Composer. One of the most important composers of the 20th Century, acknowledged as the founder of musical Impressionism. Debussy helped alter the course of Western music by breaking with traditional concepts of tonality, form and color. His style is restrained yet deeply sensual, and unique in its subtle evocation of atmosphere and mood. Biographer Oscar Thompson called him "The poet of mists and fountains, clouds and rain; of dusk and of glints of sunlight through the leaves; he was moonstruck and seastruck and a lost soul under a sky bespent with stars". Achille-Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Nothing about his impoverished background suggested he would become a composer. His father, a failed merchant, planned a naval career for him; his mother worked as a seamstress. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870 to 1871) he was sent to live with a well-to-do aunt, a cultured woman who introduced the boy to art and literature, and arranged for his first music lessons. From 1873 to 1884 he attended the Paris Conservatory, where he was a rebel from the start. His unusual gifts as a musician were recognized - he won several prizes - but his need to experiment with new sounds shocked and annoyed most of his professors. When one instructor demanded to know what rules he was following, he replied, "My own pleasure". For three summers (1880 to 1882) he was employed as a household pianist for Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness, an experience that marked his introduction to Russian music. In 1884 Debussy won the Conservatory's coveted Prix de Rome for his cantata "L'enfant prodigue", and was obliged to spend three years of additional study in Italy; upon his return to Paris in 1887 he threw himself into Montmartre's bohemian scene. "I can only create my own music", he wrote at the time, but his early development was an arduous process of absorbing or discarding influences. Like many musicians of his generation he was drawn to Wagner, an attraction he never fully renounced; but after two trips to Bayreuth (1887 and 1888) he revolted, declaring that the German romantic had lead opera into "sterile and pernicious paths". He admired Cesar Franck and the "Mighty Five" Russians (especially Mussorgsky), studied Medieval and Renaissance music (Palestrina was a favorite), and was enthralled with the Indonesian music he heard at the 1889 Paris World Exposition. Then there was his friendship with the eccentric young composer Erik Satie, who believed they should aim for music that was sober, concise, and unmistakably French. Probably the most vital stimulus were his discussions with Symbolist and Impressionist poets and painters, in such Montmartre cafes as the Chat Noir and the Auberge du Clou. Debussy realized that what they were achieving with words and images could also be applied to music, and his style began to take shape. It is difficult to place the "Suite Bergamasque" (1890) for piano in this scheme because he substantially revised it before its publication in 1905; its third movement, "Clair de lune", is one of his best-known works. The String Quartet in G minor (1893) still shows some formal influence of Franck, but Debussy came decisively into his own with the orchestral "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" (1894), on a poem by Symbolist author Stephane Mallarme. The title should be taken literally - its nebulous dreamlike spell was intended to introduce the poem and not serve as an illustration. Present-day historians have likened the opening flute solo of "Faun" to the awakening of modern classical music; the composer's contemporaries greeted it with puzzlement. Camille Saint-Saens' verdict - paraphrased as "It is pretty sound, but it contains no music" - became the rallying cry of Debussy's detractors for the rest of his life. (The arch-conservative Saint-Saens remained an implacable enemy. 20 years after "Faun" he would prevent Debussy from being elected to the French Academy). His next masterpiece, the "Nocturnes" for orchestra (1901), was likewise cooly received. Its concluding "Sirens" features a wordless mezzo-soprano chorus, viewed at the time as an "unprofessional" use of a musical resource, and for decades only the first two movements ("Nuages" and "Fetes") were regularly performed. The turning point for Debussy came with his landmark opera "Pelleas et Melisande" (1902). He chose to set Maurice Maeterlinck's 1893 play because of its sparse, internalized "action" and its resemblance in plot to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde", through which he would throw down the gauntlet to the whole Romantic movement. All the cliches of the genre were dispensed with. "Pelleas" consists of short scenes that end without climaxes. There are no traditional arias, dances or ensembles, the orchestra provides understated accompaniment, and the vocal lines closely follow the patterns of natural speech. Yet conflict and dramatic tension are maintained by the work's mysterious atmosphere and almost subliminal sense of foreboding. Few operas had a more difficult birth. Although the short score was completed in 1895 it took Debussy six years to secure a performance. Rehearsals at the Opera Comique in Paris lasted four months, hampered by poorly copied orchestral parts and resentment from many of the participants. (The composer made no friends by admonishing the cast to "please forget you are singers"). The stage equipment of the Comique could not meet Debussy's demands and he had to write new interludes to cover the scene changes. Most worrisome was