Claude Debussy: an introduction

Claude Debussy was born in 1862, the son of a shop-keeper. He started his musical life with piano lessons when he was seven years old. At ten years of age he entered the Paris Conservatory to continue his education - he subsequently abandoned his plan to be a pianist and focussed rather on composing. He won the Prix de Rome in 1884, and while in residence at Rome he met Liszt.

It was in 1894 that Debussy finished an important orchestral work, the Prélude à 'L'Après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn). This was very much in an 'impressionist' style  and Debussy became known as the leader of the impressionist composers - another key 'impressionist' being Maurice Ravel. This style tended to portray its subject in music, in a 'gentle' way, and turned it back on the recent orchestral excesses of Wagner and Mahler.

In 1899 Debussy was married, to Lily Texier. In 1900 Debussy completed the Nocturnes, orchestral work that gained him some success, and in 1902 the opera Pelleas et Mélisande, his only opera and the work that perhaps did more than any other to establish his reputation.

This marriage only lasted five years, until 1904, at which time he left Lily Texier for Emma Bardac (there was a scandal surrounding the subsequent suicide attempt by Lily), and be embarked on the most prolific period of his musical life.

Claude Debussy

It was in 1905 that he completed La Mer, a very impressionistic piece of music, with movements entitled, for example, 'from Dawn to Midday on the Sea' and 'Dialogue of the wind and the Waves', and beautifully written music to match the descriptive titles.

Debussy and Bardac were subsequently married in 1908, and had a daughter. He was much less productive from 1910 onwards, following the development of cancer. But Debussy still had creative periods at this time - for example, the 12 Etudes for piano in 1915. His poor health was exacerbated by his depression over the events of the First World War, and he died in 1918 during the German bombardment of Paris.

Claude Debussy had an important and lasting effect on composers that came after him, both for his impressionist style of composing, and his ability to create 'gentle' music even with a full orchestra playing.

Claude Debussy - recommended listening

- Prélude à 'L'Après-midi d'un Faune

- Nocturnes

- Pelleas et Mélisande

- La Mer