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Definition: Debussy, Claude Achille from Philip's Encyclopedia

French composer, exponent of impressionism. Debussy wrote highly individual music that was delicate and suggestive. He explored new techniques of harmony and orchestral colour. Some critics cite his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) as the beginning of 20th-century music. Other orchestral works are Nocturnes (1899), La Mer (1905), and Images (1912). His piano works, such as Suite Bergamasque (1890) and Etudes (1915), are among the most important in the repertoire. His one completed opera was Pelléas and Mélisande (1902).

Summary Article: Debussy, (Achille-) Claude (1862–1918)
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

French composer. He broke with German Romanticism and introduced new qualities of melody and harmony based on the whole-tone scale. His work includes Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune/Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), illustrating a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902).

Among his other works are numerous piano pieces, songs, orchestral pieces such as La Mer/The Sea (1905) and Trois Nocturnes/Three Nocturnes (1899), and the ballet Jeux (1913). Debussy also published witty and humorous critical writing about the music of his day, featuring the fictional character Monsieur Croche ‘antidilettante’ (professional debunker), a figure based on Erik Satie.

Debussy was the son of a shopkeeper. He took his first piano lessons at the age of seven, and from 1870 was taught for three years by Mme Mauté de Fleurville, a former pupil of Chopin. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1873, studying with Albert Lavignac and Jean-Francois Marmontel, and later with Emile Durand. At 17 he failed to win a piano prize, but entered a composition class in 1880. For the next two summers he was domestic musician to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's former patroness. He taught her children, and she took him first to Switzerland and Italy and then to Russia the following year. He won the Prix de Rome in 1884 and went to Rome the next year, but left in 1887, before the required three years were completed.

During these years he began to reject the influence of Richard Wagner found in the music of the day, creating a new path towards what is often referred to as Impressionism. Debussy himself disliked this term, as he felt it implied vagueness; he was influenced by the Symbolist movement in art and literature, and preferred this interpretation of his work. Debussy's ideal was that music should have the effect of continuous improvisation. He began to compose seriously in the new manner for which he became known with a French translation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Blessed Damozel (1850), completed in 1888. He was influenced by Erik Satie in 1891 and performed his first important mature work, the prelude to Mallarmé's poem ‘L'Après-midi d'un faune’, in 1894. In 1899 he married a dressmaker, Rosalie (Lili) Texier, and in the same year he completed his Nocturnes. He became music critic for the Revue blanche in 1901, and the following year produced his only finished opera, a setting of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. The opera was described by its conductor, André Messager, as opening a window on the whole world of modern music; clear themes and strong contrasts are replaced by atmospheric depictions of mood. Debussy left his wife in 1904 for Emma Bardac, whom he married after divorcing his first wife in 1905. A private, depressive man of wide culture, Debussy was a friend of writers and painters, and himself a skilful critic. During his last decade he was generally acclaimed, but was also suffering from terminal cancer.

Debussy's approach to certain chords as ‘sound-events’ in themselves, important for their own colour and sensuous qualities even more than as stages in a harmonic progression, was a new way of thinking for Western music. His style is an inspired mixture of Jules Massenet and Modest Mussorgsky with a smattering of Franz Liszt and hints from his friend Satie. His influence affected composers as diverse as Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, and Pierre Boulez, and continues to the present day in figures such as English composer George Benjamin.

WorksStage opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902); incidental music to d'Annunzio's Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911); ballet Jeux (1913).

Vocal three Chansons de France (Charles d'Orléans) for unaccompanied chorus; songs including sets Ariettes oubliées (Verlaine), two sets of Fêtes galantes (Verlaine), Chansons de Bilitis (Pierre Louÿs; 1898), Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé.

OrchestralPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune/Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894) Trois Nocturnes/Three Nocturnes (1899), La Mer/The Sea (1905) and Trois Images for orchestra (1912).

Chamber and piano string quartet (1893); sonatas for cello and piano; flute, viola, and harp; and for violin and piano (1915–17); many piano pieces including Suite bergamasque, suite Pour le piano (1901), Trois Estampes (1903), L'Île joyeuse (1904), two sets of three Images, suite Children's Corner, two sets of 12 Préludes (1910, 1913), and 12 Etudes (1915); En blanc et noir (1915) for two pianos.


Debussy, (Achille-) Claude


Music Through Time: 20th-Century Music

20th-century music


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