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Claude Debussy: Claude Debussy (b. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d. Paris, 5 March 1918).
Claude Debussy was born above his parents' china shop where the family lived: he was named Achille-Claude and dropped the first of these names only after he grew up. Manuel Debussy and his wife appear both to have been rather casual towards their children (the composer later referred to his father as un vieux galvaudeux or layabout, though not wholly without affection) but his aunt Clementine, who kept a dress shop and enjoyed the protection of a wealthy man, Achille Arosa, took an interest in young Claude from the start, she and Arosa becoming his godparents. She went to live at Cannes, marrying in 1871; Claude Debussy visited her there and it was in that southern resort that he received his first piano lessons in 1871. Further lessons followed with a Chopin disciple, Madame Maute, in Paris.
In 1872, encouraged by Madame Maute's belief in his future as a musician, Claude Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire. He was a strange shy boy, with an oddly bulging forehead which embarrassed him and which he tried to cover with his hair. But his teachers found him 'charming', with 'a truly artistic temperament'; while as a pianist capable of playing Chopin's Second Ballade at the age of twelve, he was considered as promising to be 'a virtuoso of the first order'. Later, though, his piano playing became less orthodox: it is odd to learn that this most refined of keyboard composers played 'heavily ... he appeared to be in a rage with the instrument, puffing noisily in difficult passages.' Finally his sympathetic teacher Marmontel had to conclude, 'He doesn't care much for the piano - but he does love music'.
From about 1876 Claude Debussy had been composing songs mainly, but also pieces for piano, violin and 'cello; but he continued with the piano and was able to earn a little money by playing. In 1880, indeed, he secured a post as pianist in the household of Nadezhda von Meek, Tchaikovsky's wealthy patroness, accompanying her to Switzerland, Italy and finally Moscow. Another patroness, Madame Wilson-Pelouze, together with a young theory teacher called Lavignac, brought him into contact with Wagner's music, and in 1888, with Madame Pelouze, he was to hear Parsifal and Meister singer at Bayreuth. But the influence of Russian composers from the von Meek period - Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and of course Tchaikovsky - was also important, that of the latter composer perhaps especially in the delicately passionate songs which belong to this time, including settings of Verlaine. It was in the performance of songs and violin pieces that he made his first public appearance as a composer, on the 12th May 1882: the singer on that occasion, Madame Vasnier, was perhaps the first woman with whom he fell in love. His nature was always strongly sensuous; however, in this particular case no physical relationship has been proved.
In 1884 Claude Debussy won the coveted Prix de Rome for composition with his cantata L'Enfant prodigue: It was a triumph of self-discipline for such an un-academic artist: he had schooled himself to write fugues and choral exercises for the preliminary stages of the competition, and even the cantata itself was in a 'safe' style compared to other music he was composing. He left for the prescribed period of residence in Rome early in 1885. He quickly became homesick for Paris, but he composed in Italy and he met and played to Liszt; he also heard Liszt play and liked his subtle pedalling. He enjoyed the music of Lassus and Palestrina which he heard at Liszt's suggestion, austerely visionary religious pieces whose spirit was echoed much later in his piano piece called The Submerged Cathedral and his Saint-Sebastien incidental music.
Returning to Paris in 1887, Claude Debussy lived with his parents, though they showed some disappointment at their supposedly brilliant son's failure to bring them affluence. He continued a self-educating process, reading extensively and closely associating himself with the growing Wagnerian cult, visiting Bayreuth as well as attending several performances of the operas in Paris. In time, however, he began to react against this influence, so strong that it restricted the growth of many otherwise promising talents. Firstly he decided that Wagner was not 'the birth of a new music'; then he became 'the ghost of old Klingsor... the old poisoner'. Even so, Parsifal remained a work to which he responded all his life, 'one of the most beautiful monuments ever raised to music', and he once confessed to seeking in his own music to create 'an orchestral colour illuminated as from behind of which there are such wonderful effects in Parsifal'.
