Claude Debussy was a French composer who is sometimes seen as the first Impressionist composer, although he vigorously rejected the term. He was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Debussy, born on August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, came from a middle-income family where both parents were business people with little cultural involvement. He was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris, an elite music school, at a young age to study music. He honed his skills over the years, culminating in the famous “Pelléas et Mélisande” opera in 1902.
Although Debussy is known all over the world even up to this day, there are many things about him that aren’t that much known.
Here are some interesting facts about the composer that you might not know:
1. He started college at the age of 10.
Debussy showed enough musical talent to be admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris music college at just 10 years old. He was said to enjoy playing the piano so much that his parents thought he would be a piano virtuoso.
While at college, he developed a unique music taste and created innovative compositions, much to the displeasure of the professors. Unfortunately, the disapproval of his style meant that he lacked the support he required to develop his skills quickly. However, he still beat the odds and matured in his art, eventually leading to the fame he is known for.
2. He worked with Nadezhda von Meck
Nadezhda von Meck was a wealthy patron of the arts and businesswoman. Aside from being a lover of music, she also loved to travel, vacationing in Europe during the summers. In the summers of 1880 to 1882, she hired Debussy for her private shows with family and friends.
She also arranged for him to teach her children piano lessons. At the same time, she introduced Debussy to the affluent friends who attended her parties. At some point, she sent some of Debussy’s compositions to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was one of the recipients of her financial support. Unfortunately, the old Russian composer was not impressed and criticized much of Debussy’s work.
3. His style ran out of favor at the Prix de Rome
Debussy entered the Prix de Rome music competition a record three times. He lost two of the three times he tried, as the judges were more conservative and could not comprehend his style.
It was only after Debussy became a little more conservative with his style that the judges recognized it and handed him victory. The piece that won the competition was called “L’enfant Prodigue.” The award came with a four-year scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and a residence at Villa Medici for further studies in music.
4. He hated being called an impressionist artist
Debussy hated having his compositions labeled as impressionist music. He felt that impressionism was a way critics tried to box his innovative works of art into a fixed mindset. According to Debussy, he was trying to do something different apart from everyone around him, and the style was good.
However, because critics were stuck in their old ways of thinking, they couldn’t understand what he was doing and had to rely on this moniker to make sense of his works. Until his death, Debussy did not accept the impressionist artist title.
5. He had multiple love affairs.
As author Marcel Dietschy puts it in his biography of Debussy, there were women at each of Debussy’s career crossroads. His allure and success attracted women like ivy to a wall. Debussy first lived with Gabrielle DuPont for ten years as he made a name for himself. However, he unceremoniously left her and married Rosalie Texier, a model.
After five years with Rosalie, he divorced her for Emma Bardac. They stayed as lovers for five years before marrying and having their only child. Many other women in his life did not come into the limelight. Debussy’s relationships with women were complex and intense, leaving his wife to attempt taking her life with a gun after he left her, and scandalising many close friends and supporters.
6. He transformed Paul Verlaine’s poem into music
One of the most famous of Debussy’s piano pieces ever produced was called “Clair de Lune.” The piece was the third of his four-movement workpieces called Suite Bergamasque in 1890. However, he decided it was not good enough for production and remastered it several times before finally publishing it in 1905. The piece contains excerpts and draws inspiration from a poem called “Clair de Lune” by Paul Verlaine. This poem talked about moonlight and the beauty of songs blending with its light while praising the amazing features of nature.
7. He left unfinished operatic projects
Debussy only published one opera before his death. However, he was working on other projects at the same time. Two of these projects were adaptations made from Edgar Allan Poe’s work: The first piece was titled “Le Diable Dans le Beffroi” and was adapted from a story by Poe called “The Devil in the Belfry.”
The second piece was called “Chute de la Maison Usher” and was based on a short story called “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Sadly, he did not have enough time to complete and publish them.
8. His published opera was a five-act love story
The only opera that Debussy published, “Pelléas et Mélisande,” was a five-act love story that propelled him to fame. This act premiered at the 1902 Opéra-Comique that was held in Paris. The libretto (longer text) was based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck that had the same name.
Debussy’s opera is centered on a love triangle in which a prince rescues a girl from the forest, only for her to become attached to his half-brother, which arouses the brother’s feelings of jealousy and leads to death. The girl later dies while giving birth.
9. Debussy ventured into the mythical.
In yet another excellent adaptation of a poem, Debussy tells a story about the dreams of a half-human creature called Faun. The piece was called “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” and was adapted from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy’s symphonic orchestra debuted in 1894. In his words, Debussy said that his piece did not try to interpret the famous poem but instead added the scenes that succeeded the story.
10. Debussy died of colon cancer
Debussy received the news that he had colon cancer in 1909. This was the start of a rapid downward spiral in his health. He died on March 25, 1918, when France was engaged in the Battle of the Somme in World War 1.
His funeral took place in deserted streets, as everyone had hidden from the approaching German army. Debussy was laid to rest alongside other great names, such as Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, and Oscar Wilde. However, his body was later moved to Passy Cemetery after the Germans bombed this cemetery.
Countless musicians have reworked Debussy’s music over the years with amazing results. Debussy will always be remembered as the forefather of twentieth-century music.