Debussy's music virtually defines the transition from late-Romantic music to twentieth century modernist music. In French literary circles, the style of this period was known as Symbolism, a movement that directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.
Claude Debussy was born in St. Germain-en-Laye in 1862, the eldest of five children. His father owned a china shop and his mother was a seamstress. Debussy began piano lessons when he was seven years old with an elderly Italian named Cerutti; his lessons were paid for by his aunt. In 1871, the shy awkward boy gained the attention of Mme. de Fleurville, the mother-in-law of the poet Paul Verlaine, who had been a pupil of Chopin. His talents soon became evident, and, at age eleven, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire. During Debussy's twelve years at the Paris Conservatoire, beginning in 1872, he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, harmony with Emile Durand, piano with Antoine-François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfeggio with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era.
From the start, though clearly talented, Debussy was also argumentative and experimental, and he challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals which were frowned upon at the time. From 1880 to 1882, he was employed by the patron of Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, giving music lessons to her children. Despite his patron's closeness with Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears to have had little or no effect on Debussy. More influential was Debussy's close friendship with Madame Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She gave Debussy emotional and professional support and influenced his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine.
As the winner of the Prix de Rome with his composition L'Enfant prodigue, he received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885-1887). According to letters to Madame Vasnier, perhaps in part designed to gain her sympathy, he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters "abominable". Neither did he delight in the pleasures of the "Eternal City", finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy often was depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.
In June 1885, Debussy wrote of his desire to follow his own way:
I am sure the Institut would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamored of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas.
Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima, based on a text by Heinrich Heine; the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La damoiselle élue (1887-1888), which was criticized by the Academy as "bizarre"; and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. The third piece was the first in which stylistic features of Debussy's later style emerged. The fourth piece was heavily based on César Franck's music and withdrawn by Debussy himself. Overall, the Academy chided him for "courting the unusual" and hoped for something better from the gifted student. Even though Debussy showed touches of Massenet in his efforts, Jules Massenet himself concluded, "He is an enigma.
In his visits to Bayreuth in 1888-9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which had a lasting impact on his work. Richard Wagner had died in 1883 and the cult of Wagnerism was still in full swing. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies, but ultimately Wagner's extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy's way either. Wagner's influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine—Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes are all in a more capricious style. Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces. During this period, both musicians were bohemians enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.
During 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. Although direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been located in any of Debussy's own compositions, the equal-tempered pentatonic scale appears in his music of this time and afterward.
Beginning in the 1890s, Debussy developed his own musical language largely independent of Wagner's style, colored in part from the dreamy, sometimes morbid romanticism of the Symbolist Movement. Debussy became a frequent participant at Stéphane Mallarmé Symbolist gatherings, where Wagnerism dominated the discussion. In contrast to the enormous works of Wagner and other late-romantic composers, however, around this time Debussy chose to write in smaller, more accessible forms. The Suite bergamasque (1890) recalls rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement. This suite contains one of Debussy's most popular pieces, Clair de Lune. Debussy's String Quartet in G minor (1893) paved the way for his later, more daring harmonic exploration. In this work he utilized the Phrygian mode as well as less standard scales, such as the whole-tone, which creates a sense of floating, ethereal harmony. Debussy was beginning to employ a single, continuous theme and break away from the traditional A-B-A form, with its restatements and amplifications, which had been a mainstay of classical music since Haydn.
Influenced by Mallarmé, Debussy wrote one of his most famous works, the revolutionary Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, truly original in form and execution. In contrast to the large orchestras so favoured by late-romanticism, Debussy wrote this piece for a smaller ensemble, emphasizing instrumental colour and timbre. Despite Mallarmé himself, and colleague and friend Paul Dukas having been impressed by the piece, it was controversial at its premiere. Prélude subsequently placed Debussy into the spotlight as one of the leading composers of the era.
