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Famous Like Me > Composer > D > Claude Debussy

Profile of Claude Debussy on Famous Like Me

Name: Claude Debussy  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 22nd August 1862
Place of Birth: Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Profession: Composer
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Claude Debussy

Achille-Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918) was a composer of European classical music. He developed the style commonly referred to as Impressionist music. Debussy's music represents the transition from late-romantic music to 20th century music.

Early Life

Debussy began music instruction when he was nine years old, but his talents soon became evident and at age eleven Debussy entered the Conservatory. At the Conservatory, Debussy studied with Guiraud and others at the Paris Conservatoire (1872-84) and as the winner of the Prix de Rome, Debussy traveled to Rome to further his studies (1885-7).

With his visits to Bayreuth (1888, 1889) Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which was to have a lasting impact on his work. Later, in Paris, during the World Exbition (1889) Debussy heard Javanese music. Wagner's influence is evident in the cantata La damoiselle élue (1888) and the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1889) but other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine (Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, Fêtes galantes, set 1) are in a more capricious style.

Middle Period

Beginning in the 1890s, Debussy developed his own musical language independent of Wagner's style and heavy emotialism. In reaction to the enormous works of Wagner and other late-romantic composers, Debussy chose to write in smaller, more accessible forms. Debussy's String Quartet in G minor (1893) paved the way for his later, more daring harmonic exploration. In this work he utilized the Phrygian mode as well as less standard modes, such as the whole-tone scale, which creates a sense of floating, ethereal harmony.

Influenced by the contemporary symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé Debussy wrote one of his most famous works, the revolutionary Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. In contrast to the large late-romantic orchestra, Debussy wrote this piece for a smaller ensemble, emphasizing orchestral colors and timbres of the instruments. The work caused controversy at its premiere and subsequently launched Debussy into the spotlight as one of the leading composers of the era.

In reaction to Wagner and his overblown late-romantic operas, Debussy wrote the mellow, symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which would be his only finished opera. Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the opera proved to be immensely influential to younger French composers, including Maurice Ravel. Pelléas, with its rule of understatement and deceptively simple declamation, also brought an entirely new tone to opera — but an unrepeatable one. These works brought a fluidity of rhythm and color quite new to Western music.

Among Debussy's major orchestral works are the three Nocturnes (1899), characteristic studies in veiled harmony and texture ('Nuages'), exuberant ('Fêtes'), and seductive whole-tone ('Sirènes'). La Mer (1905) essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement, although the middle movement (Jeux de vagues) proceeds much less directly and with more variety of color.

The three Images (1912) are more loosely linked, and the largest, Ibéria is itself a triptych, a medley of Spanish allusions and fleeting impressions. The mystery play Le martyre de St. Sébastien (1911) a lush and dramatic work, is remarkable in sustaining an antique modal atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces.

During this period Debussy wrote much piano music. The Suite bergamasque (1890) recalls, in Verlainian fashion, rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement. This suite contains Debussy's most popular piece Clair de Lune. The set of pieces entitled Pour le piano, (1901) utilizes rich harmonies and textures which would prove influential to Jazz music. His first volume of Images pour piano 1904–1905, combine harmonic innovation with poetic suggestion. ("Reflets dans l'eau") is a musical description of rippling water. (Hommage à Rameau), the second piece, is a slow, mysterious court dance in the manner of Jean-Philippe Rameau.

In his evocative Estampes for piano (1903), Debussy gives impressions of exotic locations, such as an Asian landscape in the pentatonic Pagodes, and of Spain in La soirée dans Grenade. Debussy wrote his famous Children's Corner Suite(1909) for his beloved daughter whom he nicknamed Chou-chou. These beautiful and poetic pieces recall classicism as well as a new wave of rag-time music. Debussy also pokes fun at Richard Wagner in the popular piece Golliwogg's Cake-walk.

The first set of Preludes, twelve in total, proved to be his most successful set of pieces for piano, frequently compared to Chopin's famous set of preludes. These masterpieces of subtlety and description are filled with rich, unusual and daring harmonies. These pieces include the popular La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin and La Cathédrale Engloutie

During this period and up until his death, Debussy worked on other opera projects and left substantial sketches for two pieces after tales by Edgar Allan Poe (Le diable dans le beffroi and La chute de la maison Usher), but neither was completed.

