Claude Debussy is one of the greatest French composers, and yet nothing predestined him for such a career…
A precarious youth
Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye on August 22, 1862, nothing predestined Achille-Claude Debussy to pursue a career in music. From a poor background, his parents ran an unprofitable earthenware business that went bankrupt when he was only 2 years old. His education is generally forged by the parental way of life involving multiple moves and precarious jobs : he does not go to school and his education is provided by his mother. In Cannes, encouraged by his aunt, the young Achille-Claude took piano lessons from Jean Cerrutti who, however, did not detect any particular disposition in him. The situation of the family worsens when the father enlists in the national guard at the time of the Paris Commune, leaving his family in Cannes. Promoted captain, he was arrested by the troops of Mac Mahon, then sentenced to four years in prison and a deprivation of his civic rights. During his detention, his father befriended a self-taught musician and conductor, who suggested that he entrust Claude to his mother, the pianist Madame Mauté de Fleurville.
Shy, undisciplined and clumsy
After a year of lessons at his side, Debussy, aged only 10, entered the Paris Conservatory in 1872, where his integration was difficult. Shy, undisciplined and clumsy, he stands out among the students of the piano class, so much so that he prefers to orient himself towards composition where his artistic temperament truly unfolds. He composed his first melodies in 1879 on texts by Alfred de Musset (Madrid, Ballade à la lune) then his first works for piano. In 1884, he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata L’Enfant Prodigue and joined the Villa Medici for 3 years. His non-conformism earned him some disappointments. His works sent to the Academy of Fine Arts struggled to be recognized and were deemed « weird, incomprehensible and impossible to execute ». He preferred to compose for his mistress who remained in Paris, Marie Vasnier (La Romance et Les Cloches, 1885).
Passionate about music from the Far East
During his stay, he met Liszt and Verdi. In 1887, he resigned and returned to Paris. There, he frequented the circles of the poet Mallarmé and befriended Robert Godet and Paul Dukas. His new friends nourished his music and he began to compose to texts by Charles Baudelaire (Five poems by Baudelaire). In 1888, he traveled to Bayreuth where he familiarized himself with the work of Wagner: he immersed himself in the codes of German opera to better distance himself from it. The same year, he composed the cantata La Damoiselle elected, on a libretto by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Universal Exhibition of 1889 also left an indelible stylistic imprint on him: he was passionate about music from the Far East, in particular the gamelan orchestra (an ensemble mainly composed of percussion) and wasted no time in impregnating his compositions with these sounds. oriental. In 1890, he composed his first success, the Suite bergamasque for piano, from which the famous Clair de Lune was taken. Based on a poem by Mallarmé, he composed the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a suite for orchestra through which he affirmed his extravagant musical language.
A piano suite for his daughter
After a first presentation with little critical acclaim, the work became popular and seduced throughout Europe. Poetic and musical fusion is a recipe for success that he later uses for his first opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, to a libretto by author Maurice Maeterlinck. Again, his style disconcerted during the disastrous first performances of the work at the Opéra Comique in 1902. But the first disappointments over, the opera obtained international recognition. From 1902 and 1904, he composed the symphonic work La Mer. At the same time, he worked as a music critic in a magazine well known in artistic circles of the time, La Revue Blanche, under the pseudonym of Monsieur Croche. In 1905, his daughter Claude-Emma, nicknamed « Chouchou », was born to whom he dedicated a piano suite, Children’s Corner, in 1908. At the same time, he continued his settings of poems by his contemporaries and became friends with the young Igor Stravinsky. From 1910, his state of health deteriorated due to rectal cancer, and his daily life was then marked by suffering. In 1911, he completed the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the last of his completed lyrical works. Among other chamber music sonata projects, he began writing two operas based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, La Chute de la maison Usher and Le Diable dans le Beffroi. These pieces will remain unfinished because Debussy died of the consequences of his illness on March 25, 1918.