It’s music on the points of needles.” - César Franck (1822-90)

"Debussy existed before Debussy. It is an architecture which moves upside down in water, clouds which form and disperse, branches which slumber, rain on the leaves, plums which in falling kill themselves and bleed gold--everything that only murmured or stammered before a human voice came to give it expression. A thousand vague marvels in nature have at last found their interpreter." - Jean Cocteau


Claude Achille Débussy (1862-1918) is one of the world’s greatest composers. He revitalized French music, breaking the German monopoly of the classical music scene, and opened up an entirely new sound - Impressionism. He used fluid structures (the foundation of which were tiny, repeating motifs) and colourful instruments to great effect. His music is not able to be placed in a certain key, as such, as he used chromatic harmony. His feature sounds also included the use of the whole-tone scale, the Oriental pentatonic scale, consecutive parallel chords and intervals, unresolved harmonics and an absolute abandonment of traditional forms. His music explored “the mysterious relationship between Nature and Imagination”, and was therefore closely linked to artworks and literature of the period. His most famous works include ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘Prélude à “L’après-midi d’un faune”’, ‘La mer’ and ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’.

First Movement:

Debussy was born in Paris (in St Germain-en-Laye), the hub of European culture at the time, on 22 August 1862. His parents (Manuel and Victorine) ran a china shop in the suburb, and Claude (with his siblings) was often sent to visit his Aunt Clémentine in Cannes, where he began to study the piano with a former student of the amazing Chopin - Mme. Mauté de Fleurville (who was also the mother-in-law of the Symbolist poet Verlaine). When he was ten years old, Claude entered the famed Paris Conservatoire, and proceeded to unnerve his teachers with his harmonic improvisation at the keyboard. Even though the music with which he experimented was unorthodox, he won the Prix de Rome, a coveted accolade, with a cantanaL’enfant prodigue’ (1884).

Although he had had success in Rome, he was not happy there, and he returned to Paris (where his married lover lived) in the spring of 1887. It was also in this year that he discovered the music of Wagner, and the following year he visited Bayreuth. Debussy became intoxicated with the music of Wagner, and this obsession remained for the rest of his life - even to the extent that he began to compose a Wagnerian opera (although he abandoned this project when he realized his music must be “flexible and adaptable to fantasies and dreams”).

At 18 years of age, Debussy became the piano teacher of Mme. Nadezhda von Meck’s children (she was the patroness of Tchaikovsky). In the summers of 1881 and 1882, Debussy travelled with the family to their summer estate in Moscow, where he was exposed to and influenced by the music of Borodin and Mussorgsky.

Second Movement:

Debussy found inspiration in Symbolist poetry, for example in works by Verlaine, and began to match the verses with delicate and ethereal musical settings. He began to experiment with piano sonorities, utilizing a scale based on whole tones but without a firm key centre. He produced his famous two Arabesques and a duet, the 'Petite suite'. The new fashion of Art Nouveau resulted in his cantana ‘La damoiselle élue' (1888), based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a Pre-Raphaelite writer and artist).

In 1889, whilst at the Paris Exposition, he heard the Javanese gamelan for the first time - and was absolutely entranced. This instrument left a lasting impression on Debussy and his works, and he realized that a single, economic instrument (such as a shrill clarinet or a gong) could be as effective as an entire orchestra. It was at this time too, that Debussy became friends with the French Symbolist poets, and was fascinated by Mallarmé.

In the early 1890s, Debussy found a tiny Montmartre apartment, in the middle of the artistic “bohemian” lifestyle of the time, and set up house with his girlfriend Gabrielle Dupont. During this period, surrounded by the colourful inhabitants of the district, he developed his characteristic and beautiful style - subtle, shifting harmonies and melodic fragments creating vivid images.

Aside from art and literature, Debussy was inspired regularly by an antique dream-world of his own designing - Harlequins and Columbines playing mandolins and dancing sarabandes. This world inspired his ‘Suite bergamasque’ (1890) the most famous part of which is the hauntingly beautiful ‘Clair de lune’, and between 1894 and 1901, the suite ‘Pour le piano’. Verlaine’s work inspired his to create the ‘Fêtes galantes’ (1891 and 1904). This period is Debussy’s life is also marked by the intense 'String Quartet' of 1893, and his famous orchestral piece ‘Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune’.

The Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”, created in 1894, was based on Mallarmé’s erotic monologue. The story follows a faun lying on the grass on a hot summer’s afternoon in ancient Greece who is dreaming about making love to a pair of beautiful but elusive nymphs. Pierre Boulez, who conducted the original score said that from the first notes of the Faun’s flute, “music began to beat with a new pulse”. Mallarmé also commented upon the piece, marvelling “your illustration... presents no dissonance with my text; rather does it go further into the nostalgia and light (it) with subtlety, malaise and richness”. Although Debussy received no money from this piece, it established his name throughout Europe. Debussy’s work was turned into a ballet in 1912 by the dancer Nijinsky (with the help of Sergei Diaghilev - see below), but this was not successful, due to poor choreography (even Debussy hated it!).

The mid 1890s also saw Debussy work on his only opera - ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. This was a perplexing Symbolist drama by Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. The subtle, economic music was highlighted by silence, “perhaps the only way of throwing the emotional weight of a phrase into relief”. After nine years of work, the opera finally reached the stage, with Mary Garden creating Mélisande at the Paris Opera in 1902. Instead of being a success, the opera was received with outright hostility and incomprehension. Today, it is considered a masterpiece.

