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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Claude Debussy

The history of artistic endeavour could almost be written as a litany of people who broke the rules in order to express their creative urges. Almost none of the great names in any of the creative arts became famous for doing what everybody else was doing or for maintaining the status quo. There's a sobering lesson right there.

Music is an art in which we seem to be desperate to codify, quantify, define and confine facts and sounds and ideas into neat boxes. Yet music - the real essence of music - is impossible to for us to explain. The French composer Claude Debussy likewise not only appreciated but also cherished the special qualities and effects of music. He avoided getting over analytical with music, or being overly concerned as to what music might be "about". He said, "Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic".

Debussy was a composer who wrote music that is capable of magical effects on us, and he did this by most definitely breaking the rules and being an individual. We’re going to spend some time here exploring the life and work of Claude Debussy.

Rue au Pain, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, street of Debussy's birthplace

Achille-Claude Debussy was born in the town of St Germain-en-Laye, about 20 km west of the centre of Paris, in August 1862. He was the first of five children born to Manuel-Achille Debussy, who ran a china shop, and Victorine Debussy (née Manoury), a seamstress.

When Claude was five the family moved to Paris but two years later, with the Franco-Prussian war raging, his mother took him to Cannes to stay with relatives. It was here that the boy had his first piano lessons, eventually coming under the tutelage of Marie Mauté de Fleurville. De Fleurville claimed to have been a student of Chopin, and she helped prepare young Claude for his entrance to the Paris Conservatoire.

Debussy had no other formal schooling and entered the Conservatoire in 1872 at the tender age of ten. Here he was at the centre of the French musical world - for some it was the centre of the European musical world - and his talents as a pianist enhanced over the remainder of his teens with studies in composition, aural, theory, music history, harmony and organ.

By the late 1870s Debussy had started to compose and the earliest works of his we have are songs and piano pieces. His first published work was this song Nuit d'etoiles (Starry Night) composed when he was 17 or 18. [listen]

Baschet: Claude Debussy (1884)

As he progressed through the Conservatoire, it became clear that the teenage Debussy, apart from being talented, was a free thinker, independent and argumentative. He questioned the rules and explored new forms of musical expression. He became known as a gifted pianist through public performances but it was as a composer that he clearly wanted to make his mark.

In 1880 Debussy was engaged by the wealthy Russian patroness Nadezhda von Meck as a music tutor to her children. Initially this was in the French town of Arcachon, near Bordeaux, but later he undertook these duties in Florence as well. Nadezhda von Meck's name might be familiar; she was the famous patron of Tchaikovsky, the woman who supported him financially for years on the condition they never met. In 1880, while he was in Italy working for the von Meck household, Debussy wrote a piano trio. It shows the young composer (he was still only 18) looking beyond the French style of the day, and influenced perhaps by Tchaikovsky's works which he would have played for von Meck. The writing is still conservative compared to what it would become, but the seeds of rebellion are there. [listen]

Nadezhda von Meck

In late 1880 Debussy returned to Paris and to the Conservatoire. It was at this time he embarked on a major love affair, the first of several in his rather turbulent private life. He and Blanche Vasnier (the wife of a prominent Parisian lawyer) were lovers for eight years and there is much in the literature to suggest that many of Debussy's songs from the early 1880s were expressions of his love for her.

Blanche Vasnier

In 1881 Debussy again spent some time in the summer working for von Meck, this time in Russia. In the years immediately following he was occupied - as all French composers had to be at some time or another - with entering the Prix de Rome. This competition provided financial support for some years of study in Rome and to win it, composers had to submit cantatas for voice and orchestra to a panel to be judged. It was assumed that composers would write in the academically conservative style of the day; anyone who rocked the boat was not suitable. Composers either curbed their more outlandish ideas (if they had them) or they didn't win, that was that.

In 1883 Debussy was runner-up; in 1884 he won. He went on to spend two years in Rome, an exprience he seems to have hated, judging by his reports in his letters. During this period he produced the required works to send back to Paris to ensure he was making the most of his time.

