Claude Debussy Biography

Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy.


August 22, 1862 - St. Germain-en-Laye


March 25, 1918 - Paris

Debussy Quick Facts:

  • Though many refer to Debussy's music as impressionistic, Debussy despised the term.
  • Many of Debussy's works weren't named until after he wrote the piece. He often placed the work's title at the end of the piece so as not to give the listener any preconceived ideas.
  • For a small period of time during World War I, Debussy suffered from depression and didn't write any music.

Debussy's Family Background:

Debussy grew up near Paris in a modest household in the town of St. Germain-en-Laye. His parents made a living by owning and running a china shop. His father also worked as a traveling salesman, a clerk, and a printer's assistant.

Debussy's Childhood and Teenage Years:

Because Debussy didn't enjoy his childhood, he rarely talked about it. Unfortunately, his tight lips left historiographers little details into his early life. However, it is clear that he was quite the pianist during his childhood. He was admitted into the Paris Conservatory of Music at the age of eleven where he studied with Ernest Guiraud, César Franck, and others for the next twelve years. Although he entered the conservatory to "major" in piano, after several failed attempts at a piano "final" he switched his interests to composing.

Debussy's Early Adult Years:

In 1884, Debussy won the Grand Prix de Rome, a highly coveted prize upon which the receiver is required to study at Académie de France à Rome (The French Academy in Rome) for the following two years, for his work L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son). His later submissions to the Grand Prix committee proved unsuccessful. In 1888, after his two year stint at the Academy, Debussy traveled to Bayreuth where he heard the music of Wagner. Wagner's influence on Debussy is apparent in Debussy's works La damoiselle élue and the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire.

Debussy's Mid Adult Years:

During the 1890's, all of Debussy's acquired knowledge and experiences culminated into the most musically productive period of Debussy's life. Although Debussy very much liked Wagner, Debussy's style of composition had taken its - for lack of a better term - impressionistic course. In 1894, Debussy finished his first important orchestral work Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Largely composed from 1893-1895, Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, wasn't finished until 1902. Its modern, ethereal harmonies were met with harsh criticism and great joy.

Debussy's Late Adult Years:

During the latter years of Debussy's life, some of his most famous piano works were created. Debussy's piano preludes which include (The Sunken Cathedral) are often compared to those of Chopin. In 1910, Debussy developed rectal cancer, slowly weakening him one day at a time. It wasn't until 1918, while Paris was under German attack that the cancer finally claimed his life.

Selected Works by Claude Debussy:

Piano Works

  • Suite Bergamasque - 1890
  • First Book of Preludes - 1910
  • Second Book of Preludes - 1913
  • Etudes - 1915

Orchestral Works

  • Nocturnes - 1899
  • La Mer - 1905
  • Images - 1912
  • Jeux (a ballet) - 1913