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About Claude Debussy

Learn about the composer, Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy: Overview

  • Born: August 22, 1862 - Saint Germain-en-Laye, France
  • Died: March 25, 1918 - Paris, France
  • Historical Period: Modern, Impressionist 
  • Musical Media: Orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, choral, ballet, opera, songs.  

French composer, Claude Debussy

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”- Aldous Huxley

Claude Debussy was born in 1862 into a poor family in France. His talent with the piano was evident from a young age, which was typical of most musical greats of their time. A pioneer of Impressionist music, Debussy’s musical journey began with his admittance into the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11. The next milestone came when he won the Prix de Rome at 22, financing the next 2 years of his education in Rome. At the onset of the 20th century, Debussy was considered as one of the stalwarts of French and European music. In 1918, during World War I, as Paris was being bombed by Germany, Claude Debussy lost the battle with colon cancer. He was only 55 with a musical career of roughly 25 years. 

Among his major works are:
  • Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque (1890) 
  • Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) 
  • the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
  • La Mer (1905)

 

Dive in more about Claude Debussy: The Man Who Captured Dreams Through Music

Claude Debussy, who was born as Achille-Claude Debussy, was highly influential to his contemporaries and following generations, for he was ahead of his time. His pieces were mature, unique and had a modernist touch, which made them extremely sensual and attractive. Considered the founder of Impressionist music, Debussy is famous for his non-traditional scales and tonal structures which broke new ground during his time.

Pushed on and encouraged by Madame Mauté de Fleurville, who knew Frédéric Chopin, the Polish maestro, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatory in 1873, learning piano and composition. He wrote the cantata L’Enfant prodigue for which he won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1884. 

Debussy, while growing up poor in the dinghy Parisian suburbs, was taken under the wing of Russian business woman, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who oversaw his musical development. It was while travelling with his patroness, that the composer fell in love with Blanche Vasnier, a young married lady, who was also a singer. Debussy’s early style of composing was much influenced by this affair and it’s evident in his Clair de lune (1890), which drew its name from a traditional folk song associated with the comic character of Pierrot in the French pantomime. Other notable associations with Pierrot has been in his works such as Images pour orchestre (1912) and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915). The latter was titled Pierrot fâché avec la lune before being renamed. 

After winning the Grand Prix de Rome, Debussy was sent for 3 years to the Villa Medici in Rome, to better himself and further his creativity. After only 2 years, the French composer left for Paris, returning to Blanche Vasnier. Additionally, he has been associated with other women of questionable reputation during this period. 

Between the years 1885-1887, Claude Debussy wrote an incomplete text, inspired from Théodore de Banville’s “Diane au bois”. The piece was derived from the tale of the legendary queen, Diana, but Debussy complained that he was being forced to invent new forms of music for it. This would however, turn into one of his experimentations before he finally composed Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy also had numerous conversations with his teacher Ernest Guiraud in 1889, regarding Pelléas’s ultimate characterization.

Claude Debussy was significantly influenced by the works of other greats such as, Richard Wagner, Aleksandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ by Wagner, encouraged Debussy to better his emotional responses and to expand on dream like scenarios. The result was the symphonic piece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894). Debussy also demonstrated an influence from English Pre-Raphaelite painters, the result of which was La Damoiselle élue (1888). This was also directly inspired from “The Blessed Damozel” (1850), a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Debussy also wrote the Deux arabesques, L. 66, for the piano between 1888 and 1891. These compositions clearly display the development of Debussy's musical style and are among the earliest impressionistic music.

In 1890, the Debussy wrote the Reverie, another piano piece published in 1891 and performed for the first time in 1899. His operatic masterpiece, the Pelléas et Mélisande (1898), is a clear utilization of the Wagnerian technique to portray the dreamy nightmarish figures of this opera prone to self-destruction.  La Mer (1905) was clearly adapted from the combined ideas of painters, J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet. Debussy was always learning, adapting styles and pushing his imaginations to the limit in his drive for musical perfection. 

The year 1905 saw the birth of Claude-Emma, Debussy’s daughter with Emma Bardac. The composer had divorced his first wife, Lily Texier in 1904 and married Emma. Debussy nicknamed his baby daughter Chouchou, and wrote Children’s Corner (1908) and dedicated it to her. The six pieces of the suite are as follows:

  • Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
  • Jimbo's Lullaby
  • Serenade for the Doll
  • The Snow is Dancing
  • The Little Shepherd
  • Golliwogg's Cakewalk 

The composer had a rather sensitive artistic side, which brought about a spontaneity that helped him develop an insight into children’s minds. Thus, came the Children’s Corner, adapted from Mussorgsky’s song cycle “The Nursery”. 

Claude Debussy’s incredible skills in his musical niche showed in his other piano works like Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes (1903), Reflets dans l’eau (1904) and Poissons d’or (1907) from Images, and Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir and Feux d’artifice from the Préludes (1909-1913). 

Debussy’s work, in general, is marked by the pursuit of dreams or illusions, in his instrumental compositions. The bass instrument, plays akin to multiple other organs such as the violin, the flute, etc. He refused to follow the established harmonic patterns of the 19th century, and later studies have proved that there wasn’t any established logic behind the use of such procedures. Debussy formulated a 21-note scale by himself, although this never became popular as Schoenberg’s 12-note system. The composer’s radical ideas also challenged the traditional usage of instruments in an orchestral performance. 

Debussy’s String Quartet (1893) show a new idea of musical aesthetics. Debussy applied a revolutionary touch to the piano, and his piano mechanism were not in actual eighth notes or quarter notes or the like, but rather, illusions of the same. The musician’s last works included the En blanc et noir (1915). 

As Debussy’s musical compositions were quite ahead of his time, his pieces are considered to be a musical counterpart to the artistic movement of Impressionism. The typical harmonic progressions, tunes, and rhythms of the period were deliberately excepted to create an atmosphere rather than the still images in the mind. La Cathédrale engloutie is where Debussy uses parallel chords to eliminate the usual sense of directed motion prevalent in music at that time. 

 

 

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Piano sheet music of compositions by Claude Debussy in multiple levels at Galaxy Music Notes: