Composer in Focus – Claude Debussy

Name: Claude-Achille Debussy
Dates: 1862-1918
Country of Birth: France
Musical Era: Early 20th Century


While his music might be the epitome of calm, the life of French composer Claude Debussy was really anything but. A relatively normal start in the small town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, indeed he was the son of a seamstress and a shopkeeper, saw an early move to the bright lights of Paris at the age of five. Having barely begun playing the piano at the age of seven, young Claude (actually born Achille-Claude… he later switched it around) was uprooted again; this time down to Cannes, in order to flee the burgeoning Franco-Prussian conflict. He took to the piano immediately at that young age and it saw him, just three years later, being accepted at the Paris Conservatoire.  With his sights set on becoming a virtuoso pianist, the young musician would spend the next eleven years studying. During this time his focus shifted to composition, seemingly after failing to win a piano prize. Under the tutelage of the likes of César Franck, Debussy took to composing and made it his own. He did go on to win a prize, for composition, and he found himself in Rome at the French Academy, which he apparently didn’t enjoy in the slightest. The experience stifled his creativity and he wasn’t able to flourish.

He learned much, and admired many, during these formative years, but it wasn’t actually until he reached his thirty-second birthday that he composed something truly ‘original’.  With his Prelude a l’Apres midi d’un Faune he truly found his own musical identity; but it wasn’t to all tastes.  Indeed very little of Debussy’s music was appreciated by those ‘in the know’ while he lived. Dubbed an impressionist – a term he loathed, Debussy’s experimental take on music would eventually be seen as hugely influential.  Indeed his music was something of a creative revolution, one which was co-authored by the likes of Ravel and Satie, his contemporaries.

Away from the trials, and occasional joys, of music-making, Debussy’s private life was seemingly one sordid romantic affair after another. With a broken engagement and several extra-marital dalliances, the composer brought scandal upon his family; indeed he and his long-suffering wife fled to England for a spell, after one such affair ended in the other woman’s attempted suicide.  Oddly enough, that trip to England inspired one of his most serene and beautiful works, La Mer. Beauty from chaos perhaps…

The piano was his greatest love; perhaps his only real love. It figures heavily in his music, with sets of Preludes, Etudes and Nocturnes at the very top of his list of most appealing music. His final work, though, would be the Violin Sonata, which was premiered in the year of his death. Claude Debussy was diagnosed with Cancer, succumbing to it on 25 March 1918.

Read more about Debussy classicfm.com / Subscribe to Classical Bristol

Key works… Suite bergamasque (Clair de lune), La Mer, Pelléas et Mélisande, Three Nocturnes, Etudes, Preludes (including The Girl with the Flaxen Hair)

Did you know?  La Mer was written during a stay in Eastbourne

Debussy in Bristol
Tues 7 Mar, 1.05pm /
Cameron Johnson (trumpet) – ‘Rhapsodie’ (The Lantern)

Sat 18 Mar, 7.30pm /
Bristol Concert Orchestra – Two Nocturnes: ‘Nuages’ and ‘Fêtes’ (St George’s)