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Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was one of the most influential composers who created a unique and forward-looking style of innovative technical finish and poetic appeal. His works significantly break away from the concepts of traditional form and harmony. He is also considered the most important composer of piano music since Frédéric Chopin.
Debussy was born into a bourgeois family. His father owned a china shop and also worked as a traveling salesman, printer’s assistant and a clerk. His mother was a seamstress. Debussy’s musical talent was discovered by his first piano teacher Mme. Mauté de Fleurville who claimed to have studied piano with Chopin. Mme. Mauté sent Debussy to the Conservatory in Paris where he studied from 1872-1884.
At first, Debussy wanted to be a virtuoso pianist; later, he gave up the idea of a virtuoso career after failing twice in the piano examinations. In 1880, he attended the composition class of Ernest Guiraud. Under Guiraud’s guidance, Debussy won the second Prix de Rome in 1883 and the coveted first Prix de Rome the following year with his cantata L’enfant prodigue. This enabled him to study music at the Villa de Medici in Rome for three years.
From 1880-1882, Debussy served as a pianist in the household of Nadezhda von Meck, the eccentric patroness of Tchaikovsky. He instructed her children and acted as accompanist in vocal and instrumental performances. In 1888 and 1889, Debussy visited Bayreuth, home of the great Wagner festivals. At first, Debussy was fascinated by Wagner’s music dramas, especially Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde, but later he turned against them and eventually against most other German music. However, some critics find traces of Wagnerian harmonies in several of Debussy’s early works.
Debussy began to compose “Suite Bergamasque,” a four-movement work for solo piano, in 1890. He revised and published it in 1905. Its most readily recognizable segment is the third movement, the ever-popular “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”).
In 1892, Debussy began to compose the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which was performed at the Société Nationale on December 22, 1894. In 1893, Debussy attended a performance of the Symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pélleas et Mélisande, and probably started to sketch his opera at that time. On October 19, 1899, Debussy married Rosalie (Lily) Texier and, in 1901, he became the music critic of La revue blanche. The whole opera occupied Debussy from 1893-1902. It was accepted for performance at the Opéra Comique and the first performance on April 30, 1902 was a great success. Although Debussy’s work aroused the opposition of Maeterlinck, his play is remembered today for Debussy’s opera.
In 1904, Debussy left his wife and moved into an apartment in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1905, Debussy finished the first set of Image for piano, L’isle joyeuse and La mer.
Starting in 1907, Debussy undertook several journeys to England, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Russia to play the piano and conduct his works. His success in England (1908 and 1909) brought him international fame and he was appointed a member of the advisory board of the Paris Conservatory. In 1909, Louis Laloy’s biography of Debussy was published and Debussy began to compose the first book of the Preludes for piano. He finished orchestrating Jeux in 1913 and was commissioned in 1915 by his publisher, Jacques Durand, to produce an edition of Chopin’s works. As a result of the intensive study of Chopin’s music, he wrote the twelve Études for piano.
His last work, the Violin Sonata, was performed in May 1917 with Debussy at the piano. It was the last music that he played in public, at St. Jean-de-Luz in September. Debussy died on March 15, 1918.