One of these works was the symphonic suite Printemps (Spring), inspired by Botticelli's famous painting. Debussy sent home the piano four-hand version rather than the final orchestral score, claiming the latter was accidentally destroyed in a fire. That's an interesting variation on "the dog ate my homework" and he never did get round to orchestrating it. Rather, the orchestration was undertaken a quarter of a century later by Henri Büsser under Debussy's guidance. [listen]

Boticelli: Primavera (1482)

Perhaps more indicative of the mature Debussy is another of the works conceived in Rome (but which wasn't completed until he returned to Paris). This was the cantata La damoiselle élue (The blessed damozel). It sets words by Rosetti describing a woman who has died and gone to Paradise, where laments the absence of her lover, who is still in the land of the living. The Prix de Rome committee described it as "bizarre", so clearly they saw their investment in Debussy going in what they thought were highly questionable directions. [listen]

Debussy clearly thought highly enough of this early work to see it though to publication and to revise it in 1902. This is his own voice, but in another of the Prix de Rome works it's obvious he was faking it to keep the committee happy. The Fantaisie for piano and orchestra is a three movement piano concerto in all but name, and a work which shows the more-than-passing influences of older French composers such as César Franck and Gabriel Fauré. Debussy was at best ambivalent about the piece. A performance was scheduled in 1890 but at the last minute Debussy removed all the music from the stage and refused to allow it to go ahead. He did not allow it to be performed in his lifetime, and while it certainly is an early work of a composer trying to please his critics, it has energy and charm which make its occasional performance today very worthwhile. [listen]

Once he had escaped Rome and the demands of the Prix in 1889, Debussy's home was Paris for the rest of his life. He had visited Bayreuth - centre of the cult of Richard Wagner - in 1887 and 1888 and was at this time a fervent follower of Wagner and his artistic ideals. Wagner himself had died only a few years before and the cult of "Wagnerism" was sweeping Europe, making disciples or enemies, depending on one's reaction to it.

Wagner's influence was evident in works like La damoiselle élue, and in other works composed after his return from Rome, such as the Five Poems of Baudelaire. The Wagner influence included a deep seriousness, a focus on form and structure for dramatic ends, and harmonic twists which are striking and, again, dramatic. Yet there were other influences on Debussy in the early 1890s, such as the lighter, more capricious French style best-known to us today in the works of Erik Satie (who was four years younger than Debussy). Debussy met Satie about this time and Satie's influence is evident in some of the playfulness of some of his smaller works, and in the capricious names Debussy gave to some pieces. A good example are the Verlaine settings of the late 1880s published under the whimsical title of Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten ariettas). [listen]

While in Rome, Debussy's affair with Blanche Vasnier came to an end. His return to Paris in 1889 saw him start a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle Dupont. This on-again, off-again liaison was interrupted by Debussy's brief affair with Thérèse Roger. He was briefly engaged to her, then broke it off and returned to Dupont. On being finally abandoned by Debussy, Dupont attempted suicide.

The passionate dramas of his private life may have led Debussy to harbour an urge to write an opera. He attempted many theatrical projects during his life, including several operas, but only one was completed, of which more later. But at this stage he worked hard on setting a libretto based on the El Cid story called Rodrigue et Chimène. He eventually abandoned this in 1893.

In that same year one of Debussy's few works of chamber music was composed: the string quartet. Here at the age of 31 Debussy shows himself to have found his true voice, moulding this most classical of instrumental combinations into a work of truly sensuous originality. [listen]

It was at this time - the early 1890s - that Debussy penned one of the most original and important works in all western music, although it's ddifficult to know if he saw it that way then. In 1890 the poet Stéphane Mallarmé asked Debussy to contribute some music to a theatre project based on Mallarmé's poem The afternoon of a faun. This project came to nothing but clearly the poem resonated with Debussy's artistic ethos. Mallarmé and Verlaine were leaders in the French artistic movement known as symbolism. As a driving force in French art the symbolist movement only lasted a few years, but its effect of Debussy was life-changing.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1890)

Symbolism rejected naturalism, realism and clear cut forms. This emphasis - among others - saw Debussy abandon the cult of Wagner. Symbolism focused on the indefinite, the mysterious and the esoteric, and had a well-developed sense of indifference towards the general public. All these factors can be seen in Debussy's mature music and if a label is to be applied to Debussy's style the "symbolist" would perhaps be the most accurate.

