Life and Work




Claude Debussy was the eldest of five children born to china shop owner Manuel-Achille Debussy and his seamstress wife, Victorine.  Debussy received an extensive classical musical education at the Paris Conservatoire, then the leading music school in the world.  He entered the Conservatoire in the fall of 1872 at the age of ten and left twelve years later as an extraordinarily accomplished musician and inventive composer who would go on to have a major impact on the course of twentieth-century music.  His private life was complicated and tumultuous. Love interests and friendships came and went, and his finances, despite his many successes, remained precarious. 

Debussy’s early works of the 1890s include his well-known Clair de lune, for piano, and the orchestral Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, 1894), written as musical response to Stéphane Mallarmé’s great, but enigmatic, poem Afternoon of a Faun (1876).  His only completed opera, Pelléas and Mélisande(1902), a reworking of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, firmly established his reputation.  His later works include the orchestral pieces The Sea (La Mer) and Nocturnes, his Estampesand Préludesfor piano, and Games (Jeux), commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes and choreographed as a ballet of the same title by the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in 1913. The previous year, Nijinsky created a scandal with the ballet he choreographed to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Like many musicians and artists of his time, Debussy was influenced by the operas of Richard Wagner, around whose work a kind of artistic, cultural, and socio-political cult known as “Wagnerianism” developed in France.  Debussy, however, would eventually distance himself from the high emotionalism and drama of Wagner’s music to compose in his own original voice. His shimmering textures, occasional use of whole-tone and pentatonic scales, and harmonies linked by parallel chords constructed an iridescent musical bridge from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

Image Credit: Félix Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). French, 1820–1910. Claude Debussy, 1905. Photograph

Sound file:  Excerpt from Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune) by Claude Debussy, introduced by Professor Mary Ellen Birkett,  French Studies Department, Smith College (introduction written by Professor Peter Bloom, Music Department, Smith College). Produced by RBH Multimedia, Inc.