which were publicly performed, but his music made only a modest impact, although his fellow composers recognised his potential by electing him to the committee of the Société Nationale de Musique in 1893. His String Quartet was premiered by the Ysaÿe string quartet at the Société Nationale in the same year. In May 1893 Debussy attended a theatrical event that was of key importance to his later career – the premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande, which he immediately determined to turn into an opera. He travelled to Maeterlinck's home in Ghent in November to secure his consent to an operatic adaptation.
1894–1902: Pelléas et Mélisande
In February 1894 Debussy completed the first draft of Act I of his operatic version of Pelléas et Mélisande, and worked to complete the work for most of the year. While still living with Dupont, he had an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, and in 1894 he announced their engagement. His behaviour was widely condemned; anonymous letters circulated denouncing his treatment of both women, as well as his financial irresponsibility and debts. The engagement was broken off, and several of Debussy's friends and supporters disowned him, including Ernest Chausson, hitherto one of his strongest supporters.
In terms of musical recognition, Debussy made a step forward in December 1894, when the symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, based on Stéphane Mallarmé's poem, was premiered at a concert of the Société Nationale. The following year he completed the first draft of Pelléas and began efforts to get it staged. In May 1898 he made his first contacts with André Messager and Albert Carré, respectively the musical director and general manager of the Opéra-Comique, Paris, about presenting the opera.
Debussy abandoned Dupont for her friend Marie-Rosalie Texier, known as "Lilly", whom he married in October 1899, after threatening suicide if she refused him. She was affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well liked by Debussy's friends and associates, but he became increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. The marriage lasted barely five years.
In 1900 Debussy began attending meetings of Les Apaches ("The Hooligans") an informal group of innovative young artists, poets, critics, and musicians who had adopted their collective title to represent their status as "artistic outcasts". The membership was fluid, but at various times included Maurice Ravel, Ricardo Viñes, Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla.[n 8] In the same year the first two of Debussy's three orchestral Nocturnes were first performed. Although they did not make any great impact with the public they were well reviewed by musicians including Paul Dukas, Alfred Bruneau and Pierre de Bréville. The complete set was given the following year.
Like many other composers of the time, Debussy supplemented his income by teaching and writing.[n 9] For most of 1901 he had a sideline as music critic of La Revue Blanche, adopting the pen name "Monsieur Croche". He expressed trenchant views on composers ("I hate sentimentality – his name is Camille Saint-Saëns"), institutions (on the Paris Opéra: "A stranger would take it for a railway station, and, once inside, would mistake it for a Turkish bath"), conductors ("Nikisch is a unique virtuoso, so much so that his virtuosity seems to make him forget the claims of good taste"), musical politics ("The English actually think that a musician can manage an opera house successfully!"), and audiences ("their almost drugged expression of boredom, indifference and even stupidity"). He later collected his criticisms with a view to their publication as a book; it was published after his death as Monsieur Croche, Antidilettante.
In January 1902 rehearsals began at the Opéra-Comique for the opening of Pelléas et Mélisande. For three months, Debussy attended rehearsals practically every day. In February there was conflict between Maeterlinck on the one hand and Debussy, Messager and Carré on the other about the casting of Mélisande. The author wanted his mistress, Georgette Leblanc, to sing the role, and was incensed when she was passed over in favour of the Scottish soprano Mary Garden.[n 10] The opera opened on 30 April 1902, and although the first-night audience was divided between admirers and sceptics, the work quickly became a success. It made Debussy a well-known name in France and abroad; The Times commented that the opera had "provoked more discussion than any work of modern times, excepting, of course, those of Richard Strauss". The Apaches, led by Ravel (who attended every one of the 14 performances in the first run), were loud in their support; the conservative faculty of the Conservatoire tried in vain to stop its students from seeing the opera. The vocal score was published in early May, and the full orchestral score in 1904.
