20 Things You Don’t Know About Claude Debussy
You’ve probably heard about Claude Debussy plenty of times before right?
Countless books and documentary films have detailed the life and works of this famous French composer. His best-loved piano piece the “Clair De Lune” has been played in the background of thousands of movie scenes throughout the years, including Twilight and Man on Fire. Claude Debussy remains to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. And even a century after his death, his music continues to inspire both modern pianists and music students alike.
Famous for more than just his music, Claude Debussy’s life was filled with interesting and surprising facts that aren’t always known. Interested to know more?
Here are 20 things you don’t know about Claude Debussy!
1. Claude Debussy was born in Paris, France.
He was born on August 22, 1862 in Saint-German-en-Laye, a large commune located in the western suburbs of Paris, France. The original house where he was born has since been converted into a biographical museum about the composer, now called Maison Claude Debussy.
2. Claude Debussy’s family was poor and had no interest in music.
His father ran a china shop on the ground floor of their childhood home, while his mother was a seamstress who catered mostly to locals. The shop was unsuccessful and was closed in 1864. The family was forced to move to Clichy, Paris where his father worked in a printing shop.
3. Claude Debussy started piano lessons at the early age of 7.
To escape the Siege of Paris, Claude Debussy’s mother took him and his sister Adele to their aunt’s house in Cannes. His aunt noticed his musical talent and paid for his first piano lessons at age 7 with an Italian musician. Like other famous pianist, soon he became good at piano. He was selected at Top 30 Famous Piano Players of All Time.
4. Claude Debussy’s music career began with his father’s imprisonment during the war.
While Claude and his mother and siblings moved to Cannes, his father remained in Paris and joined the Paris Commune – a radical socialist and revolutionary government during the Franco-German War. He was later arrested and served one year in prison. One of the people he met during his time in jail was Charles de Sivry, a bohemian musician whose mother Madame Maute de Fleurville was an excellent pianist. Sivry persuaded his mother to take in a young Claude Debussy as one of her pupils. Before his death, Claude Debussy wrote that he owed what little he knew about the piano to Madame Maute de Fleurville.
5. At only 10 years old, Claude Debussy entered the Paris Conservatory.
Under Madame Maute de Fleurville’s tutelage, a 10-year-old Claude Debussy was admitted to the Paris Conservatory – a prestigious college of music. He was one of 33 new students in 1872. During his 11 year stay at the Conservatory, he studied piano under Antoine Francois Marmontel and Albert Lavignac. He later took composition classes with several famous French musicians, including the likes of Emile Durand and Cesar Franck.
6. Claude Debussy was a strange and distracted student.
At the Conservatory, Claude Debussy was always late and would often skip classes. His teachers found it difficult to discipline him and noticed he had an artist’s temperament: he was moody and easily angered. Many of his instructors and fellow students acknowledged his talent, but often found his early music strange and bizarre. His classmates described him as clumsy, awkward and highly unsociable.
7. While he was still a student, Claude Debussy had an affair with a married woman.
While at the Conservatory, Claude worked as an accompanist in a singing class. One of the members of the class was Marie Vasnier – the young wife of Henri Vasnier, a prominent civil servant. She had two children and was 14 years older than Claude who was only 18 at the time. They began a secret affair that lasted for seven years. Marie was Claude’s first great love and muse to whom he dedicated 27 songs to her, including “La Romance” and “Les Cloches”. Her husband, Henri Vasnier, never found out about the affair and continued to support Claude Debussy throughout his career.
8. Claude Debussy won the Prix de Rome at the age of 22.
The Prix de Rome was France’s most prestigious musical award. It was a French arts scholarship that allowed winners to stay for three years in Rome at the expense of the government. He had previously joined two times but lost because the jury found his pieces bizarre and unplayable. One his third try, he entered his composition piece “L’Enfant Prodigue” (The Prodigal Child) and took home the top prize. His winning scholarship gave him the opportunity to study for three years in the Academie des Beaux-Arts located in the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy. His studies focused on Italian opera, particularly the music of German composer Richard Wagner and his opera “Tristan und Isolde.” During his stay in Rome, he was often distressed and unable to compose. He returned to Paris after two years and was never able to complete his scholarship.
9. Tchaikovsky rejected Claude Debussy’s early work.
In 1880, a wealthy patroness sent Claude Debussy’s piece “Bohemienne” to Tchaikovsky – the famous Russian composer. He was not impressed with the work, saying it was “terribly shriveled and lacked unity.”
10. Claude Debussy’s love affairs drove two women to attempt suicide.
Unlike his relaxing music, Claude Debussy’s love life was messy and problematic. In 1890, Claude began a relationship with Gabrielle “Gaby” DuPont, a tailor’s daughter. After living together for years, he had an affair with the singer Therese Roger and abruptly left Gaby. Distraught by the break-up, Gaby threatened to commit suicide. The affair became a public scandal with many of Claude’s supporters and friends disowning him because of his poor treatment of women.
