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Timeline: Claude Debussy

U.S. Public Domain
French composer, Claude Debussy, ushered in the 20th century with his revolutionary approach to melody and harmony.

Once in a great while an artist steps on to the scene that challenges the status quo and changes the way we look at art forever. At the dawning of the 20th century, France saw several of these individuals. Stephane Mallarme’s symbolic poetry and Claude Monet’s impressionistic paintings helped pave the way for new expression in their art forms. In the world of music, Claude Debussy stands as that pivotal figure whose works ushered in new sounds and ideas.

Debussy was the youngest of five children. His father owned a china shop and his mother was a seamstress. He started taking piano lessons at the age of 7 and by the time he was 10 he was admitted into the Paris Conservatory. His early reputation was as a performer. He could have easily had a career as a concert pianist, but his heart was in composition.

If Debussy’s heart was in composition, his ear was in a different world altogether. The musical establishment didn’t know what to make of his experimental works. The French Academy in Rome called his music “bizarre”, Tchaikovsky was quite critical and Jules Massenet simply referred to Debussy as “an enigma.” But this criticism didn’t deter him. As Debussy stated, “…There is no help for it! I am too enamored of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!”

Credit US-PD
This photo, taken in 1893, shows Claude Debussy playing the piano for his good friend Ernest Chausson and his family.

Indeed, it’s been said that Debussy’s only true love was his music. His personal life was one romantic scandal after another; full of affairs, marriages and divorce. It wasn’t until the birth of his daughter, Claude-Emma, when he was 46, that Debussy finally settled down. Emma is the inspiration for his popular Children’s Corner suite.

In a letter, Debussy wrote, “I am trying to do something different…”. His music established a new language where the sounds created were more important than their traditional function. He modulated keys freely, allowed harmonies to blur together and even had competing keys playing against each other simultaneously. His melodies experimented with unusual scales; such as the whole tone scale (a dreamy assent up the octave) and modes (ancient church scales abandoned for centuries). Debussy’s music was an outpouring of his faith in “mysterious Nature”, his religion of choice. Many of his works call to the sky, the earth and the sea, painting these elements with sound.

Debussy was diagnosed with cancer the year after Emma was born. He wrestled with his illness for 9 years and passed away in 1918 while German bombs fell on the city of Paris. That was the sound that occupied his burial as World War I ragged through France. A year later, Claude-Emma passed away as well in the diphtheria epidemic.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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