Claude Debussy: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Caitlin Daly

Caitlin has taught students in grades K-College. She has an MA in Musicology and an MS in Education.

In this lesson, you will learn about the dramatic life and work of the composer, Claude Debussy, who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You'll read about some of his major musical influences and tempestuous relationships, as well as find out what was unique to his particular compositions.

Life and Relationships

Claude Debussy
Debussy Picture

Claude Debussy helped the musical world transition between the 19th and 20th century by writing pieces filled with bold harmonies, new musical forms, and rich orchestrations. He was born in 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a poor suburb near Paris, France. When Claude was seven, he moved into his paternal aunt's home to avoid the Franco-Prussian War; this proved to be a lucky move as the aunt paid a local musician to give him piano lessons. He later enrolled in the elite Paris Conservatoire, where he studied composition, theory, harmony, and piano until his early 20s. In 1884, Debussy received the prestigious Prix de Rome, awarded to artists who show great promise in their respective fields.

Debussy was a brash and outspoken man who lived a passionate life, filled with rumors and dramatic relationships with many women. One long-term mistress, Gabrielle 'Gaby' Dupont, threatened to kill herself when he wouldn't leave his current girlfriend. Debussy's first wife, Rosalie 'Lily' Texier, actually did try to kill herself after he left her for his second wife, Emma Bardac. Debussy and Bardac had an illegitimate child, nicknamed ChouChou, before marrying a few years later. In addition to the emotional consequences of these romantic affairs, Debussy suffered through many bouts of depression before dying from cancer in 1918.

Influence of Art and Music on Debussy

Debussy's early compositions reveal the influence of Richard Wagner, who composed during the Romantic era of music, which lasted from approximately 1820 to 1900. Wagner is best known for his operas that challenged conventional forms, sounds, and subject matters.

The majority of Debussy's musical career correlated with the Impressionism movement in art, although he was strongly opposed to any association with a specific genre. Rather than realistic depictions, artists who painted in this style attempted to capture the air or light around their paintings' subjects, which enabled viewers to form their own impressions of the works.

A water lily painting completed by Monet in 1906
Monet Water Lilies

Debussy also incorporated the use of Symbolist poetry in his vocal pieces, whereby poets often set moods and tones with words that evoked feelings, rather than naming the intended emotion. Poets such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé provided many of the texts that Debussy used in his work.

While developing his own unique style, Debussy also found himself drawn to other cultures and composers. He attended the Paris World Fair in 1889, where he heard an Indonesian Gamelan ensemble, a percussion group made up of different-sized gongs, bells, and xylophones that play in a specific cycle. Although he never directly quoted any Gamelan piece, the ensemble gave Debussy the idea to look outside of Western music for his inspiration. Major musical influences also included Russian composers and their musical innovations, such as the work of Alexander Borodin.

A Gamelan setup
Gamelan resized

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