Regular attendance at Mallarmé's salon led Debussy to return to The afternoon of a faun as the inspiration for a work for small orchestra. The Prelude to The afternoon of a faun was completed in 1894. It uses the orchestra in a way which was unprecedented, focusing on the sensation of sound itself rather than the development of melody and a logically-executed musical argument. Harmony was dissolved and rules abandoned for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. This ten-minute work marks for many the dawn of the modern era in western music and of course, it caused a stir at its first performance. How could a work which so clearly broke all the rules so blatantly and so lovingly not cause a stir? [listen]

With this one work Debussy became the leading light of new French music. Interestingly, he wrote relatively little in the way of significant music for his own instrument - the piano - in this first half of his career. Among his earlier music is the Suite bergamasque, written around 1890 (which contains the famous Clair de lune), but all of Debussy's major works for the piano were created later in his life.

It was in the field of orchestral music and opera - as well as the ever-present writing of songs - that Debussy put most of his creative energy in the last decade of the 19th century. In the early 18090s Debussy attended a performance of a play by the Belgian symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck. The play, Pelléas et Mélisande, became the vehicle for Debussy to realise his dream of writing an opera and a version of the score was finished in 1895. All attempts to get it staged, though, were unsuccessful, and it was put aside.

Maurice Maeterlinck

Debussy then turned his attention to writing an orchestral work. Initially this was planned as a work for violin and orchestra to feature the playing of Eugène Ysaÿe, but it developed into a purely orchestral work as Debussy worked on it. The result was the orchestral triptych called Nocturnes. [listen]

Nocturnes was completed in 1899. By this stage Debussy was back at work revising the opera, and in 1901 he was given a written undertaking from the Paris Opéra-Comique that they would produce the work. Pelléas et Mélisande was premiered on 30 April, 1902 after something like a decade's work, on and off, on the part of the composer.

Rochegrosse: Poster for the prèmiere of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande

Pelléas is unusual on many fronts. For a start, Debussy didn't have a conventional opera libretto worked up from Maeterlinck's play. Rather, the opera libretto is the play, with some cuts. This means that, because plays don't usually have actors speaking at the same time, there are no ensembles in Debussy's opera. There are only a handful of bars within its five acts in which two singers sing simultaneously.

There are also no real set pieces which you could call arias. Pelléas is a conversational opera and sets the play to music in a conversational way.

Scottish soprano Mary Garden, the first Mélisande

The story is a classic piece of symbolism: set in the vague medieval past, the motivations of some of the characters are never fully outlined, leaving us to guess as to why some things happen or don't happen. There is an almost unbearable tension among the three main characters which is never fully resolved, a fact which makes the work gripping for some and curious to others. (For the record, I adore it, and it was in fact the first fully-staged opera I ever conducted.)

The play has features which unify it, such as the presence of water in some form or another in every scene. Debussy unifies the opera even further by the use of melodic markers - his version of Wagnerian Leitmofiv - which prompt us to understand more of what is happening to these strange people. And as a sideline, Pelléas is probably the only opera to have singing parts for people from four generations of the same family. (Arkel is the father of Geneviève, who is the mother of Pelléas and Golaud, and Golaud is the father of Yniold.)

The mystical medievalism of the story drew from Debussy a ravishing score, and although it had a chilly reception in 1902 it has gone on to be regarded as one the most important works of its kind. This is the end of the second act, the scene in which Pelléas and Mélisande go to a cave to search for Mélisande's missing wedding ring, which they both know is not there. But they must go to appease her husband, Golaud. The moment at which the moonlight floods the cave, revealing sleeping beggars in the shadows, is pure magic. [listen]

There are also moments of intense, concentrated power in the piece. Perhaps the most memorable comes at the end of act four, the moment where the lovers for the first and last time admit their true feelings, only to have Golaud burst in on them and murder Pelléas. [listen]

The experience of writing Pelléas seems to have had a profound and life-changing effect on Debussy. His complete immersion in the world of symbolism and the need to think and create on such a large scale made him the mature composer we know and respect today; finally getting Pelléas on to the stage in 1902 after some ten years of work was a major milestone in his career. After the opera, he focused on a number of large composition projects simultaneously. He began work on a major piece for orchestra, La mer (The Sea), and signed a contract with the publisher Durand for a series of works to be known as Images. These were originally to be a set of six works for piano, and another six for two pianos and orchestra. The final sets of Images turned out to be somewhat different to this.