Late Music

Debussy's final music shows the composer at his most experimental. The harmonies and chord progressions frequently exploit dissonances without any formal resolution. Unlike in his earlier work, Debussy no longer hides discords in lush harmonies. The forms are far more irregular and fragmented. The whole tone scale dominates much of his late music.

The last orchestral work by Debussy, the ballet Jeux (1913), contains some of his strangest harmonies and textures in a form that moves freely over its own field of motivic connection. Other late stage works, including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La boîte à joujoux (1913) were left with the orchestration incomplete, and were later completed by other musicians.

The second set of Preludes for piano (1913) features Debussy at his most avant-garde, sometimes utilizing severe and dissonant harmonies to evoke moods and images. His last volume of works for the piano, the Études (1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by the young Igor Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos, (1915)). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915), though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism.

With the sonatas of 1915-1917, there is a sudden shift in the style. These works recall Debussy's earlier music, in part, but also look forward, with leaner, simpler structures. Despite the thinner textures of the violin sonata (1917) there remains an undeniable richness in the chords themselves. This shift parallels the movement commonly known as neo-classicism which was to become popular after Debussy's death. Debussy planned a set of six sonatas, but this plan was cut short by his death in 1918.

Claude Debussy died in Paris on March 25, 1918 from rectal cancer, during the bombardment of Paris by airships and long-distance guns during the last German offensive of World War I. This was a time when the military situation of France was considered desperate by many, and these circumstances did not permit his being paid the honor of a public funeral, or ceremonious graveside orations. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets as shells from the German guns ripped into his beloved city. It was just eight months before victory was celebrated in France. He was interred there in the Cimetière de Passy, and French culture has ever since celebrated Debussy as one of its most distinguished representatives.

Musical style

Claude Debussy is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His harmonies, considered radical in his day, were influential to almost every major composer of the 20th century.

It is essential to note that the term "impressionist", widely applied to Debussy and the music he influenced, is a matter of intense debate within academic circles. It is widely held that the term is a misnomer, an innapropriate label which Debussy himself opposed.

Rudolph Réti points out these features of Debussy's music which "established a new concept of tonality in European music":

  1. Frequent use of long pedal points
  2. Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of tonality
  3. Frequent use of parallel chords which are "in essence not harmonies at all, but rather 'chordal melodies', enriched unisons."
  4. Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords
  5. "Use of the whole-tone scale."
  6. Unprepared modulations, "without any harmonic bridge."

He concludes that Debussy's achievement was the synthesis of monophonic based "melodic tonality" with harmonies, albeit different from those of "harmonic tonality". (Reti, 1958)

Debussy in Pop Culture

Debussy's music has been used countless times in film and television. Clair de lune is especially popular. The piece was used in The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman's film about a NASA space program. Recently Ocean's Eleven featured Clair de lune during the final minutes of the film, accompanying the graceful fountains in front of the Bellagio hotel and casino. The British horror movie Dog Soldiers used Clair de lune for comical effect; in the film the light of the moon ('clair de lune' in French) is to be feared because it will awaken werewolves.

Arabesque No 1 can be heard during the dinner scene in The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock. The theme song to Jack Horkheimer's syndicated weekly TV series, "Star Gazer" (used to be called "Star Hustler") is a synth version of the same piece, performed by Isao Tomita.

Notable Compositions


  • Arabesques (1888)
  • Suite bergamasque (including Clair de Lune)(1890)
  • Reverie (1890)
  • Pour Le Piano (1899)
  • Estampes (1903)
  • Images (sets one and two)(1905, 1907)
  • Children's Corner Suite (1909)
  • Preludes, book one and two (1910-1913)
  • Etudes (1915)


  • Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902)


  • Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, (tone poem) for orchestra (1894)
  • Nocturnes for Orchestra and chorus (1899)
  • Dances Sacrée et Profane for harp and orchestra (1903)
  • La Mer, Symphonic Sketches for orchestra (1905)
  • Images for orchestra (1909/1911)
  • Le martyre de St. Sébastien, fragments symphoniques for orchestra (from the music for the play by d'Annunzio, 1911)
  • Jeux (ballet) (1913)

Chamber Music

  • String Quartet in G minor (1893)
  • Syrinx for flute (1913)
  • Sonata for cello and piano (1915)
  • Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915)
  • Sonata for violin and piano (1917)

See also: List of compositions by Claude Debussy


Dieu qu'il la fait bon regarder (info)
("God, how good it is to watch her")
Quant j'ai ouy le tambourin (info)
("When I heard the tambourine")
Mazurka (info)
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This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Claude Debussy