Composer, Achille-Claude Debussy, born in Sainte Germain-en-Laye near Paris on August 22, 1862. The eldest of five children, Debussy began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. His father owned a china shop and his mother was a seamstress; they were not a wealthy family. At the age of ten he began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. His father, Manual Debussy, served time in prison after participating in the Paris Commune in 1871. During his stay in prison, Manual Debussy met composer, Charles de Sivry who recommended his mother, Antoinette Maute as a piano teacher for young Claude.
After leaving the his studies somewhat disappointed because he had not received the the premiere prix for his piano studies, he traveled with the patroness of Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck. She introduced his work to Tchaikovsky (danse bohemienne) who rejected it saying, “It is a pretty piece but much too short.”
Debussy won the Prix de Rome for his composition, L’enfant prodigue. With that Debussy received a scholarship to the Academie des Beaux Arts. From 1885-1887, Debussy studied at the Villa Medici.
On of his most famous pieces, Suite Bergmanasque, took him many years to complete. He began writing it in 1890 but did not complete it until 1905. Suite Bergmanasque includes four movements, including perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, Clair de lune. Clair de lune was inspired by a piece of poetry by French poet, Paul Verlaine. Another of Debussy’s pieces inspired by poetry is Prelude a l’apre-midi d’un faun based on a poem by Stephene Mallarme. Watch this video recording of the esteemed composer, Leopold Stowkowski conducting the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Prelude a l’apre-midi d’un faun.
Debussy was also inspired by the Impressionist series of paintings completed by James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Nocturnes’s three movements, Nuages (Clouds), Fetes (Festivals), and Sirenes (Sirens). He wrote one opera, Pelleas et Mellisande, a five-act love story that premiered in Paris in 1902.
Debussy’s private life was somewhat stormy and full of controversy. His affairs were numerous, and he sparked a great deal of anger when he left his wife, Rosalie Texier for Emma Bardac. The couple had to flee to London from Paris to escape the fallout from the controversy. When his piece, La Mer was released, it was at first, not well received. He finished this now well-loved piece, La Mer, in 1905.
A number of Debussy’s compositions for piano are included in two books of Preludes, two sets of twelve pieces. The composer included the titles of the pieces in brackets at the end of each piece, intending that the pianists interpret the music for themselves. The Girl with the Flaxen Hair is one piece from this collection. His composition, Etudes, composed in 1915, were what Debussy himself considered to be extremely difficult masterpieces for piano. Like many gifted musicians and composers, Debussy left many of his works unfinished. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1909, and died in 1918 leaving a number of operatic projects unfinished. Some he had been working on included pieces based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher and The Devil in the Belfry), as well as an operatic version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Claude Debussy died in Paris on March 25, 1918 while Paris was under siege. As the Prussian Army bombed the City of Paris, Claude Debussy died, leaving a musical legacy of exquisite musical compositions and “a new concept of tonality in European music” (Rudolph Reti). Among the innovations pointed out by Reti, Debussy introduced: the frequent use of long pedal points, ‘glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of harmony’, use of parallel chords, bitonality and bitonal chords, use of whole tone scale, and modulations without the traditional harmonic bridges. The body of Achille-Claude Debussy who died during the German Spring Offensive on Paris in World War I, was carried through the deserted streets of Paris as bombs rained down on the City. His body was interred in the Pere La Chaise Cemeterie. Due to critical situation in France at the time, no public funeral took place. A year later, Debussy’s body was removed and reinterred in Debussy's body was reinterred the following year in Cimetière de Passy, fulfilling his wish to rest 'among the trees and the birds'. He is buried with his wife and daughter.