Claude Debussy was born as Achille-Claude Debussy. He has become recognizable over the years as one of the most notable and influential French musical composers that has ever lived. At the turn of the 20th century he was one of the most prominent figures in music and his contributions to the world of music are still enjoyed today.
Debussy was born in 1862 in St. Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, France. His father was a salesman and a china shop owner. His mother was a seamstress. He was the oldest of five children born to the couple, and his childhood and growing up years were less than ideal. Some of the events Debussy never quite got over, nor did he talk about them. He was forced to join his mother, who was pregnant at the time as she left to to to his paternal aunt’s home in Cannes to escape the Franco-Prussian War.Through all of the bad experiences it was clear at a very early age to everyone that he was gifted musically. Thankfully the gift was recognized and when he was seven years old Debussy started taking piano lessons. In 1872, when he was just ten years old, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire and remained a student at the Conservatoire for 11 years. Debussy’s piano teacher, Mme. Maute, claimed to have been a student of Frédéric Chopin. During his time at the Conservatoire he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac/harmony with Émile Durand.
A great influence on Claude Debussy was his close friendship with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist. The two embarked on a lengthy eight-year affair together.
Debussy was the recipient of many notable awards over the years including the Prix de Rome twice, in 1883 and 1884. He was able to use the money he won to help pay for his studies at the Villa de Medici in Rome where he would stay for the next four year. In Rome he met Franz Liszt and Giuseppe Verdi and heard more of Wagner’s music, which made a strong impression on him.
Claude Debussy was one of the first people to ever challenge the typical and traditional way that orchestras used their instruments. He also noted that woodwinds could be used in a variety of ways and were being underused as accompaniments in most pieces. The brass sections, he also noted, could be used in entirely different ways as well. By thinking outside of the box and changing some of the ways of the different sections of the entire orchestra was used he became famous for his musical creations. He made each musician feel as though they were a soloist within an ensemble.
His final works, the piano pieces En blanc et noir, (1915; In Black and White) and in the Douze Études (1915; “Twelve Études”), leave admirers feeling a great sense of loss at Debussy’s death at such an early age and most long for all of the work he could have yet contributed to the world had he lived longer.
Debussy’s work has been well respected for decades and when described it is often likened to poetry. He is known for so many of his great compositions that admirers often have a hard time deciding which piece he created is their favorite. Included in his most popular works are Clair de lune (“Moonlight,” in Suite bergamasque, 1890–1905), as well as Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and the famous La Mer (1905; “The Sea”).
Debussy’s personal life was a busy as his professional one, although not quite as respected. When he was just 18 years old Debussy started an eight-year affair with Marie-Blanche Vasnier. Later he had a tempestuous relationship with, a tailor’s daughter from Lisieux, Gabrielle (‘Gaby’) Dupont. During this time he also had an affair with singer Thérèse Roger. The couple became engaged. Debussy left Dupont for one of her friends who was a fashion model, Rosalie (‘Lilly’) Texier. The coupled were married in 1899. Debussy discovered that she was not that intelligent and her knowledge in his largest passion, music, was also lacking. When he learned that she was not able to give him any children the couple broke up.
In 1908 Claude Debussy married singer Emma Bardac after they had his only child, a daughter, Claude-Emma. Bardac was the wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac when they met and the two had an affair while he was still married to Texier. The couple was introduced by Bardac’s son, who was one of his students.
In his musical theories and his life lessons, Debussy was credited with many notable quotes. Some of these are, “I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” “In opera, there is always too much singing,” “Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light. Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes,” and “Music is the silence between the notes.”
Claude Debussy spent his later years writing as a critic, composing music and traveling internationally performing his own works.
Debussy died tragically and too young, when he was only 55, in 1918of rectal cancer. During his treatment for the cancer he was awarded temporary relief when he had one of the earliest colostomy operations that ever done. Just as tragically, his daughter, Claude-Emma, outlived her noted father only by about a year. She died of diphtheria after a mistake was made by the doctor when he gave her the wrong treatment.
Claude Debussy is buried today in Paris at Passy Cemetery, with his wife and daughter buried near him.