Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Claude Debussy photo Debussy was born in Paris and learned piano initially from his Aunt and later from some of France's finest teachers. He was clearly gifted as a pianist and a composer, won the Prix de Rome for composition and travelled around Europe meeting Liszt and Verdi among others, and also hearing the latest music from the pen of Wagner. However his music did not in any way resemble that of these other composers. Debussy was regarded as somewhat unconventional, always questioning the boundaries of musical traditions. He found a like-minded mentor in Erik Satie and inspired by his musical philosophy and the paintings of his countrymen such as Monet, he developed his own style of music which others labelled "impressionism" in parallel with the artistic movement. Although Debussy disliked the term, it aptly describes the impact on the listener where musical colours and textures assume greater importance as building blocks than the thematic material. Those musical colours involved different scales (such as the pentatonic scale) which Debussy had observed in music from outside the traditional European schools.

Claude Debussy - detail from painting His usage of the piano in particular was revolutionary, his music seeming to largely avoid the percussive tendencies of the instrument in favour of weaving strands together to create flowing waves or delicate flourishes. His music genuinely painted pictures in a way which had not been done before, though those pictures were not so much rigorously programmatic as evocative allowing the imagination of the listener to fill in the story.

The Joy of Claude Debussy - sheet music book cover Debussy's new impressionist style translated well into his orchestral music where the additional colours available gave more freedom of expression. Among these orchestral works you will find "La Mer" and "Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune" and also his opera "Pelléas et Mélisande". His well-known piano music includes sets of "Images", "Préludes" and "Études", the "Suite Bergamesque" and "Children's Corner". The latter work was dedicated to his only child Claude-Emma who died aged 14. The Golliwog's Cakewalk is the final piece from this suite and clearly influenced by ragtime music as popularised by composers such as Scott Joplin. Undoubtedly one of his most popular piano pieces is the evocative Clair de Lune which comes from his "Suite Bergamasque". On mfiles you will also find the First Arabesque for piano from his collection of two called "Deux Arabesque".

Debussy's novel methods were to have a great lasting influence on the direction of 20th Century music. Many later French composers were to follow and adapt his lead including Maurice Ravel and "Les Six".

Claude Debussy - Sheet Music Recommendations:

If you play piano and have tried our free sheet music samples, there is much more to be explored amongst Debussy's fine piano music, and we suggest the following titles as places to start. You may also wish to try the piano music of Erik Satie who was an influence on Debussy.


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