Claude Debussy

1862 - 1918



Born on August 22nd 1862, French composer and pianist Claude Debussy was an incredibly influential force in the French music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He began his first formal musical training whilst in his paternal aunt’s home in Cannes with his pregnant mother in 1870. They had fled here from Paris in order to escape the dangers of the Franco-Prussian war. These first piano lessons took place with Italian violinist named Cerutti. In 1871 he began lessons with Mari Mauté de Fleurville. Under the tuition of these teachers, his talent became evident and in 1872, he enterd the Paris Conservatory. In his 11-year period he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music theory and history with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, organ with Cesar Franck and solfège with Albert Lavignac. He also formed a life-long friendship with fellow student and pianist Isidor Philipp who would go on to become something of an authority on playing Debussy’s piano music after Debussy’s death. 

Although he showed evidence of immense talent, the Conservatory found him difficult, as he was always keen to explore the harmonies and dissonant intervals of which they did not approve. In 1884, he won the Prix de Rome and began his residence at the Villa Medici in Rome. This wish to ignore what academics thought about his music really came through in his time in Rome. In June 1885 he wrote that ‘I am sure the institute would not approve…there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!’ The works that he submitted to the academy in this time were, as he predicted, not well received. They felt his music was somewhat bizarre yet this was the beginning from which his later stylistic features would emerge. In 1888-9 Debussy visited Bayreuth and was exposed to the gargantuan cultural force of Wagnerian opera, which had a long-standing impact upon his work. He also met Erik Satie, who was a supporter of Debussy’s experimentally naming pieces, in a symbolist-influenced manner. Whilst attending the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, Debussy had his first contact with Javanese gamelan music, the scales, melodies, rhythms and ensemble textures of which he incorporated into some of his works, notably Pagodes from his piano collection Estampes. He died on March 25th 1918 in his Paris home from cancer. 

His music is generally noted for its sensory content and somewhat unusual use of tonality, as well as the distinct influence of symbolist literature. His works are inseparable from the impressionist movement, along with those of Ravel, despite the fact that Debussy disliked the term intensely, when applied to his compositions. His use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism can be heard in the works of many French composers to follow.


20th July 2024

Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra; The Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo
Michiyoshi Inoue
Minatomirai Hall, Yokohama, Japan


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