Written by: Austin Hennen Vigil
Claude Debussy was a famous French composer that was born on August 22nd, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. The town is located near Paris and he was the oldest of five children.
He was a prominent musician who was known as the founder of Impressionist music and was one of the most influential/highly regarded composers in the world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. March 25, 2018 was the 100th anniversary of his death, so in his honor here are 10 facts about the legendary French composer of which you may not have been aware:
1. Debussy was not born into a family with a musical background; his father owned a china shop, and his mother was a seamstress; they were poor, working-class folk. However, he started taking piano lessons at age 7, and the rest is history.
2. At age 10, Debussy began studying at the the Paris Conservatory. Over the next 11 years, he studied composition with the likes of Émile Durand and César Franck.
3. In 1884, when he was just 22, Debussy entered his composition piece, “L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child),” in the Prix de Rome, a competition for composers. He took home the winner’s prize, which was a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts located in the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy. He only lasted 2 years there before returning to Paris. He was unhappy there and at times was so distressed that he was unable to compose music.
4. Although Debussy’s compositions were associated with “Impressionist” music, he loathed that label of his work. He once proclaimed, “I am trying to do something different…what the imbeciles call ‘impressionism’, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics.”
5. Debussy is known for his relaxing music, but his personal life, especially involving women, was anything but. He had several well-known affairs and ended marriages abruptly for other women. Author, Marcel Dietschy, once wrote, “There was a woman at each crossroad of Debussy’s life. Certainly women of all ages seemed fascinated by him, and they attached themselves to him like ivy to a wall.” Debussy lived with a lady named Gabrielle DuPont in Montmartre in the 1890s, while he was making a name for himself. After 10+ years with DuPont, he abruptly told her to find another place to live, so he could marry Rosalie Texier, a model and seamstress. Because of this ordeal, DuPont shot herself and survived but disappeared into oblivion, and Debussy lost friends out of sympathy for Gaby and women in general. However, Rosalie Texier supposedly did not satisfy Debussy’s intellectual curiosity, so in the summer of 1904 after almost 5 years of marriage, he sent her home from their seaside vacation spot (and later gave her the written go-ahead to divorce him), and picked another woman named Emma Bardac (pictured with Debussy above) from the train station that same day. Claude Debussy was with Emma for the rest of his life, and had his only child, Claude-Emma Debussy, with her in 1905, and married Bardac in 1908.
6. Debussy only composed one opera, a five-act love story called “Pelléas et Mélisande”, which became a classic in 20th century music, and premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in April, 1902.
7. Arguably Debussy’s most famous piece, Clair de Lune, was the third movement of his four-movement “Suite Bergamasque”. He started it in 1890 and determined it was not good enough for publication until 1905. The piece is inspired by a poem, written by French poet Paul Verlaine.
8. Claude Debussy was actually born with the name “Achille Claude Debussy,” but in the 1890s he dropped the “Achille,” which is the French/Italian form of “Achilles.”
9. Debussy only published a single opera, but he had a variety of operatic projects that were unfinished. Two of them were adaptations from Edgar Allan Poe, titled “Le diable dans le beffroi” based on Poe’s short story called “The Devil in the Belfry,” and “La Chute de la Maison Usher” based on “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
10. Debussy was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1909, and his health went on a downward spiral after the diagnosis. He died in Paris on March 25th, 1918 at the age of 55, four days after the first shots of the Battle of Somme. His funeral took place on the deserted streets of Paris, as France was involved in WWI at the time. He was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery where Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde also lay. Damage from German bombing raids caused Debussy and his grave to be transferred to the Passy Cemetery after the war.
I hope you enjoyed the article, please feel free to comment if you have more interesting facts about Claude Debussy that I may have missed!
Austin Hennen Vigil is a marketing intern at Sheet Music Plus, and holds a degree in Business Marketing from Arizona State University.