Claude eventually ended up marrying a model named Lilly Texier. The marriage lasted for only four years because Claude was eventually frustrated at her lack of interest in music and fragile health. Hurt and full of sorrow because of their separation, Lilly Texier shot herself in the chest with a revolver five days before their fifth anniversary. She survived but the bullet remained stuck in her body. The incident was the talk of the town, and Claude Debussy was again shunned by the public.
11. Claude Debussy married the mother of one of his students.
While teaching music, one of Claude Debussy’s students was Raoul Bardac – a brilliant young boy who later grew up to become a classical pianist. Young Raoul introduced Claude to his mother Emma Bardac, a singer and the wife of a Parisian baker. Emma was sophisticated and smart. She had already been the subject of a previous scandal, having had a past love affair with another famous composer Gabriel Faure. Claude instantly fell in love with Emma from the first time they met.
In the summer of 1904, Claude Debussy took Emma with him on a secret vacation in Jersey. There, he wrote to his then wife Lilly Texier and told her that their marriage was over. This ultimately led to the Lilly shooting herself. Though she survived, the love affair between Claude and Emma became public. Emma’s family disowned her and Claude’s lost more friends and supporters.
Both Claude Debussy and Emma finalized their respective divorces in 1905. Throughout their relationship, the couple was publicly criticized for the love affair. To escape the shame, Claude and a pregnant Emma left for England. The couple returned to Paris just before the birth of their child and bought a large house in a courtyard development. Claude Debussy married Emma in 1908 and they stayed together until their last days.
12. Claude Debussy was awarded the Legion of Honor.
In 1903, Claude Debussy was appointed as a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. The Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) is the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits.
13. Claude Debussy only had one child – a daughter called Chouchou.
In 1905, Claude Debussy’s wife Emma gave birth to a daughter. The couple named her Claude-Emma Debussy and lovingly gave her the nickname “Chouchou”. Inspired by his daughter’s birth, Claude Debussy composed the piano piece “Children’s Corner” in her honor.
14. Claude Debussy’s real name is Achille Claude Debussy.
Claude Debussy was born with the full name Achille Claude Debussy, after his father Manuel-Achille. The name itself was the French/Italian form of the name “Achilles”. In 1890, he decided to drop the name Achille and came to be known simply as Claude.
15. Claude Debussy composed only one opera.
Claude Debussy composed only one opera: a five-act love story called “Pelleas et Melisande” that was completed in 1895. The opera premiered at the Opera-Comique in Paris on April 30, 1902. For the part of Melisande, Claude cast a 28 year old Scottish singer named Mary Garden. The audience and critics were divided: they either loved it or hated it.
While Debussy was only able to publish “Pelleas et Melisande,” he had a number of operas that remained unfinished. Two of them were adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories “The Devil in the Bellfry” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
16. Claude Debussy’s famous piece “La Mer” was initially hated by Parisian audiences.
“La Mer” was the second of Claude Debussy’s orchestral works composed between 1903 and 1905. He drew inspiration from art, constantly viewing paintings with seascapes. When it first premiered in Paris in 1905, the audience initially hated it. Because of its title (The Sea), audiences expected something grand and big like the ocean. Instead, they got something mild and relaxing and were clearly disappointed.
But when the piece was performed again in the US and Britain, the audience fell in love. It was performed for the second time in Paris in 1908. And this time, it was met with favorable reviews. Today, it remains to be one of Claude Debussy’s most frequently performed orchestral works.
17. Claude Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” was to be included in Walt Disney’s Fantasia but was cut at the last minute.
Perhaps the most famous of Claude Debussy’s orchestral works is “Clair De Lune” (Moonlight). Its name comes from poem of the same name by French poet Paul Verlaine.
In 1940, the fully orchestrated piece of “Clair de Lune” was supposed to be included in the Walt Disney animated film “Fantasia” where it was to be added as a background to the segment featuring herons flying through the everglades at night. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it was cut and was never included in the award-winning film. How Many Composers Are There For Disney?
18. Claude Debussy died in 1918 of colon cancer.
Claude Debussy was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 1909 – only a year after he married Emma Bardac. In 1915, he underwent a colostomy operation but his health continued to decline. He often wrote that even dressing himself was painful. His last concert, the premier of his Violin Sonata, was performed on September 14, 1917. Claude Debussy died at his home on March 25, 1918.
19. Claude Debussy was not given a public funeral.
Because his death occurred during the rage of World War I, he was never given a public funeral suited for a famous artist of the time. Instead, he was silently buried in a grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. A year after, his body was transferred to Passy Cemetery – his final resting place.
20. Claude Debussy’s wife and child were laid to rest in his grave.
Only a year after Claude Debussy’s death, his only child Claude-Emma died while recovering from diphtheria in 1919. One of the doctors had apparently given her the wrong medicine that ultimately led to her death. In 1934, Claude’s wife Emma passed away in 1934. Both his wife and child were interred in Claude Debussy’s grave in Passy cemetery.
Claude Debussy lived an extraordinary life – one that was tainted with scandal and notoriety, but was also filled with art, music and family love. He continues to be one of the most well-known French Impressionist musicians and continues to inspire many musicians for decades to come. Interested in learning Impressionist. Here is A Quick Summary of Impressionist Music