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Claude Debussy (1862—1918)

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Claude Debussy strayed from the norms of musical style and harmony, and discovered a realm of tonality and chords that revolutionized music. Born near Paris on March 25 , 1918, Debussy was the son of poverty stricken parents who could not afford to provide for their five children. Four children were sent to live with a relatively wealthy aunt, and Debussy was the only child who was raised by his parents. They proved to be extremely devoted to Debussy, and encouraged his interest in music. Debussy’s initial study of music was funded by his aunt. She found the boy his first teacher, Cerutti, and then hired Madame Fleurville, a woman who had studied under Chopin, to further develop Debussy’s skills. Under Fleurville’s direction Debussy made great strides, and was accepted by the Paris Conservatory at the age of eleven.

The conservatory was the site of Debussy’s education for the next eleven years. There, he incited the disapproval of the academicians who taught him. Steeped in tradition, and startled by any deviation from the accepted forms of harmony, Debussy’s instructors were often angered by his daring and unusual approach to music.

On leaving the conservatory, Debussy embroiled himself in multiple love affairs. His first infatuation was with Madame Vasnier, an older, married singer who Debussy would occasionally accompany. Madame Vasnier and her husband appreciated Debussy’s talents, and for five years the composer did a great deal of his studying and composing at their home. Debussy dedicated many of his pieces to Madame Vasnier, and lavished great affection upon her. In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome, an honor that required Debussy to live and compose in Rome for the next three years. He was absolutely miserable there, and fled back to Paris with the desire to remain with the Vasniers. Fortunately, the Vasniers convinced him of the importance of completing the requirements of the Prix de Rome, and Debussy returned to Rome.

On returning to Paris after three years, Gabrielle Dupont became the next source of Debussy’s musical inspiration. They lived together for ten years, and Gabrielle took care of the household while Debussy composed. During this time, Debussy constantly frequented cafes where he would meet and converse with the Impressionist painters, Manet and Renoir. In discussing the change that was taking place in art, Debussy perceived the need for music to incorporate new ideas. He wanted his pieces to reflect precision and objectivity, rather than the pomp and excess that he believed the German Romantic schools encouraged. Debussy began writing Peileas et Melisande, an opera that took him ten years to complete, and that reflects the originality of his style. The success of this opera established Debussy as one of the most noteworthy composers in France.

Rosalie Texier, a beautiful brunette, soon caught Debussy’s attention, and Gabrielle Dupont was quickly abandoned. Debussy married Rosalie, and later discovered that he had no interests in common with her. Thus, after three years of marriage, Debussy sought affection from a new woman, Emma Bardac, the wife of a banker. Although Rosalie attempted suicide, Debussy could not be persuaded to continue living with her. Debussy and Emma divorced their spouses and immediately married one another.

Together, Debussy and Emma had a daughter, and the birth of this child put an end to the composer’s constant quest for new love affairs. He remained a devoted husband to Emma for the rest of his life. Debussy suffered a great deal as he grew older. He had an advanced form of cancer, and often lacked the funds for food and fuel. Nevertheless, he continued composing. A visionary, Debussy perceived and established a style of musical expression that transcended the accepted traditions. His music challenged and enchanted, drawing the listener into a mystical web of impressions.

Notes by Shanaira Udwadia (June-2001)