Lilly Texier and Debussy

In 1899 Debussy had married Marie-Rosalie Texier (known as Lilly), who was a model. Four years later, though, he met Emma Bardac, an amateur singer who was herself already married. Debussy and Emma began an affair and they lived together from 1905. Lilly was distraught and attempted suicide, and the whole situation developed into a major scandal, over which Debussy lost many of his friends. Things became even more public in 1905 when Emma gave birth to Debussy's only child, a daughter who was named after both her parents: Claude-Emma. She was given the nickname Chouchou by her doting father, and after Debussy’s divorce from Lilly, her parents eventually married in 1908.

Emma Bardac (1903)

In October 1905, two weeks before Chouchou's birth, La mer was given its premiere. Poor conducting, indifferent playing and the atmosphere of the scandal surrounding his private life conspired to make the work a failure. It received poor reviews and it was to be three years - when Debussy himself conducted the piece (his first performance as a conductor) - before the work made a positive impression.

Nowadays La mer is regarded as Debussy's orchestral masterpiece (and rightly so) and it's one of the most popular of all orchestral works. It’s certainly one of my favourite works to conduct. [listen]

La Mer: title page to the first edition of the score, based on Hoksai's "Great Wave off Kanagawa".

To us this music is vintage Debussy and his contemporaries clearly realised that a whole new way of writing music had come about because of Debussy's music. The term "Debbusyism" was coined to describe the phenomenon, a term which was used as an insult by his critics and as a compliment by his supporters. While writing La mer (which occupied him from 1903-05), he also started writing again for his own instrument, the piano. After writing relatively little piano music before 1900, he produced a great deal of piano music in his later years. The first series of the Images for solo piano (which grew out of the Durand contract), as well as the Estampes (Prints), and a number of stand-alone piano works, were all written in the first five years of the new century.

One of these stand-alone works is L'isle joyeuse (The Isle of Joy), published in 1904. [listen]

L'isle joyeuse is probably inspired by a painting called L'embarquement pour Cythère (The Embarkation for Cythera) by the 18th century artist Antoine Watteau. For someone who was such a modernist in his day, it is instructive that Debussy took such inspiration from French art of the 18th century. In his reviews written around this time he made much of the French national tradition, citing the Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau as an important founder. He also stated strongly his belief that French art had been misled by German influences; so much for Debussy's early devotion to Wagner!

Watteau: The Embarkation for Cythera (1717)

Another work from the first decade of the 20th century which draws its inspiration from the 18th century is the series of songs called Fêtes galantes, published in two sets in 1903 and 1904 (although the first set was written in 1891). Setting poems by Verlaine, the Fêtes galantes are elegant and dreamy. This is the final song from the second set, called Sentimental Dialogue. [listen]

In the same year - 1904 - Debussy received a commission from the Pleyel firm to write a piece which featured their new model of harp. The Pleyel harp, which did not use pedals but rather a pair of crossed strings, never took off, but fortunately Debussy's Sacred and Profane Dances are playable on the modern pedal harp and have remained in the repertoire. [listen]

Cross-strung chromatic harp (Pleyel, Wolff, Lyon & Co, early 20th century)

The Durand commission for works titled Images, as I said earlier, didn't turn out the way they were originally stipulated in Debussy's contract. What resulted were two sets of piano works called Images (each comprising three pieces) and a large orchestral work with the same title (which is completely different music, not an orchestration of the piano pieces). The orchestral Images is made up of three discrete works which are sometimes performed separately: Gigues, Ibéria and Rondes de printemps. The largest is the central work, an evocation of Spain, which is itself made up of three movements. The central movement of Ibéria is the delicious Perfumes of the Night, music that only Debussy could have written. [listen]

The three sections of the orchestral Images occupied Debussy until 1912 and they comprise his last purely orchestral work. During its compilation, however, he was at work on other projects, such as the first book of Préludes for piano. Written in 1910 the first book was ground-breaking in its use of harmony, and its use of the piano itself. It seems clear that the composer wanted the music to be taken on its own merits as sound, rather than as pictorial or having extra-musical meaning, because the title for each prelude (there are twelve) is printed at the end of each piece and not at the beginning.