Emma Bardac (later Emma Debussy) in 1903
In 1903 there was public recognition of Debussy's stature when he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, but his social standing suffered a great blow when another turn in his private life caused a scandal the following year. Among his pupils was Raoul Bardac, son of Emma, the wife of a Parisian banker, Sigismond Bardac. Raoul introduced his teacher to his mother, to whom Debussy quickly became greatly attracted. She was a sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, an accomplished singer, and relaxed about marital fidelity, having been the mistress and muse of Gabriel Fauré a few years earlier. After despatching Lilly to her parental home at Bichain in Villeneuve-la-Guyard on 15 July 1904, Debussy took Emma away, staying incognito in Jersey and then at Pourville in Normandy. He wrote to his wife on 11 August from Dieppe, telling her that their marriage was over, but still making no mention of Bardac. When he returned to Paris he set up home on his own, taking a flat in a different arrondissement. On 14 October, five days before their fifth wedding anniversary, Lilly Debussy attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver;[n 11] she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae until she died in 1932. The ensuing scandal caused Bardac's family to disown her, and Debussy lost many good friends including Dukas and Messager. His relations with Ravel, never close, were exacerbated when the latter joined other former friends of Debussy in contributing to a fund to support the deserted Lilly.
The Bardacs divorced in May 1905. Finding the hostility in Paris intolerable, Debussy and Emma (now pregnant) went to England. They stayed at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne in July and August, where Debussy corrected the proofs of his symphonic sketches La mer, celebrating his divorce on 2 August. After a brief visit to London, the couple returned to Paris in September, buying a house in a courtyard development off the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne (now Avenue Foch), Debussy's home for the rest of his life.
Debussy's last home, now 23 Square Avenue Foch, Paris
In October 1905 La mer, Debussy's most substantial orchestral work, was premiered in Paris by the Orchestre Lamoureux under the direction of Camille Chevillard; the reception was mixed. Some praised the work, but Pierre Lalo, critic of Le Temps, hitherto an admirer of Debussy, wrote, "I do not hear, I do not see, I do not smell the sea".[n 12] In the same month the composer's only child was born at their home. Claude-Emma, affectionately known as "Chouchou", was a musical inspiration to the composer (she was the dedicatee of his Children's Corner suite). She outlived her father by scarcely a year, succumbing to the diphtheria epidemic of 1919. Mary Garden said, "I honestly don't know if Debussy ever loved anybody really. He loved his music – and perhaps himself. I think he was wrapped up in his genius. but biographers are agreed that whatever his relations with lovers and friends, Debussy was devoted to his daughter.
Debussy and Emma Bardac eventually married in 1908, their troubled union enduring for the rest of his life. The following year began well, when at Fauré's invitation, Debussy became a member of the governing council of the Conservatoire. His success in London was consolidated in April 1909, when he conducted Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and the Nocturnes at the Queen's Hall; in May he was present at the first London production of Pelléas et Mélisande, at Covent Garden. In the same year he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, from which he was to die nine years later.
Debussy's works began to feature increasingly in concert programmes at home and overseas. In 1910 Gustav Mahler conducted the Nocturnes and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in New York in successive months. In the same year, visiting Budapest, Debussy commented that his works were better known there than in Paris. In 1912 Sergei Diaghilev commissioned a new ballet score, Jeux. That, and the three Images, premiered the following year, were the composer's last orchestral works. Jeux was unfortunate in its timing: two weeks after the premiere, in March 1913, Diaghilev presented the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a sensational event that monopolised discussion in musical circles, and effectively sidelined Jeux along with Fauré's Pénélope, which had opened a week before.
In 1915 Debussy underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations. It achieved only a temporary respite, and occasioned him considerable frustration ("There are mornings when the effort of dressing seems like one of the twelve labours of Hercules"). He also had a fierce enemy at this period in the form of Camille Saint-Saëns, who in a letter to Fauré condemned Debussy's En blanc et noir: "It's incredible, and the door of the Institut [de France] must at all costs be barred against a man capable of such atrocities." Saint-Saëns had been a member of the Institut since 1881: Debussy never became one. His health continued to decline; he gave his final concert (the premiere of his Violin Sonata) on 14 September 1917 and became bedridden in early 1918.
Debussy died on 25 March 1918 at his home. The First World War was still raging and Paris was under German aerial and artillery bombardment. The military situation did not permit the honour of a public funeral with ceremonious graveside orations. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets to a temporary grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery as the German guns bombarded the city. Debussy's body was reinterred the following year in the small Passy Cemetery sequestered behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling his wish to rest "among the trees and the birds"; his wife and daughter are buried with him.