Debussy had little formal education; his first piano lessons were with Antoinette Mauté; in 1872 he was admitted to the piano (Marmontel) and theory (Lavignac) classes at the Paris Conservatory. In 1880 he joined Guiraud’s composition class and four years later won the Prix de Rome (with the cantata L’enfant prodigue). He resisted the conservative approach he found at the Conservatory, where his only unqualified success was in Bazille’s accompanying class. While still a student he traveled as pianist for Mme. von Meck (Tchaikovsky’s patron) to Switzerland, Vienna, and Moscow; the years 1885–87 he spent at the Villa Medici in Rome, often longing for Paris. He returned home early in 1887, visited Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889, and was fascinated by the Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Debussy’s musical envois from Rome, required as a condition of the Rome Prize, had been criticized by the Parisian academics, who encouraged him to “guard against this vague impressionism, which is one of the most dangerous enemies of truth in works of art.” One of those works, La damoiselle élue, was performed in Paris in April 1893; the Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune (a response to Mallarmé’s poem), in December 1894; but it was the premiere in 1902 of the only opera he completed, Pelléas et Mélisande, that brought him significant recognition. By then he had composed several songs (on his own texts and those of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Louÿs, and others); works for orchestra including not only the Faune but the Fantaisie (with piano) and the Nocturnes; several piano works; and what was to be his only string quartet.
He had married Rosalie Texier in 1899, but later divorced her to live with Emma Bardac, with whom he had one child (born in 1905); the break with Texier and her subsequent suicide attempt alienated many of his friends. During the next few years he traveled frequently as conductor and performer of his own music in England, Russia, and throughout Europe; his activities as a critic had begun in 1901 and continued intermittently for the rest of his life in various Parisian publications (in his writing he often invoked the character of M. Croche, the diletante-hater, based on Valéry’s M. Teste). Some of these commitments were surely prompted by his difficult financial situation, especially bleak after his wife was disinherited in 1907. Despite the demands of travel and writing he composed several major works during the period 1902–13: La Mer and Images for orchestra, the ballet Jeux; more songs, piano pieces, and chamber music; and Le martyre de St.-Sébastien (orchestrated by his friend Caplet). Still, the number of projects begun and put aside was even larger than those completed, particularly among those meant for the stage (he worked especially on two texts of Poe for which he never completed the music, although his libretto for the projected La chute de la maison Usher was sent to his publisher in 1916). In 1909 he was appointed to the board of the Conservatory and was the subject of a first biography (Laloy); in 1903 he had received the Légion d’honneur. Unfortunately the riotous reception at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps took immediate attention away from Jeux, first performed only two weeks earlier. His last trip to England was in 1914, after which he produced the Études for piano and three of six sonatas he planned to write for chamber ensembles. His death in 1918 resulted from cancer, which had been apparent since 1910.
Debussy’s individual uses of archaic modes and whole-tone or pentatonic scales have long been appreciated; the frequent tonal ambiguity and the subordination of chords to melody rather than to the demands of functional harmonic progressions are well known. His links to the symbolist poets are now seen as more telling than those to the visual arts, although he had M. Croche call both symbolism and impressionism merely “useful terms of abuse.” In its 1887 criticsm of Printemps the Académie accused Debussy of forgetting “the importance of precise construction and form,” yet recent research has shown that many of the composer’s works are cast in forms directly related to the Golden Section or to the series of Fibonacci numbers. In the mature songs and in Pelléas the declamation of the text is of primary importance, a result of Debussy’s intention to remain faithful to the inflections of the French language and of his view that music was too predominant in (especially Wagnerian) opera.
His influence on 20th-century music is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Bartók, Boulez, Poulenc, Milhaud, Hindemith, and Stravinsky all acknowledged their debt to him. Although his departures may have been radical and his criticism of predecessors and contemporaries quite sharp, Debussy acknowledged his own veneration for his predecessors (especially for Bach, for the French school represented by Rameau and others, for Mussorgsky, and even for Berlioz, Mozart, and Beethoven); but he announced himself against repetition or outright imitation of previous successes. His compositional procedures were not easily discovered or imitated; moreover he resisted any association with a school of disciples. Music was to remain magical, composition to be learned as much from the study of nature as from scores. He wrote in 1903: “Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are a part of Infinity . . . Nothing is more musical than a sunset! For anyone who can be moved by what they see can learn the greatest lessons in development here.”
Works: Dramatic music. An opera (Pelléas et Mélisande, 1893–1902, Opéra-comique, 1902) and several incomplete stage scores; 4 ballets (Khamma, 1911–12, orchestration completed by Koechlin, Opéra-comique, 1947; Jeux, 1912–13, Paris, 1913; La boîte à joujoux, for children, 1913, orchestration completed by Caplet, Paris, 1919; No-ja-li, 1913, prelude and first scene extant); incidental music; Chansons de Bilitis, to accompany the reading of poetry by Pierre Louÿs (2 flutes, 2 harps, and cello, 1900–1901, lost; cello part reconstructed by Boulez, 1954, and by Hoérée, 1971).
