Biography of Achille Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

French composer born in St. Germain-en-Laye (France) on August 22, 1862 and died in Paris on March 25, 1918.


It was the largest figure back to Richard Wagnermusic, and decisively influenced the musical trends of the 20th century, because of his taste for the experimental. Son of a soldier of the Marine Corps, is likely that exotic load of his works comes from the memories of the travels of his father. However, this was imprisoned during the events of the commune (1871), and Debussy, raised in extreme poverty, unable to attend school.

Claude Debussy.

Because of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he/she moved to Cannes, where he/she received his first lessons of piano from the hand of Jean Cerutti. Later he/she prepared with Antoinette Mauté its entrance examination at the Conservatory in Paris, where he/she began to study in 1872. There he/she had as teachers to Antoine Marmontel (piano), Albert Lavignac (solfeggio), Émile Durand (harmony), Auguste Bazille (accompaniment) and Ernest Guiraud (composition).

He served his first work as private pianist, among others, Nadeznha von Meck, the protector of Tolstoi, and it is to this period that are his first compositions, dating from 1879. From 1880 to 1882 he/she traveled with the Madame Von Meck by France, Russia and Austria, and in 1884 received the Prix de Rome with his cantata L´enfant prodigue (the prodigal son). In the Italian capital he/she met Franz Liszt, who recommended him to study the works of Roland de Lassus and Palestrina, but the decisive influence received from Wagner, especially his operas Tristan und Isolde, the master singers of Nuremberg and Parsifal, which was represented at the Bayreuth Festival in 1889. He/She assimilated the ideas of Wagner and attached them to the influences of other music as the sacred works of Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria or folk music from the far East.

In 1890 he/she came into contact with the poet Mallarme, whose poem l´apres-midi d´un faune would be source of inspiration for the work of Debussy that bears the same name. In 1893, he/she premiered his work the demoiselle la in the artistic society of Paris. At that time he/she first heard the opera Boris Godunov Mussorgsky, whose influence would be left see later in his work. Also worked on a project that never end: the dramatic work of Rodrigue et Chimène, based on the life of the CID. This opera, recently rediscovered and completed by the Russian composer Edison Denisov, was first performed at the Opera de Lyon in 1994. But his best-known opera was without doubt Pelléas and Mélisande, with libretto by the Belgian poet Maeterlinck, whose first version ended in 1895. After trying to release it at different theatres is represented for the first time at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902.

In 1904 he/she left his wife, the model Lilly Texier, to go live with Emma Bardac. The following year, the Durand publishing acquired the rights to publish exclusively the work of Debussy. That same year, in 1905, premiered his orchestral triptych entitled La mer. At that time also published Masques and L´isle joyeuse. In 1910, at the request of the dancer Ida Rubinstein, he/she began to compose incidental music for the play the martyrdom of San Sebastián, on texts by Gabriele D´Annunzio. It took two months to finish it and attained a work in which intermingle Pagan, Christian and the mystical world elements in general. In 1916 he/she decided to transform the work into a lyrical drama that combines elements of ballet, oratorio, and pantomime.

After getting sick of cancer in 1909, he/she composed the music for the ballet, plays (1911), commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev. The choreography of the ballet was in charge of the dancer Nijinski. A more daring use of instrumental color appears in games. In 1913, at the invitation of the director Sergei Koussevitzky, he/she spent a season in Russia giving concerts in Petersburgo and Moscow. Beset by economic difficulties, it had to travel to Italy, Holland, Belgium and England. In 1915 he/she composed his Sonata for cello, Etudes for piano and Sonata for flute, viola and harp. The last work completed was the violin Sonata, in 1917. The following year he/she died in Paris.

Claude Debussy. The sea. "Play of the waves".

Claude Debussy. Images for Orchestra. "Giga".


Debussy is considered the great representative of what has been called musical Impressionism, although his style comes essentially from his contact with writers of the French Pierre Louys or Paul ValérySymbolist movement. This predominantly literary movement characterized by rejecting realism, for your great interest towards the mysterious and exotic and a constant search for all kinds of sensations.

The French composer was always linked to other artistic disciplines such as poetry or Visual art, which played a very important role in his work as he/she said. Experiments beginning in poetry with the use of free verse and the heaving began to give the figurative art were two important events that Debussy was able to pick up on his musical work. The French musician felt a great appreciation for Japanese art, the work of Edgar Degas and the sculptures of Camille Claudel, with whom he/she became friends. A clear example of the great weight that have the Visual Arts in his work is the orchestral triptych La mer (1905), where the music constantly evokes images, and, subsequently, in the work entitled Images, also for Orchestra.

Another of the major musical influences of Debussy, mainly in their first season, comes the music of Richard Wagner and, in particular, his use of harmony. The clearest examples in which this influence be seen are five poems of Baudelaire and the damoiselle la (1887-1889). In this work, based on a poem that celebrates the marriage of a maiden, we can hear the footprint of Parsifal, although Debussy begins in this composition to develop his style, in which visionary tone of the poems is perfectly reflected in music, which is filled with transparency and overtones.

