Early Life and Studies
Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, 22 August 1862, the eldest of five children. His father, Manuel-Achille Debussy, owned a shop where he sold china and crockery; his mother, Victorine Manoury Debussy, was a seamstress. The family moved to Paris in 1867, but in 1870 Debussy's pregnant mother sought refuge from the Franco-Prussian war with a paternal aunt of Claude's in Cannes. Debussy began piano lessons there at the age of seven years with an Italian violinist in his early forties named Cerutti; his lessons were paid for by his aunt. In 1871 he drew the attention of Marie Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have been a pupil of Frédéric Chopin. Debussy always believed her, although there is no independent evidence of her claim. His talents soon became evident, and in 1872, at age ten, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he spent eleven years. During his time there he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud, music history/theory with Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, harmony with Émile Durand, piano with Antoine François Marmontel, organ with César Franck, and solfège with Albert Lavignac, as well as other significant figures of the era. He also became a lifelong friend of fellow student and noted pianist Isidor Philipp. After Debussy's death, many pianists sought out Philipp for advice on playing his pieces.
From the start, though clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental. He challenged the rigid teaching of the Academy, favoring instead dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon. Like Georges Bizet, he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have had a professional career as such had he so wished. The pieces he played in public at this time included sonata movements by Beethoven, Schumann and Weber; and Chopin—the Ballade No. 2, a movement from the Piano Concerto No. 1, and the Allegro de concert, a relatively little-known piece but one requiring an advanced technique (it was originally intended to be the opening movement of a third piano concerto).
During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882 Debussy accompanied the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, as she travelled with her family in Europe and Russia. The young composer's many musical activities during these vacations included playing four-hand pieces with von Meck at the piano, giving music lessons to her children, and performing in private concerts with some of her musician friends. Despite von Meck's closeness with Tchaikovsky, the Russian master appears to have had minimal effect on Debussy. In September 1880 she sent Debussy's Danse bohémienne for Tchaikovsky's perusal. A month later Tchaikovsky wrote back to her, "It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity." Debussy did not publish the piece; the manuscript remained in the von Meck family, and it was sold to B. Schott's Sohne in Mainz, and published by them in 1932. A greater influence was Debussy's close friendship with Madame Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She and her husband gave Debussy emotional and professional support. Monsieur Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, the son-in-law of his former teacher, Mme. Mauté de Fleurville.
As the winner of the 1884 Prix de Rome with his composition L'enfant prodigue, Debussy received a scholarship to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which included a four-year residence at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome, to further his studies (1885–1887). According to letters to Madame Vasnier, perhaps in part designed to gain her sympathy, he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters "abominable". Neither did he delight in the pleasures of the "Eternal City", finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Debussy was often depressed and unable to compose, but he was inspired by Franz Liszt, whose command of the keyboard he found admirable.
In June 1885, Debussy wrote of his desire to follow his own way, saying, "I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!"
Debussy finally composed four pieces that were sent to the Academy: the symphonic ode Zuleima, based on a text by Heinrich Heine; the orchestral piece Printemps; the cantata La damoiselle élue (1887–1888), which was criticized by the Academy as "bizarre"; and the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. The third piece was the first in which stylistic features of Debussy's later style emerged. The fourth piece was heavily based on César Franck's music and Debussy withdrew it. The Academy chided him for "courting the unusual" and hoped for something better from the gifted student. Even though Debussy's works showed the influence of Jules Massenet, Massenet concluded, "He is an enigma."
During his visits to Bayreuth in 1888-9, Debussy was exposed to Wagnerian opera, which had a lasting impact on his work. Richard Wagner had died in 1883 and the cult of Wagnerism was still in full swing. Debussy, like many young musicians of the time, responded positively to Wagner's sensuousness, mastery of form, and striking harmonies. Wagner's extroverted emotionalism was not to be Debussy's way, but the German composer's influence is evident in La damoiselle élue and the 1889 piece Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire. Other songs of the period, notably the settings of Verlaine—Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, and Fêtes galantes—are all in a more capricious style. Around this time, Debussy met Erik Satie, who proved a kindred spirit in his experimental approach to composition and to naming his pieces. During this period, both musicians were bohemians enjoying the same cafe society and struggling to stay afloat financially.
In 1889, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music. Although direct citations of gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or ensemble textures have not been identified in any of Debussy's compositions, the equal-tempered pentatonic scale appears in his music of this time and afterward.
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