Orchestral music. Symphony (1880); Intermezzo (after Heine, for cello and orchestra, 1882); Triomphe de Bacchus (after Banville, ca. 1882, lost); Première suite (ca. 1883); Printemps (suite for female chorus and orchestra, 1887, lost; arranged for piano 4-hands in 1904, and reorchestrated from that version by Büsser in 1912); Fantaisie (piano and orchestra, 1889–90); Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (after Mallarmé, 1892–94); Nocturnes (1897–99); La mer (1903–5); Danse sacrée et danse profane (chromatic harp and orchestra, 1904); Images (1905–12).
Works for voices and orchestra. Daniel (cantata, 3 soloists, 1881, incomplete); Le printemps (female chorus, 1882; published as Salut printemps in piano arrangement, 1928); Invocation (male chorus, 1883); Le gladiateur (cantata, 3 soloists, 1883); Le printemps (chorus, 1884); L’enfant prodigue (scène lyrique, 1884); Zuleima (chorus?, 1885–86, lost); La damoiselle élue (lyric poem for soprano, female chorus, and orchestra, 1887–88, reorchestrated in 1902); La saulaie (1 voice, 1896–1900); Ode à la France (soprano and chorus, sketched 1916–17, orchestrated by Gaillard, 1928).
Choral music. “Choeur des brises” (soprano and 3 female voices, sketch, ca. 1882); “Noél pour célébrer Pierre Louÿs” (for all voices including those of the audience, 1903); Petite cantate (soprano, baritone, chorus, bells, and piano, 1907); Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898–1908); “Noël” (tenor, chorus, bugles, and piano, 1914).
Chamber music. Premier trio (piano trio, ca. 1879); Nocturne et scherzo (cello and piano, 1882); Premier quatuor (string quartet, 1893); Rapsodie (alto saxophone and piano, 1901–8); Première rapsodie (clarinet and piano, 1909–10); Petite pièce (clarinet and piano, 1910); Syrinx (flute, 1913, originally incidental music for Psyché); Sonata (cello and piano, 1915); Sonata (flute, viola, and harp, 1915); Sonata (violin and piano, 1916).
Piano music. Includes Rêverie (1890); Suite bergamasque (1890, rev. 1905); Mazurka (ca. 1890); Nocturne (1892); Images (3 pieces, 1894); Suite: Pour le piano (1903–4); D’un cahier d’esquisses (1903); Estampes (1903); L’isle joyeuse (1904); Masques (1904); Images (set 1, 1905); Sérénade à la poupée (1906, incorporated in Children’s Corner); Children’s Corner (1906–8); Images (set 2, 1907); Hommage à Haydn (1909); The Little Nigar (“cake walk,” 1909); Préludes, bk. 1 (1910); La plus que lente (1910); Préludes, bk. 2 (1912–13); Berceuse heroïque (1914); Elégie (1915); Études (1915); Pièce pour le Vêtement du blessé (1915). Pieces for piano 4-hands: Andante (ca. 1880), Petite suite (1886–89); Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (1891); Six épigraphes antiques (in part from the Chansons de Bilitis, 1914). For 2 pianos: Lindaraja (1901); En blanc et noir (3 pieces, 1915).
Songs. There are over 80 songs including Ariettes oubliées (Verlaine, 1885–88, published together in 1903), Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1887–89), and Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913).
Writings: Debussy on Music, trans. and ed. Richard Langham Smith (London, 1977); from the original French version, ed. François Lesure (1971). Debussy Letters, ed. François Lesure and Roger Nichols (Cambridge, Mass., 1987); from the French version, ed. Lesure (1980). The Poetic Debussy: A Collection of His Song Texts and Selected Letters, ed. Margaret G. Cobb (Boston, 1982).
Bibliography: Claude Abravanel, Claude Debussy: A Bibliography [regularly updated in Cahiers Debussy] (Detroit, 1974). Margaret G. Cobb, Discographie de l’oeuvre de Claude Debussy (Geneva, 1975). François Lesure, Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Claude Debussy (Geneva, 1977). Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 2 vols. (London, 1962–65). Frank Dawes, Debussy Piano Music (London, 1969). David V. Cox, Debussy Orchestral Music (London, 1974). François Lesure, Debussy (Iconographie musicale, vol. 5, 1975). Arthur Wenk, Debussy and the Poets (Los Angeles, 1976). Robin Holloway, Debussy and Wagner (London, 1979). Robert Orledge, Debussy and the Theatre (Cambridge, 1982). Roy Howat, Debussy in Proportion: A Musical Analysis (Cambridge, 1983). J. Trillig, Untersuchungen zur Rezeption Claude Debussys in der zeitgenössischen Musikkritik (Tutzing, 1983). Arthur Wenk, Claude Debussy and 20th-Century Music (Boston, 1983). Richard S. Parks, The Music of Claude Debussy (New Haven, 1989). James R. Briscoe, Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research (New York, 1990). Gilles Macassar, Claude Debussy: Le plaisir et la passion (Paris, 1992). Jean Barraqué, Debussy (Paris, 1994). Simon Trezise, Debussy, La Mer (Cambridge, 1994).
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