Claude Debussy. Suite Bergamasque. "Claro de luna".

Other composers that Debussy was interested were Emmanuel Chabrier, he/she admired since his youth for his freedom in the use of harmony; Gabriel Fauré, who offered tools to move away from the rigid traditional functional system, some Russian musicians such as Mussorgsky, Balakirev and Borodin, whose music he/she met thanks to Madame von Meck, that traveled to Russia.

Its main opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, is recognized as a work of great aesthetic and musical interest in which music mainly responds to the inner action that takes place in the minds of the protagonists and melts in exemplary way with the text.

Following their visits to the Exposition Universelle held in 1889 and which took place in 1900, Debussy was greatly attracted by the music of the far East, especially by the Javanese gamelan, an instrumental group composed of gongs, glockenspiel, and drums. The influence of this set of instruments appears in his Fantaisie for piano and Orchestra and his suite Pour le piano.

Thanks to his conception of harmony, Debussy questioned the concepts of consonance and dissonance, and rethought the use of tonality. His daring use of scales in works as L´isle joyeuse, which combines the whole tones, greater scale and the Lydian mode (see musical scale), opened the horizons of Western music. Although the whole tone scale had already been used by musicians such as Liszt and Glinka, Debussy was the first in giving a real consistency within his work.

Another of his contributions was the novel use of the buzzer, element that considered essential in the creation of musical textures. The spirit of research, which has been decisive for the music in the 20th century, had in it the initiator; Although their last sonatas, composed between 1915 and 1917, are characterized by a great sobriety and economy of resources which contrasts somewhat with the exuberance of earlier works.

Debussy also wrote music criticism. Usually writing a section for la Revue blanche under the pseudonym of "Monsieur Croche" ('eighth-note Lord'). It expressed their musical ideas and his opinion on various aspects of musical life in France. Main, present in most of his writings, convictions were the need to fight against institutions and established formulas and the conservative attitude of the public towards the creation of new sounds. In 1903 he/she began to write for another magazine called Gil Blas and, years later, he/she did it for the Revue musicale S.I.M.

Links on the Internet ; Website of Claude Debussy. It contains a list of his work and various photographs. In English. ; web page that contains a complete bibliography of the work of Debussy. In French.

Selected discography


Music for piano

-12 Etudes. Performers: Maurizio Pollini. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 423 678-2. -Préludes, livres I et II, Estampes. Cast: Claudio Arrau (piano). PHILIPS 4323042 (2 CD). -Préludes, livres I et II. Cast: Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON. 44134502 L´? uvre pour piano. Performers: Monique Haas (piano). ERATO 4509-94827-2. -Suite bergamasque, Children´s corner, Images I and II, 2 Arabesques. Cast: Pascal Rogé (piano). DECCA 417 792-2.

Chamber music

-String Quartet (+ Ravel, Quartet). Performers: Quartetto Italiano. PHILIPS 4208942. -Sonata for violin, cello sonata. Cast: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Lynn Harrell (cello). DECCA 444 318-2. -Sonata for cello. Cast: Steven Isserlis, Pascal Devoyon. VIRGIN 561198 2.

Music for the scene

-The martyrdom of San Sebastián. Cast: Natalie Stutzmann, Sylvia McNair, Leslie Caron, Ann Murray, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Director: Michael Tilson-Thomas. SONY SK 48240. -Pelléas and Mélisande. Performers: Richard Stilwell (Pelleas), Frederica Von Stade (Mélisande), José Van Dam (Golaud), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, choir of the Berlin Opera. Director: Herbert von Karajan. EMI 7493502-Pelléas and Mélisande (1971, live recording). Main cast: Nicolai Gedda, Helen Donath, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Meven, choir and Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio. Director: Rafael Kubelik. ORPHEUS.

Orchestral music

-La mer / Nocturnes, Prélude à l´apres-midi d´un faune. Performers: The Cleveland Orchestra. Director: Vladimir Ashkenazy. DECCA 448 229-2. -La mer / Nocturnes/Iberia. Performers: Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Director: Sergiu Celibidache.

Selected bibliography

DEBUSSY, Claude: Monsieur Croche et autres Écrits, Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

LESURE, François: Catalogue de L'Oeuvre de Claude Debussy, Genève: Minkoff, 1977.

LOCKSPEISER, Edward: Debussy, sa vie et sa pensée, Paris: Fayard, 1989.

MACASSAR, Gilles: Debussy, le plaisir et passion, Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

PARKS, Richard. S.: The Music of Claude Debussy, New Haven: Yale University Press, cop. 1989.

STROBEL, Heinrich: Claude Debussy, Madrid: Editorial Alianza, 1990.