Claude Debussy

(St. Germain en Lay 1862 – Paris 1918)

Claude-Achille Debussy was born in a small town near Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in 1862 to a family of very modest means and completely with no connection whatsoever to the musical world. Nevertheless, almost miraculously his talent was discovered and cultivated to the point where he was able to enroll at a mere ten years of age in the Conservatory in Paris, and where he studied musical composition and piano.

He won the Prix de Rome with his Cantata “L’Enfant Prodigue”, and young Claude moved to Italy for two years. Upon his return to Paris, he began living a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, complete with lovers and the classic attic apartment in Montmartre in the city of the Verlaine and the Mallarmé until his first successes, including Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune, brought him to the attention of the public and the critics.

He died in 1918 in Paris while besieged by the Germans. Dubussy is considered to be the musician who not only but not so much broke with romanticism in music as with classic form, which can very briefly be summed up in the development of themes and in the right handed sonata-form.

Fascinated by oriental music, he translated this break with the tradition in a ‘horizontal’ language, full of nuances, frequently audacious harmony, and rhythms that generate images, colors and feelings in the listener’s head (it is not by chance that one of his famous compositions is called Images).

Generically classified as an impressionist (even though that label was never claimed by Debussy himself and today it has even been abandoned for the most part by the critics), his music cannot be categorized according to preconceived frameworks, but ‘happens’ in complete freedom, as if it were improvised (while quite to the contrary it is not at all improvised), still all of his compositions have an admirable internal coherence.

Debussy possessed true genius in orchestration and in his use of orchestral colors. Among his works of note are: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (based on a work by Mallarmé), La Mer, Images (Gigues, Ibéria, Rondes de printemps). Even his piano music resounds with the characteristics of his style, although in his series of Etudes it also shows the influence of Chopin who died 15 years earlier.

Some of his works such as Claire de Lune (from the collection, Estampes), Feux d’artifice,  La fille aux cheveux de lin and La cathdrale engloutie (from the two books of the Préludes) are very popular. And some of his chamber music pieces are also very beautiful: Quatuor à cordes, Syrinx pour flûte solo, la Sonate pour violoncelle et piano and the Sonate pour violon et piano.

As far as vocal music is concerned, Debussy composed many chansons based on the beloved French poets, Charles Baudelaire, Pierre Louÿs (Trois chansons de Bilitis), Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé. He also composed the opera Pélleas et Mélisande based on a text by Maeterlinck, which created a scandal when it was first performed.

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