Claude Debussy


Born: August 22nd, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died: March 25th, 1918 (at age 56) in Paris, France
Nationality: French
Fields: Impressionist music
Famous For: Considered to be the person who created musical impressionism
Awards: Twice won the Prix de Rome, first place medal for the solfeggio exam

Claude Debussy was born near Paris to the proprietor of a china shop and a seamstress. At first he was educated at Cannes, where his family had fled to escape the war between France and Prussia. He was later educated at the Paris Conservatory, where he received rather traditional training in the style of the late Romantics. He won the Prix de Rome art scholarship when he was 22, but soon after this he began to reject the Romantic traditional in general and developed his own unique style.


Debussy is an original composer, but he was greatly influenced by Chopin and Lizst, who were composers in the French tradition. Paris was also a center of Russian music and Debussy was also inspired by Moussorsky. Though he actually played recitals with Nadezhda von Meck and her friends, he wasn’t terribly influenced by Tchaikovsky, who was Madame von Meck’s protégé. Debussy also had an interest in the music of the East, which he first heard when a Javanese orchestra, using an instrument called a gamelan, performed at the Paris Exposition in 1889.

One of Debussy’s strongest influences was not even musical. He was associated with a group of artists that revolved around Stéphane Mallarmé, who was a Symbolist poet. He inspired in Debussy an interest in expressing unique sounds and rhythms of the French language in music.


Debussy wrote powerful and still influential works for the piano. Among them are “Suite Bergamasque” and “a suite Pour le piano.” Sometimes his music took time to catch on with an audience. His “Quartet in G Minor for Strings,” written in 1893, left his audience puzzled and critics disgruntled. But now it is considered one of the most important string quartets since Brahms. After this, Debussy became committed to the Impressionistic style, which can be heard in his “Estampes.” Debussy’s orchestral works were all impressionistic, beginning with the “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in 1894 and continuing with his “Nocturnes” in 1899 and “The Sea” in 1905.

“Afternoon of a Faun” was inspired by Mallarmé’s poem “L’apres-midi d’un faune,” which was published in 1876. Debussy wanted to write a dramatic work based on the poem, but abandoned this for a smaller project. It was Debussy’s first orchestral work and emphasizes color and texture instead of traditional ideas of musical form. The orchestration is a bit unusual too. There are three flutes, two oboes, one English horn, two clarinets, and two bassoons as well as four French horns, two harps, a pair of tiny cymbals and a string section.

Debussy was interested in opera throughout his career, though he only completed one. His libretto for “Pelléas et Mélisande” is taken from a Symbolist play and the images of the text are matched by the odd harmonies in the music. Debussy also wrote incidental music for the theater and several song sets. He was one of the first European composers to break with the old system of tonality and his work had a great influence on many other composers of the 20th century onwards. Debussy organizes his music around sound patterns and subtly shifting blocks of color.


Debussy died after a long struggle with rectal cancer in 1918, during World War I. Because of the war, his funeral at the famous Pére Lachaise Cemetery was simple. After the war ended, his body was moved to Passy Cemetery.