Still, we can't help associating the title with the music these days and the first collection of Préludes contains some of Debussy's best-known piano music, such as The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and The Engulfed Cathedral. This the last of the set, called MInstrels. [listen]

After Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy was keen to write another opera but he never found a libretto which stirred his muse to the extent that Maeterlinck's play had done. Various sketches and false starts for operas remained among Debussy's many unfinished projects. He attempted operas on the Tristan and Isolde story, on the life of the Buddha, and on two of Edgar Allan Poe's stories (The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher). None of these got beyond a few sketches.

He did undertake (and complete) other theatrical work, though. In 1910-11 he wrote incidental music for a mystery drama called The Martyrdom of St Sebastian. The author was an infamous figure of the day, Gabriele d'Annunzio, who was regarded as a libertine. His collaborator was the dancer Ida Rubinstein (who controversially took the role of Sebastian herself). Written in a great hurry, the music Debussy provided is testament to his ability to take on challenges and explore new forms, however outside his own realm of experience they might be. The play took five hours to perform, baffled its audiences, and was actively campaigned against by the Catholic Church. Still, Debussy's music - scored for female solo voices, mixed choir and orchestra - is ravishing. [listen]

Ida Rubinstein as St Sebastian (1911)

Two years later, in 1913, Debussy provided a ballet score for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Jeux (Games) is a gorgeous score and should have had a better reception than it did at its premiere in May of that year. The talk of Paris at the time, though, was the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which took place two weeks later. Debussy and Stravinsky were on friendly terms and Debussy openly supported the young Stravinsky's ground-breaking ballets for Diaghilev. Debussy's own ballet involves playful flirting over a game of tennis, but the music shows a remarkable development and freedom. [listen]

The original cast of Jeux: Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Ludmilla Schollar (1912)
Debussy with Igor Stravinsky: photograph by Erik Satie, June 1910, taken at Debussy's home in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne

In 1913, when Jeux was premiered, Debussy had five more years to live. He had already had signs of serious illness as early as 1909. In his last years, although suffering the effects of developing rectal cancer, he managed to produce some extraordinary, visionary works. The final songs include three Mallarmé settings, composed in 1913, and the late piano works include a second book of Préludes, written the same year.

The two books of piano Études (Studies) were composed in 1915. Unlike the Préludes they are not pictorial in any sense, with each study clearly labelled as to the technical issue being addressed. But like the piano studies of the greatest piano composers (one need only think of Chopin), these are sumptuous artworks to be savoured for themselves, and not just some dry exercise. [listen]

Claude Debussy (1908)

Debussy's last major project, outlined in 1915 when he was spending the summer in a villa on the channel coast, was a set of six sonatas for various combinations of instruments. He also looked again at the House of Usher opera but only managed to sketch one scene. Of the six sonatas, three were actually written. The projected but unwritten pieces were a sonata for oboe, horn and harpsichord, a sonata for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano, and a sonata for piano and small ensemble. It's fascinating to think what sounds Debussy would have created from such unusual combinations.

The three completed sonatas, though, are masterpieces. First finished was the cello sonata, completed in 1915. [listen]

The first world war had a depressing effect on Debussy and the work for two pianos En blanc et noir (In White and Black) [listen] expresses much personal feeling in this regard. It too dates from 1915.

In 1916 came the second sonata which Debussy managed to complete, the sonata for flute, viola and harp. [listen]

Debussy's last work - and the last work in which he performed in public - was the violin sonata. It was completed in March 1917, and he played the piano part in a performance of the piece in September of that year. [listen] Debussy died in Paris six months later, on 25 March 1918.

Debussy's grave (Passy Cemetery, Paris)

Claude Debussy was not only a great innovator, revealing to the world new musical sounds and a whole new approach to composition. He also influenced generations of composers who saw in what he created a way forward, a way to approach the creation of musical art free from the strictures of inherited forms and conventional harmony. And of course the music he left is one of the treasure troves of western art. The article on Debussy in Grove concludes with this neat summary: "With Cézanne and Mallarmé, Debussy was one of the three great pillars of French modernism." I can only agree.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2010.

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