Today’s episode is a brief history of Claude Debussy, the Impressionist composer who is most well-known for the dreamy and ethereal Clair de lune.
In today’s video, we’ll talk about Debussy’s life, personality, and a little about his musical style. We’ve already done a video on the music of Debussy, so if you want to get more in depth, definitely check that out.
History of Debussy: Early life
Claude Debussy was born in 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is in the Western suburbs of Paris. His father owned a china shop and mother was a seamstress.
In 1870, Debussy relocated to Cannes with his mom (to escape the Franco-Prussian War), which was when he started piano lessons. Obviously talented from the start, he joined the Paris Conservatoire at age 10, where he remained until he was 21 years old.
Debussy and Tchaikovsky
Between 1880-1882 (ages 18-20), Debussy spent the summers with Nadezhda von Meck. Those of you who watched our Brief History of Tchaikovsky video might remember that name – she was Tchaikovsky’s most important patron.
Debussy played duets with her, taught her kids, and hung out in her musical circle during these summers. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky and Debussy never really rubbed elbows. Debussy wasn’t influenced by his style, and Tchaikovsky didn’t seem particularly taken with Debussy’s music.
When Nadezhda sent Tchaikovsky Debussy’s Danse Bohemienne, Tchaikovsky had this to say:
“It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity.”
History of Debussy: Academy life
Debussy received a scholarship to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Rome to continue his education after the Conservatoire. He studied there from 1885-1887, but didn’t enjoy his experience at all. He didn’t enjoy the food, didn’t find the environment creatively stimulating, and he didn’t like Italian opera.
The Academie wasn’t fond of the music Debussy submitted, calling it bizarre and “courting the unusual”. From very early on in his musical career, Debussy had been fond of creating unusual music – however, he hadn’t yet learned how to channel that into his signature style.
After his stint at the Academie, Debussy returned to Paris.
Wagner and Satie’s influence
Later, between 1888-9 (Debussy was 26 years old), Debussy visited Bayreuth in Germany several times. This is where he first saw Wagnerian-style opera, which was a huge influence on him. He really enjoyed aspects of Wagner’s work, like the dramatic harmonies and passion. Despite being heavily influenced by Wagner, though, Debussy never made music in the same vein as him.
This was also around the time he met Erik Satie, a gifted pianist who was also very experimental like Debussy. They were both what you’d consider to be bohemians – essentially, the starving artist stereotype.
History of Debussy: Blooming musician
Debussy achieved recognition at age 32, when he released the symphonic poem Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un Faune. This was in 1894, and was the first composition of his to really bring him the spotlight.
After that came the opera Pelleas et Melisande in 1902 (though it was very different from Wagnerian opera), and La Mer in 1903. Pelleas et Melisande especially catapulted him to the top in the European music world. One of the reasons it was so successful was because audiences were so divided by it – either they loved it or hated it – which brought it a bunch of attention.
Later on, Debussy released Images (1905), Suite Bergamasque (1905), the Iberia suites (1908), and Children’s Corner (1908), which are among some of his most well-loved works.
Debussy’s Love life
Debussy had many lovers, affairs and flings over the course of his lifetime. His first relationship lasted 8 years, with Marie-Blanche Vasnier (who was married), but they broke it off when he moved to Rome for his scholarship.
Some of his relationships even overlapped, which caused much scandal and even caused Debussy to lose some friends.
Another relationship of his was with Rosalie Texier, whom Debussy went so far as to marry (apparently he threatened suicide if she said no – how nice). But Debussy fell out of love with her since she didn’t age well, was barren, and wasn’t very intelligent.
Emma Bardac was the opposite – she was a great singer, and very intelligent. Debussy started hooking up with her in 1904 while still being married to Rosalie (Emma was married too), though he eventually wrote her a letter to tell her their marriage was over. Rosalie was very unhappy about this, and shot herself in the chest – but didn’t die. Many of Debussy’s friends, who were really fond of Rosalie, basically shunned Debussy afterward.
Debussy and Emma settled down in Paris on Avenue Foch, where he would remain until his death. This is also where Debussy’s only child was born, a daughter named Claude-Emma (how creative). Emma and Debussy did eventually get married, and though their relationship was tumultuous, they stayed married until Debussy died in 1918.
Say what you will about Debussy’s love life, but he loved Chouchou (his nickname for Claude-Emma). He drew great musical inspiration from her, and dedicated his famous piano suite Children’s Corner to her. Tragically, she died a year after he did (a doctor administered the wrong treatment).
History of Debussy: Death
In 1909, Debussy was diagnosed with rectal cancer, dying from it 9 years later in 1918. He was actually one of the earliest colostomy recipients ever. He died while Paris was in the midst of World War 1, and his funeral occurred while German guns bombarded the city.
He’s buried in the small Passy Cemetery with his wife and daughter.
It’s easy to get a sense of Debussy’s personality, since so many people wrote about and commented on it.
Marguerite Vasnier wrote,
“He was very quick to take offence and extremely sensitive. The slightest thing put him in good humour or made him sullen or angry. He was very unsociable… but very charming with people he liked.”
Mary Garden, a performer, had this to say about Debussy:
“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… He was a very, very strange man.”
The poet Andre Suares said,
“Irony was part of his nature, as indeed was his love of pleasure; he had a mischievous sense of humour and acknowledged a love of good living. In his reclusion there was something feline [he loved cats]. … The shape of his head showed great obstinacy of mind.”
In a famous incident, Marcel Proust through a party for Debussy since he admired him. Debussy didn’t show up, and gave the explanation, “You know I’m an oaf”.
Debussy’s Musical style
Debussy was always an experimental composer. He defied conventional songwriting approaches that were taught at music school, and instead favored dissonances and ambience over clear chords and dramatic effects.
Debussy was a very talented pianist (and as such has a very good selection of advanced piano pieces), and was noted as being a very good sight reader.
Debussy’s music falls under the category of Impressionism, but he hated that term. He said, “I feel more and more that music, by its very essence, is not something that can flow inside a rigorous, traditional form.”
Music analyst Rudolph Reti claims the following as features of Debussy’s, which “established a new concept of tonality in European music”:
Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of tonality;
Frequent use of parallel chords which are “in essence not harmonies at all, but rather ‘chordal melodies’, enriched unisons”, described by some writers as non-functional harmonies;
Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords;
Use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scale;
Unprepared modulations, “without any harmonic bridge”.
In the video “The Music of Debussy”, we discuss his music and style in much more depth. Be sure to check that out!
I hope you enjoyed today’s tour of the history of Debussy. He was a very interesting/strange man who wrote some of the most well-loved piano music of all time. Be sure to check out some of the other Debussy videos on this channel as well!