the hostility of Maeterlinck, whose mistress, singer Georgette Leblanc, was originally cast as Melisande. When she was replaced by the sensational new Scottish soprano Mary Garden, the infuriated author sought a legal injunction against the opera and threatened to beat Debussy with a cane. He then published an announcement in Paris newspapers stating that the production was "hostile and alien to me...I can only wish for its prompt and utter failure". A sizable Maeterlinck clique made the first public dress rehearsal a noisy affair but the premiere on April 30 was more civilized. Critics were harsh and the musical Old Guard lined up against it. Theodore Dubois, head of the Paris Conservatory, threatened to expel any student who attended a performance; naturally they went in droves, giving Debussy a new young fan base. Thanks to the controversy "Pelleas" enjoyed a profitable first run. It was revived at the Comique the next season and by 1910 had been successfully staged in five countries. And it made Debussy a celebrity. The French Government named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1903, and from then on each new work of his was eagerly anticipated and hotly debated. But fame also brought unwelcome scrutiny of his personal affairs, for he disregarded convention in life as he did in music. A difficult man under the best of circumstances, he habitually lived beyond his means and could be cruel to those around him; tales of his romantic entanglements, professional jealousies, and financial dealings are less than flattering. In 1904 he abandoned his first wife, Rosalie "Lily" Texier, for singer Emma Bardac, the wife of a prominent banker. The following year Lily attempted suicide by shooting herself on a Paris street corner, and the ensuing scandal caused many of Debussy's friends to turn away from him. He and Bardac eventually married in 1908, by which time she had given him a daughter, Claude-Emma, nicknamed "Chouchou". Chronic debt compelled him to work as a part-time music critic (from 1901) and to play the piano in public, activities he disliked even if they helped spread his notoriety. But for the rest of the decade he managed to brush aside adversity and write with even greater assurance. His most ambitious orchestral work, "La Mer" (1905), is a dazzling tribute to the sea he loved and still defies analysis; the three "Images" for orchestra (1905 to 1912), with the spectacular tryptic "Iberia" as centerpiece, reflected a keen interest in Spanish music. This period also saw him launch his series of groundbreaking piano works, with their original use of the sustaining pedal to explore the instrument's harmonic and coloristic possibilities. They include "Pour le Piano" (1901), "Estampes" (1903), two books of "Images" (1905, 1907), "Children's Corner" (1908), written for Chouchou and featuring the famous "Golliwogg's Cakewalk", and the first book of "Preludes" (1910). In addition he started two operas on Poe subjects, "The Devil in the Belfry" and "The Fall of the House of Usher", but would never complete them. Debussy's last years were bitter. In 1909 he experienced the first symptoms of the colorectal cancer that would kill him; he took morphine to alleviate the pain and in 1915 he underwent a colostomy, a procedure that left him (in his words) "a walking corpse". World War I brought him further anguish, as he was too ill to contribute to the war effort as he wished. His output declined, as did his income, and he had to waste his fading energies on music editing jobs. The crown of his late period is the ballet "Jeux" (1913), commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, who had earlier scandalized Parisian audiences by having his Ballets Russes present a dance version of "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun". Debussy hated Nijinsky's erotic choreography for both. For the piano he turned out the second book of "Preludes" (1913) and two books of "Etudes" (1916), while in 1913 he recorded nine piano rolls of his music (including "Golliwogg's Cakewalk") for the Welte-Mignon label, preserving his technique for future generations. He bowed out with three chamber sonatas (out of a planned series of six), for Cello (1915), Flute, Viola and Harp (1915), and Violin (1917). His last public appearance, in September 1917, was as accompanist in a performance of the Violin Sonata. Debussy took permanently to his bed in early 1918 and died at 55 in March, while the German Army was shelling Paris as part of its final offensive. Because of the danger only 20 people attended his funeral at Pere Lachaise, his original burial site. The following year he was reinterred at the more exclusive Passy Cemetery, where Chouchou, only 13, would soon join him. Debussy's death came just as mainstream audiences were beginning to embrace his music. After the cataclysm of WWI and the rise of Schoenberg his whole tone harmonies and freedom of form were no longer shocking, and his impact proved to be profound and lasting. A partial list of the composers he influenced reads like a veritable 20th Century pantheon: Ravel, Satie, Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern, Berg, Varese, Roussel, Dukas, De Falla, Messiaen, Boulez, Takemitsu, minimalists Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, and jazz greats from George Gershwin and Duke Ellington to Herbie Hancock. But he was more than an innovator; the exquisite magic of his music never fades. As Milton Cross noted, "Not only was he the first of the great painters in music...he is still the greatest of them all".
Bio by: Bobb Edwards