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Claude Debussy
Clawd Duh-bew-see’

A composer of the late Romantic era and early twentieth century

who composed in a style known as impressionism.

BornAugust 22, 1862 near Paris, France died March 25, 1918 Paris, France

When Claude Debussy was three, his father went bankrupt and sent Claude to be raised by an aunt. His aunt was a great supporter of the arts and introduced Claude to music and art by taking him to concerts and art galleries. With his aunt's support, Claude began taking piano lessons. He showed considerable talent, and at age 11 he entered the Paris Conservatory of Music.

He studied off and on at the conservatory for eleven years. During those years he began composing and several of his compositions won awards. In 1880, while still studying at the conservatory. Debussy acquired a patroness. Madame Nadezhda von Meck, the same wealthy woman who supported Peter Tchaikovsky. Through Madame von Meck, he became familiar with the music of Tchaikovsky.

When he was 21, one of his compositions, a cantata entitled L' Enfant Prodigue, won an award known as the Prix de Rome. As the winner, Debussy was required to live and compose in Rome, Italy, for three years. While in Rome, he sent several compositions back to the conservatory in Paris, but they were not well received by conductors or audiences. Nor were his compositions successful with Italian audiences.

After returning to France at age 25, Debussy became a part of the arts scene in Paris, which included painters, writers, poets, and composers. Here he developed a philosophy of composition in which he strived to create, musically, the same images and emotions created by the school of French painters known as Impressionists. This resulted in music much different from the music that was popular with Paris audiences of the time.

The culmination of his new philosophy was his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which was performed in 1902 to mixed reviews, although audiences seemed to like it. This Impressionistic opera made Debussy famous. He now had many devoted followers, and began to compose more music for orchestra and piano in the same Impressionistic style. The works he composed between 1903 and 1910 were popular with audiences and helped to create an interest in new music for the new century.

In spite of financial and health problems for the last ten years of his life, Debussy continued working, but his final works were not as creative as his earlier ones.

Although his music was called Impressionistic, Debussy disliked the term when it was applied to his music. His music explored new harmonies which were further developed by composers who came after him. His style was as a transition between the melodic music of nineteenth century music and the rhythmic music of the twentieth century.

Claude Debussy was a popular and recognized figure in early twentieth century Paris, often walking the streets in a cape and broad-brimmed hat. His greatest joy was spending time with other creative people in the many cafés of Paris.

Debussy Factoids:

  • Many of Debussy's works were violently disliked by critics and performers.

  • His music greatly influenced many twentieth century composers including Aaron Copland.

  • Debussy met Richard Wagner at Wagner's Bayreuth theater in 1888. He recognized Wagner's greatness but felt Wagner's operas were a musical ''dead end."

  • Although Debussy and Peter Tchaikovsky were supported by the same musical patron, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, the two composers never met.

  • He enjoyed listening to the music of China and Japan, which he heard at a World Exposition in Paris in 1899.

1862: Birth of Claude Debussy; Victor Hugo writes Les Miserables.

1865: President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated on April 14.

1877: Claude Monet, the French Impressionist painter, paints Old St. Lazare Station, Paris.

1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated in New York Harbor.

1893: Hawaii is proclaimed a republic; annexed by treaty to U.S. in February, then in March the treaty is withdrawn.

1900: Hubert Cecil Booth from Great Britain invents the vacuum cleaner.

1904: Helen Keller, blind and deaf from age 19 months, graduates from Radcliffe College, aided by teacher-interpreter Annie Sullivan.

1911: Baseball great Cy Young retires after a 21-year career: baseball's annual award for best pitcher would be named for him.

1918: Death of Claude Debussy; airmail is introduced in the U.S.; federal government issues first airmail stamp.


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Clair de lune

This composition was written for piano in 1890 and was originally called Promenade Sentimentale. Later, Debussy revised it, and gave it the name Clair de lune. It finally became one of four pieces that make up Suite Bergamasque, which was published in 1905. The Bergamasque is a sixteenth century Italian dance, but this charming movement is only an illusion to the dance. The poem Clair de lune by Paul Verlaine was symbolic in nature and Debussy was fascinated by this. The English translation of ''Clair de lune'' is "moonlight.''

The music makes you sense the moonlight. Clair de lune is a good example of the Impressionistic style of music. Debussy was one of the first composers to write in an Impressionistic style, giving it a form and a spirit. Maurice Ravel is another composer who wrote in the French Impressionist style. Impressionist artists include Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.

Impressionism is the creation of an emotion, an image or a feeling. Impressionist music is usually based on atmospheric effects or descriptive ideas. There are clouds, trees, water and moonlight symbolized by the spirit of Clair de lune.

  • Notice how the musical rhythm is not accentuated; rather it is delicate, weightless and free.

  • Raise your hand when you think the main part of the piece begins.

This listening example is a piano solo.


The first melody is played very softly. There is no introduction; the melody begins immediately. Note that the melody is played by the right hand (higher notes) and chords are played by the left hand (lower notes).

The first melody is developed.

Listen for the full, rich chords which support this melody, which is played in octaves. This section truly represents the musical style of Impressionism.

Listen for the broken chords (arpeggios).

A new melody is presented, accompanied by more arpeggios.

The previous melody is repeated and developed.

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