With his string quartet in 1893, and the Prelude a I'Apres-midi d'un Faune for orchestra in the following year, Claude Debussy began to reach a wider public at the same time as finding himself as a mature composer. At this time he was living with the green-eyed Gaby Dupont. Finally he left her and married Lilly Texier in October 1899: they had already lived together and then separated, but suddenly he wished to marry her, threatening suicide if she refused. They moved to a small flat at 58 rue Cardinet; money was short and the composer gave a piano lesson on the wedding morning to pay for the reception. His marriage closely followed that of his nearest friend, the writer Pierre Louys, 'the friend I have loved the most'; they were pleased and amused by their new-found domesticity, leaving visiting cards at each other's homes. It looks as if Louys, who was wealthy, helped him financially; but his debts increased, and matters were made worse by his wife's poor health. Claude Debussy's love life was plagued with misfortune; in 1904 Lilly attempted suicide when he left her for Emma Bardac, whom he eventually married in 1908 after his divorce and who was the mother of his only child, Claude-Emma, born in 1905.
In 1902 the opera Pelleas et Melisande was produced in Paris: with its text by Maeterlinck, it had fascinated and occupied Claude Debussy over a period of years; now it quickly won him admirers (as well as detractors) and even created a cult of 'debussysme'. The quasi-bohemian artist whose development had been comparatively slow now received the Legion d'Honneur and was appointed to the advisory board of the Conservatoire. His second wife was well-off; but in any case, ironically, he was henceforth to be financially more stable through the practice of his profession. He was in demand abroad - in Belgium, Holland, England, Austria-Hungary and (in 1913) Russia, where he conducted his own music in Moscow and St Petersburg.
But from this time onwards his health gave him trouble; already in 1909 he suffered from frequent haemorrhages and people remarked on his morbidly sallow complexion. The outbreak of war in 19 14 profoundly shocked him: first he could not compose, then he felt that he owed it to his country to do so. In 1915 he underwent an operation for cancer of the rectum. It was fairly successful, but for the rest of his life he had to use a colostomy device: no wonder that he described the act of dressing as like 'one of the twelve labours of Hercules'. Radium and morphine were administered. 'I wonder after all whether this illness isn't incurable,' he wrote, 'in which case I'd better be told....' He was anxious to be reassured about the quality of his recent music, which included three instrumental sonatas and the piano etudes; but in October 1917 he wrote despairingly, 'Music has quite left me, and I have never forced anyone's love.' By the beginning of the following year he was confined to his room, where he died peacefully on the 25th March 1918: his young daughter wrote that he looked 'happy, oh so happy!' The Minister of Education was present at the funeral, but comparatively few of the composer's friends. A woman stood in a shop doorway in Montmartre and watched the cortege. 'It seems he was a musician', she said.
Claude Debussy is usually called an impressionist composer, and the term links his work with painters like Monet (whose water pictures are akin to Claude Debussy's Reflets dansl'eau for piano) and with the poetry of Mallarme. Indeed it was Claude Debussy's musical evocation of Mallarme's L'Apres-midi d'un Faune that helped to establish this style. Often the subjects which inspired him are pictorial and somehow elusive, so that he chose titles like Brouillards ('Mists'), Nuages ('Clouds'), Cloches a t ravers les feuilles ('Bells heard through the leaves') which are themselves poetic; more 'literary' titles include a Puck's Dance and Homage to Mr Pickwick which remind us of his attraction to English writers. Yet he remains one of the purest of all musicians. He went back to the mysterious sources of inspiration as few others have done; for him, music was not a mere language to be learned and used, but 'all colours and rhythms'. Preferring suggestion to direct statement, he explored the strange world of waking dreams. He trusted no 'lifeless rules invented by pedants': rather, it was his instinct that he followed, and in the process he brought into music a unique world of sensibility. Thus his music is never intellectual in the sense of elaborately contrived; indeed melody is an important feature always, and this has helped to make Claude Debussy's work genuinely popular. He is perhaps the most subtly and profoundly influential of all the 20th century's composers so far; and his influence, which has reached to a remarkable extent into popular music, appears to be increasing today as musicians once again seek for the essential bases of their art.
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