La Mer (1903-1905) essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement, although the middle movement, Jeux de vagues, which proceeds much less directly and with more variety of colour. Again, the reviews were sharply divided. Some critics thought the treatment less subtle and less mysterious than previous works and a step backward. Pierre Lalo complained "I neither hear, nor see, nor feel the sea". Others extolled its "power and charm", its "extraordinary verve and brilliant fantasy", and its strong colors and definite lines.
During this period Debussy wrote much for the piano. The set of pieces entitled Pour le piano (1901) utilises rich harmonies and textures which would later prove important in jazz music. His first volume of Images pour piano (1904–1905) combine harmonic innovation with poetic suggestion: Reflets dans l'eau is a musical description of rippling water; Hommage à Rameau, the second piece, is slow and yearningly nostalgic. It takes as its inspiration a melody of Jean-Philippe Rameau's, Castor et Pollux.
The evocative Estampes for piano (1903) give impressions of exotic locations. Debussy came into contact with Javanese gamelan music during the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Pagodes is the directly inspired result, aiming for an evocation of the pentatonic structures employed by the Javanese music. Debussy wrote his famous Children's Corner Suite (1909) for his beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, whom he nicknamed Chou-chou. The suite recalls classicism—the opening piece Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum refers to Muzio Clementi's collection of instructional piano compositions Gradus ad Parnassum, as well as a new wave of American cakewalk music. In the popular final piece of the suite, Golliwog's Cakewalk, Debussy also pokes fun at Richard Wagner by mimicking the opening bars of Wagner's prelude to Tristan and Isolde.
The first book of Preludes (1910), twelve in total, proved to be his most successful work for piano. The Preludes are frequently compared to those of Chopin. Debussy's preludes are replete with rich, unusual and daring harmonies. They include the popular La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) and La Cathédrale Engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral). Debussy wanted people to respond intuitively to these pieces and so he placed the titles at the end of each one in the hope that listeners would not make stereotype images as they listened.
Larger scaled works included his orchestral piece Iberia (1907), began as a work for two pianos, a triptych medley of Spanish allusions and fleeting impressions and also the music for Gabriele d'Annunzio's mystery play Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911). A lush and dramatic work, written in only two months, it is remarkable in sustaining a late antique modal atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces.
During this period, as Debussy gained more popularity, he was engaged as a conductor throughout Europe, most often performing Pelléas, La Mer, Iberia, and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. He was also an occasional music critic to supplement his conducting fees and piano lessons. Debussy avoided analytical dissection and attempts to force images from music, "Let us at all costs preserve this magic peculiar to music, since of all the arts it is most susceptible to magic." He could be caustic and witty, sometimes sloppy and ill-informed. Debussy was for the most part enthusiastic about Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky, worshipful of Chopin, Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart, and found both Liszt and Beethoven geniuses who sometimes lacked "taste". Schubert and Mendelssohn fared much worse, the latter he described as a "facile and elegant notary". He also admired the works of Charles-Valentin Alkan.
His two last volumes of works for the piano, the Études (1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by the young Igor Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos, 1915). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915), though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism.
With the sonatas of 1915–1917, there is a sudden shift in the style. These works recall Debussy's earlier music, in part, but also look forward, with leaner, simpler structures. Despite the thinner textures of the Violin Sonata (1917) there remains an undeniable richness in the chords themselves. This shift parallels the movement commonly known as neo-classicism which became popular after Debussy's death. Debussy planned a set of six sonatas, but this plan was cut short by his death in 1918 so that he only completed three (cello, flute-viola-harp and violin sonatas).
The last orchestral work by Debussy, the ballet Jeux (1912) written for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, contains some of his strangest harmonies and textures in a form that moves freely over its own field of motivic connection. At first Jeux was overshadowed by Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, composed in the same year as Jeux and premiered only two weeks later by the same ballet company. Decades later, composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué pointed out parallels to Anton Webern's serialism in this work. Other late stage works, including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La boîte à joujoux (1913) were left with the orchestration incomplete, and were later completed by Charles Koechlin and André Caplet, who also helped Debussy with the orchestration of Gigues (from Images pour orchestre) and Le martyre de St. Sébastien.
