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Classical Composers A-Z: Claude Debussy

Peter Wintersgill introduces us to the French composer, Claude Debussy, the most important composer in the first half of the 20th Century.

Born
22nd August 1862 at St. Germain-en Laye, near Paris.

Father
Manuel, shopkeeper, irresponsible.

Mother
Victorine, poor mother.

Family
Younger sister Adele, three younger brothers, Aunt Clementine.

Childhood
Never went to school, taught at home by aunt at Cannes, who brought him up. Piano lessons with Madame de Fleurville, Verlaine's mother-in-law, who had known Chopin. Admitted to Paris Conservatoire at 10.

Adolescence
Won Prix de Rome at third attempt in 1884 with cantata L' Enfant Prodigue. Went to Russia to teach piano to children of Madame von Meek.

Early Adult Life
Went to Rome for two years to study, where he met Verdi and Liszt. For a time he was very keen on the music of Wagner and attended the Bayreuth Festival; later he lost interest.

He returned to Paris and set up house with his mistress, Gabrielle Dupont, to whom he dedicated a song, Fete Galante. He introduced new ideas of harmony with a new tonality, unresolved chords and the whole tone scale.

He was very keen on poetry, especially that of Verlaine, Mallarme and Maeterlinck. He was also keen on the Impressionist school of painters and liked to compare music with light.

He met composer/pianist Eric Satie, who became a life long friend. He was also friendly with Ravel. A great nationalist, he called himself a "musician francais".

Having written a few early piano pieces and songs, his first real success was Prelude L'apres midi d'un Faune (1894) which later became a ballet. He worked from 1892 -1902 on his opera Pelleas et Melisand, based on Maeterlinck's play, which was produced at the Opera Comique.

He was quite a traveller, visiting Vienna, Budapest, London (a few times) and Russia. He was keen on Russian composers, especially Mussorgsky, whose Boris Godunov he studied at length for four years. He met many other composers, including Saint-Saens, Faure and Dukas.

Later Adult Life
In 1899 he met Lily Texier, a friend of Gabys. For a time they used to go around together, a sort
of menage-a-trois, but eventually he left Gaby for Lily, to whom he dedicated his Three Nocturnes, and married her.

Five years later he left her for Emma Bardac, a singer and wife of a rich banker, when Lily attempted suicide. Emma soon presented him with a daughter, whom he nicknamed Chou-Chou and of whom he was inordinately fond. It was
some years before he could get married, as Emma's divorce took a long time.

His orchestral pieces included La Mer (1905) and L'Images (1910). Many of his pieces were for the piano, hardly surprising for a pianist. They included two books of preludes in 1910 and 1915, the 12 Etudes, Estampes and Children's Corner (1908), which he wrote for Chou-Chou. As he got older he slowed down and tended to write less, but never completely stopped.

He was found to have rectal cancer in 1909, but still went to London on a conducting visit. He had severe pain at times, for which he was given morphia.

He continued to compose during the war. At one stage Paris was bombed by the Zeppelins while the Germans advanced on the town.

After he married Emma her rich husband paid alimony for a while, but this dropped off
after a while, leaving Debussy in financial difficulty. After two operations, which prolonged
his life, he eventually died on 25th March, 1918, aged 56.

To sum up, he was the most important composer of the first half of the 20th century, not only on account of his own music, but also by his effect on other composers, e.g. Boulez, Messian, Stravinsky and others.

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