10 Fun Facts About Claude Debussy

by Jacy Burroughs

Debussy circa 1908

Debussy circa 1908

1. Achille-Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862. He began piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1871, he started to study with Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Chopin’s, although there is no evidence to corroborate her story. Regardless, Debussy was obviously talented and he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872, where he would remain for 11 years.

2. Debussy’s parents hoped that he would be a piano virtuoso, but he never placed higher than fourth in any competitions.

3. During the summers of 1880, 1881 and 1882, Debussy was employed by Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy patroness of Tchaikovsky, while her family vacationed in Europe. He gave her children piano lessons and performed in private concerts with her musician friends. Von Meck sent one of Debussy’s works to Tchaikovsky, but the older composer was quite critical of it.

4. Debussy entered the Prix de Rome competition a total of three times. The first two times he lost because the judges did not like his compositional innovations. In 1884, on his third attempt, he won with a deliberately more conservative piece entitled L’enfant prodigue.

5. Debussy was what we would refer to today as a “player.” Most of his love affairs began before the previous had ended. He had a live-in girlfriend named Gaby Dupont, who stayed throughout his engagement to the well-to-do Thérèse When Thérèse found out, she broke off the relationship. Eventually, Gaby and Claude went their separate ways. In 1899, he married Lilly Texier a model, who was beautiful but no match for Debussy’s smarts. Finding Lilly boring, Debussy fell in love with Emma Bardac, who was also married. It created quite a scandal, and Debussy and his now-pregnant mistress Emma fled to England. They had a daughter, who they creatively named Claude-Emma.

6. The composer was not very fiscally responsible. While growing up, Debussy’s family struggled financially. As an adult, he was drawn to the comforts and life-styles of the rich and famous and lived well outside his means. He bought an enormous house in an upper-class neighborhood, employed several servants and hired a car. He felt that it was his right to have these things, but his debts continued to grow.

7. Fuel was scarce in France during World War I. You had to be very rich to obtain coal to heat your home. Debussy, who was constantly broke, offered to write his coal merchant an original composition. Surprisingly, the offer was accepted and the merchant went home with Debussy’s last composition, appropriately named “Evenings Lighted by Burning Coals.”

8. Debussy was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and had part of his colon removed in 1916. It was one of the first colostomy operations. Sadly, the cancer returned and he passed away on March 25, 1918 at the age of 55.

9. His compositional output was impressive, including works for orchestra, notably Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and La Mer, chamber music, an opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and many works for solo piano. Arguably his most recognizable piece, Claire de lune, was actually the third movement of his Suite bergamasque.

10. Debussy was one of the most prominent composers associated with Impressionist music, although he did not like the term when applied to his works. He likely would have preferred to be called a modernist. Regardless of what his music was called, his use of non-traditional scales, harmonies and chromaticism influenced and helped shaped many of the composers who came after him.

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Jacy Burroughs is the Assistant E-Commerce Marketing Manager for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.

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