The second set of Preludes for piano (1913) features Debussy at his most avant-garde, sometimes utilising dissonant harmonies to evoke moods and images, especially in the mysterious Canope; the title refers to a burial urn which stood on Debussy's working desk and evokes a distant past. The pianist Claudio Arrau considered the piece to be one of Debussy's greatest preludes: "It's miraculous that he created, in so few notes, this kind of depth.
Although Pelléas was Debussy's only completed opera, he began several opera projects which remained unfinished, his fading concentration, increasing procrastination, and failing health perhaps the reasons. He had finished some partial musical sketches and some unpublished libretti for operas based on Shakespeare's As You Like It, Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, and Joseph Bedier's La Legende de Tristan.
Further plans, such as an American tour, more ballet scores, and revisions of Chopin and Bach works for re-publication, were all cut short by the onset of World War I and a serious turn in his health, which required morphine injections for pain. An operation in 1915 only temporarily checked the condition.
As a result he left Texier in 1904 for Emma Bardac, the wife of a Parisian banker and the mother of one of his students. In contrast to Texier, Bardac was a sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, and an accomplished singer. The distraught Texier, like Dupont before her, attempted suicide with a pistol. The scandal obliged Debussy and Bardac (already carrying his child) to flee to Eastbourne, England, (where he completed his symphonic suite La Mer) until the hysteria subsided and the legal entanglements resolved. The couple were eventually married in 1908.
Their child, a daughter (and the composer's only child), was named Claude-Emma, more affectionately known as Chou-Chou, the dedicatee of Debussy's Children's Corner suite. Claude-Emma outlived her father by scarcely a year, succumbing to the diphtheria epidemic of 1919.
He concludes that Debussy's achievement was the synthesis of monophonic based "melodic tonality" with harmonies, albeit different from those of "harmonic tonality".
The application of the term "impressionist" to Debussy and the music he influenced is a matter of intense debate within academic circles. One side argues that the term is a misnomer, an inappropriate label which Debussy himself opposed. In a letter of 1908, he wrote "I am trying to do 'something different'--an effect of reality...what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art. The opposing side argues that Debussy may have been reacting to unfavorable criticism at the time, and the negativity that critics associated with impressionism. It can be argued that he would have been pleased with application of the current definition of impressionism to his music.
Given that Debussy's music is apparently so concerned with mood and colour, it is somewhat unexpected to discover that, according to one author, many of his greatest works appear to have been structured around mathematical models even while using an apparent classical structure such as sonata form. Howat suggests that some of Debussy's pieces can be divided into sections that reflect the golden ratio, frequently by using the numbers of the standard Fibonacci sequence. Sometimes these divisions seem to follow the standard divisions of the overall structure. In other pieces they appear to mark out other significant features of the music. The 55 bar-long introduction to 'Dialogue du vent et la mer' in La Mer, for example, breaks down into 5 sections of 21, 8, 8, 5 and 13 bars in length. The golden mean point of bar 34 in this structure is signalled by the introduction of the trombones, with the use of the main motif from all three movements used in the central section around that point.
The only evidence that Howat introduces to support his claim appears in changes Debussy made between finished manuscripts and the printed edition, with the changes invariably creating a Golden Mean proportion where previously none existed. Perhaps the starkest example of this comes with La cathédrale engloutie. Published editions lack the instruction to play bars 7-12 and 22-83 at twice the speed of the remainder, exactly as Debussy himself did on a piano-roll recording. When analysed with this alteration, the piece follows Golden Section proportions. At the same time, Howat admits that in many of Debussy's works, he has been unable to find evidence of the Golden Section (notably in the late works) and that no extant manuscripts or sketches contain any evidence of calculations related to it.