French composer Claude-Achille Debussy was born on August 22, 1862. To say that one of the most influential composer of the late 19th Century came from humble origins is almost an understatement. His father owned a shop where he sold crockery and china and his mother was a seamstress. During the Franco-Prussian war, his pregnant mother sought refuge in Cannes with her sister. Little Debussy was signed up for piano lessons by his aunt while he was there. It was quickly apparent that the child had unusual talent. Upon the family’s return to Paris, he entered the Conservatoire de Paris where he remained for ten years.
Debussy was in conflict with the strictures at the Conservatoire throughout his time there. His technique on the piano was good enough that he could have made a career as a concert pianist, but the rules and tradition of the institution chaffed him. By a curious co-incidence, he was befriended by the woman who was also Tchaikovsky’s patroness. When she sent one of Debussy’s pieces to the great Russian composer, he dismissed it with phrases such as “the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity.” Ouch.
Notwithstanding that condemnation, Debussy won the Prix de Rome with his composition L’enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child), which entitled him to four years of study at the French Academy in Rome. While there, students are supposed to submit their works to the Academy for publication, but the powers-that-be were appalled by Debussy’s increasingly “bizarre” style as he broke with tradition and followed his own desires.
Back in Paris, he found a similar renegade in Erik Satie, and the two musical bad-boys tried to eke out a living in the capital. Although Debussy was a contemporary of the Impressionists, he hated it when critics used this term to describe his own work. “I’m trying to do something different here!” seems to have been his response. His most famous piece, of course, is Clair de Lune (klair duh loon), which means “moonlight,” a frequent recital piece by aspiring pianists, including my husband many moons ago. His pieces were often influenced by poets such as Verlaine and Mallarmé, whose works he tried to set to music.
His love life was as turbulent as his musical career – he was often involved with married women, or women from a social class either far above or far below his own. When he tried to ditch the wife he had tired of for his married mistress, his soon-to-be-ex-wife shot herself in the chest while standing in the Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine used to do its work). While she survived, the marriage did not.
Debussy died of cancer on March 25, 1918. Apparently, he was notorious for procrastination, and some of the works left unfinished at his death were operettas inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare. Paris was being bombarded by the Germans as his funeral procession wended its way through deserted streets, so his funeral was a hasty, abbreviated affair. As dramatic a conclusion as possible for a highly influential composer.
- Debussy’s Poetic Obsession Comes Alive in Natalie Dessay’s New Clair de Lune (wqxr.org)
- The Galaxy – I hope the sea doesn’t make you seasick (wdbx.wordpress.com)