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Claude Debussy

(1862 - 1918)

Achille-Claude Debussy was born in St. Germain-en-Laye on August 22 in 1862, the eldest of five children.

Debussy began piano lessons when he was seven years old.

His talents soon became evident, and, at age eleven, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire where he proved a wayward pianist and rebellious student.

He decided then to be a composer rather than a pianist as was his original intention.

From 1880 to 1882, he was employed by the patron of Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, giving music lessons to her children.

At the Paris exhibition in 1889, Debussy was attracted to the spontaneous music of the Javanese gamelan and this was to have a decisive and lasting effect on his music.

His highly characteristic musical language extended the contemporary limits of harmony and form, with a remarkably delicate command of nuance, both in piano-writing and in the handling of a relatively large orchestra.

Claude Debussy died in Paris on March 25, 1918 from colorectal cancer, in the midst of the German aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during the Spring Offensive of World War I.

He was interred in the Cimetiere de Passy, and French culture has ever since celebrated Debussy as one of its most distinguished representatives.

Debussy attempted many operas, two based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

He completed only one, 'Pelleas et Melisande', a version of the medieval play by Maurice Maeterlinck, with it's story of idealized love perfectly matched with the composer's musical idiom.

Debussy's first major success, the 'Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un Faune' ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"), is an orchestral evocation of a poem by Mallarme.

His three symphonic sketches comprising 'La Mer' ('The Sea'), published with a famous woodcut known as 'The Wave', from the Japanese artist Hokusai's views of Mount Fuji, offer evocations of the sea from dawn to midday, of the waves and of the dialogue of wind and sea.

Other orchestral works by Debussy include the three movements of Nocturnes, "Nuages" ("Clouds"), "Fetes" ("Festivals") and "Sirenes".

"Images", a work in 3 movements completed in 1912, includes "Gigues", "Iberia" and "Ronde de Printemps", the last a celebration of spring. 

His "Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien", finally scored by Andre Caplet, was in origin a theatrical and choreographic collaboration with Gabriele d'Annunzio.

Debussy sketched out orchestration for his Rhapsody for saxophone and piano, completed after his death by Roger-Ducasse, an interesting addition to the repertoire of an instrument more often neglected by classical composers.

Debussy's chamber music includes a fine string quartet, known as the first, although the second, like so much of the composer's work, existed only as a future project.

Somewhat reluctantly he wrote a Rhapsody for saxophone, later orchestrated, while "Syrinx", for unaccompanied flute, in which the pagan god Pan plays his flute, was originally written as incidental music for the theatre.

Towards the end of his life Debussy planned a series of six chamber works.

He completed three of these: a violin sonata, a cello sonata and a sonata for flute, viola and harp.

Debussy made a significant addition to the French song repertoire, capturing the spirit, in particular, of the work of poets such as Verlaine and Mallarme, but also turning to earlier poets, including Villon and Charles d'Orleans.

His "Chansons de Bilitis", settings of verses by Pierre Louys, turn again to the pagan world, while the settings of the Verlaine Fetes Galantes capture the nostalgia of the poems, yearning for an unattainable past.

In his writing for the piano Debussy proved himself a successor to Chopin; his debt to Chopin was openly expressed in his two books of Etudes (Studies), completed in 1915.

The two Arabesques, early works, enjoy continued popularity, as does the "Suite Bergamasque", with its all too popular "Clair de Lune".

"Estampes" ("Prints") evokes the Far East in Pagodes, Spain in "La soiree dans Grenade" ("Evening in Granada"), and autumnal sadness in "Jardins sous la Pluie" ("Gardens under the Rain"), while "L'isle Joyeuse" turns to Watteau for inspiration.

Two sets of "Images" offer further delicate pictures, while the two books of "Preludes" offer still more varied images, from "La fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with Flaxen Hair") and "La Cathedrale Engloutie" ("The Engulfed Cathedral") to the final "Feux d'artifice" ("Fireworks").

The single "La Plus Que Lente" ("More than slow") of 1910 and the light-hearted "Children's Corner" suite, which includes the well known "Golliwog's Cake Walk", form a further part of a larger series of works.



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