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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy was born at St Germain-en-Laye on August 22, 1862. His father was a travelling salesman and his mother worked as a seamstress.

The family moved to Paris in 1867, but three years later Claude's mother fled the French capital with young Claude in 1870, when the city was under siege during the Franco Prussian War. They settled in Cannes, where Claude's paternal aunt lived.

He had his first piano lesson aged 10 and entered the Paris Conservatoire at the same age. Within three years Debussy was playing Chopin piano concertos.

As a schoolboy Claude Debussy was teased by his fellow pupils as he would only eat the daintiest and most expensive chocolates.

He became a brilliant pianist and sight reader, but Claude Debussy's real interest lay in composition.

"A pupil with a considerable gift for harmony but desperately careless" (From Debussy's Conservatoire report 1879)

Debussy had a pale complexion, flabby body, vivacious black eyes under heavy drooping lips. He had an enormous forehead and long locks of dark curly hair.

Debussy, by Marcel Baschet, 1884

He was nervous by temperament and fanatical about his music. He loved order and clarity.

Debussy spoke in a soft voice, slowly as if seeking the right word.

He travelled to Florence, Venice, Vienna, and Moscow in 1879 as private musician to Nadejda von Meck, the patron of Russian composer Tchaikovsky.

Debussy won the much coveted Grand Prix de Rome in 1884 for his cantata L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son).

At the age of 18 Debussy began an eight-year affair with Marie-Blanche Vasnier, wife of a Parisian civil servant. The relationship eventually faltered following his winning of the Prix de Rome in 1884 and obligatory residence in Rome.

In 1899 he married fashion model Rosalie ('Lilly') Texier, after threatening suicide if she refused him. He got a job as music critic of a journal called La revue blanche.

Although Texier was affectionate, practical, straightforward, and well liked by Debussy's friends and associates, he became increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. Moreover, her looks had prematurely aged, and she was unable to bear children.

In 1904, Debussy started an affair with Emma Bardac, wife of Parisian banker Sigismond Bardac. Debussy wrote to Texier informing her their marriage was over.

A couple of months later Texier attempted suicide, shooting herself in the chest with a revolver; she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. The ensuing scandal was to alienate Debussy from many of his friends, whilst Bardac was disowned by her family.

In the spring of 1905, finding the hostility towards them intolerable, Debussy and the now pregnant Bardac fled to England, via Jersey. The couple settled at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne from July 24 to August 30, 1905.

The couple returned to Paris in September and their daughter (the composer's only child), Claude-Emma (known as "Chou-Chou"), was born there on October 30th.

Debussy and Bardiac were eventually married in 1908, their troubled union enduring until Debussy's death in 1918.

Photograph of Claude Debussy circa 1908

A slow composer, it would often take Debussy weeks to choose one chord in preference to another.

The symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was first performed in Paris on December 22, 1894, conducted by Gustave Doret. The work was based on a poem about a faun playing panpipes and falling into a languorous sleep after an exhausting session chasing nymphs around the woods.  The tone poem was intended by Debussy to be the first of three pieces, but the planned Interlude and Paraphrase Finale were never written.

In 1912 a ballet choreographed by the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1850-1950) using the music of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was premiered in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The production caused quite a scandal when Nijinsky - dressed up as a faun - performed an erotic dance to the piece on the stage.

Debussy's 1902 opera Pelléas et Mélisande, based on the play of the same name by the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck, earned him widespread fame as a musician of outstanding significance.

Pelléas et Mélisande was at first thought utterly tuneless. At the public dress rehearsal hecklers shouted "When will the orchestra stop tuning up? and "Now give us some music". The hostility at its premiere was additionally fuelled by the choice of the young Scottish soprano Mary Garden to play Mélisande, whose imperfect French accent was not to the Parisian public's liking.

Debussy rarely visited the sea, spending most of his time far away from large bodies of water. He drew inspiration for “La Mer” from art, preferring the seascapes available in painting and literature.
Part of it was written in Jersey in the Channel Islands.

The Suite bergamasque, which consists of four movements, is one of the most famous piano suites of Claude Debussy. The best known part is the third movement, titled "Clair de lune," meaning moonlight. It was named after Paul Verlaine's 1869 poem of the same name,

Children's Corner was a piano suite composed for his daughter Chou Chou in 1908. Three of the pieces were musical pictures of her favorite toys, her elephant, Jimbo, her doll and her gollywog.

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is based on a poem about a faun playing panpipes and falling into a languorous sleep after an exhausting session chasing nymphs around the woods. It caused quite a scandal when in 1912, Nijinsky - dressed up as a faun - performed an erotic dance to the piece on the Paris stage.

Debussy had a number of Persian cats. Three of them died by falling from his window.

One of Debussy’s last works was written as a trade for some coal. As supplies were scarce and therefore expensive in France during World War I, the composer offered to write his coal merchant an original composition, "Les Soirs illumines par l'ardeur du charbon" (Evenings Lighted By Burning Coals.) In return, he got his fuel.

Just before Debussy died, he attempted to write an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher.

In 1909 Debussy learned that he was afflicted with rectal cancer, from which he painfully died on March 25, 1918. He was interred at Paris Cimetière de Passy.

Debussy passed away during the bombardment of Paris by airships and long-distance guns in the last German offensive of World War I. This was a time when the military situation of France was considered desperate by many, and these circumstances did not permit his being paid the honor of a public funeral, or ceremonious graveside orations, or festivals of his works. The funeral procession made its way through deserted streets as shells from the German guns ripped into his beloved city.

Sources Encarta Encyclopedia, Wikipedia

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