Debussy had lived off a small allowance from a publisher during his time in Montmartre, and money problems culminated in the separation of him and Gaby in 1898 - just as he finished the evocative ‘Nocturnes’. These three pieces create an image of a cloudy day over the Seine, a carnival with a brass band, and a delicate seascape with mermaids singing. These highly impressionistic pieces were soon followed with another collection - the wonderful ‘Estampes’ (Prints) for piano (comprising the oriental-based work ‘Pagodes’, a Spanish habaneraSoirée dans Grenade’ and ‘Jardins sous la pluie’).

In 1899 the mephistophelean Debussy married a pretty bottle-blonde model, Rosalie ‘Lily’ Texier, who eventually proved to be an unsuitable wife. In 1903, Debussy met Fauré’s ex-mistress, Emma Bardac, who was now the wife of a banker. Deeply entranced with each other, the pair scandalously eloped to Jersey, where Debussy wrote the piano piece ‘L’île joyeuse’. Lily Debussy attempted to shoot herself (although she recovered to divorce him!), and Debussy was consequently ostricized by his friends. Debussy and Emma proceeded to set up house in the fashionable 'Avenue du Bois de Boulogne', and had an adored daughter, Claude-Emma (Chou-Chou) in 1905. For the rest of his life, Debussy tried to keep Emma in the style to which she had become accustomed, with varying degrees of success, and their marriage of ten years was often under strain due to Debussy’s long conducting tours (although reports suggest he was a poor conductor).

In 1905 also, Debussy completed his incredible symphonic seascape ‘La mer’, an interplay between light, water and wind inspired by Katsushika Hokusai’s print ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ (1831). The piece has three movements, my personal favourite being ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ for its crystal-clear images in its final sequence, the others comprising ‘Jeux de vagues’ and ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’.

Over the next few years, Debussy also created two sets of wonderful piano ‘Images’, two books of piano 'Preludes', a set of orchestral ‘Images: Rondes de printemps’ (Dances of Spring), the fascinating ‘Iberia’, ‘Gigues’ and of course the famous ‘Children’s Corner’ (1906-8). This is a delightful set of six pieces written for Chou-Chou, which are among his easiest works to play (although the easiest piece of these is considered to be approximately grade eight). Pieces of note include ‘Le petit berger’ (The Little Shepherd, a whimsical, slow piece that requires impeccable timing), ‘Sérénade de la poupée’ (Serenade for the Doll, a fast piece with many ornaments) and ‘Golliwog’s Cake-walk’, a dynamic piece featuring parallel fifths. Chou-Chou died aged 14, before she could play the pieces. In 1909, Debussy discovered he had cancer of the colon.

In 1911, Debussy tried writing ballet music, ‘Khamma’, for the Canadian dancer Maud Allan, and was commissioned in 1913 by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (the driving force behind the Ballets Russes) to write the ‘Jeux’, which were choreographed for the Ballets Russes by Nijinsky.

Third Movement:

In his final years, tragedy befell Debussy. From 1912 onwards, Debussy suffered from almost daily haemorrhages, and used mixtures of cocaine and morphine to combat the pain. In 1914, Debussy considered a tour of America with violinist Arthur Hartmann, but was dissuaded from this idea due to illness - he knew he was mortally ill due to his cancer. Debussy was also highly distressed by World War I, and suffered a lapse in creativity. He also changed his mind about the war, over time, writing “I have nothing of the army spirit - I’ve never even held a rifle. My recollections of 1870 and the anxiety of my wife... prevent me from developing any enthusiasm” and later “if, to ensure victory, they are absolutely in need of another face to be bashed in, I’ll offer mine without question... (however)... Art and war have never, at any period, been able to find any basis of agreement” (perhaps this change was due to his increasing sickness?).

Knowing his mortality, Debussy feverishly worked during his last years, finishing two books of piano studies inspired by Chopin’s piano studies and three pieces for two pianos, ‘En blanc et noir’ (1915, each of the pieces was dedicated to a friend who had fallen in action). Debussy’s publisher, Durand, was aware that the war had lowered Debussy’s income, and had given him a set of Chopin’s work to edit (1915) - this resulted in the creation of the brilliant ‘Etudes’, twelve critically acclaimed piano studies. Finally, he decided to write a set of six abstract sonatas. These were to be in an austere style, and he completed three: for cello and piano, violin and piano, viola and harp. The three he complete were published with a simple inscription: “Claude Debussy: musicien français”. The only other project that he had never finished was an opera based upon Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Only a libretto was completed in 1917 (although never written down). Debussy’s last public appearance was on 5 May 1917, when he played the piano part of the Violin Sonata that he had struggled to complete. In October of that year he despaired, writing “Music has completely abandoned me”.

By January of 1918, Debussy was confined to bed. Debussy died on 25 March 1918 during a German bombardment of Paris (although not because of it). In a letter to her half-brother Raoul Bardac, Chou-Chou wrote “...sweetly, angelically, he went to sleep forever. What happens afterwards I cannot tell you. I wanted to burst into a torrent of tears but I repressed them because of Mama... Papa is dead.” To the sound of warfare in the background, and in the presence of a handful of mourners, Claude Achille Débussy was buried in the Parisian Père-Lachaise cemetery on 28 March 1918.


‘The Great Composers’ - Wendy Thompson (Lorenz Books - 2001)
‘Debussy - Selected Works for Piano’ - Compiled/Edited by Keith Snell (Neil A. Kjos Music Company - 1995)
‘Great Composers’ - Various (Golden Press - 1989)