Debussy, Claude (1862-1918)

Claude Debussy

born: 22 August 1862
died: 25 March 1918
country: France

Claude-Achille Debussy was born above a china shop owned by his father. The date was 22 August 1862; the place was Saint-Germain-en-Laye—some twenty kilometres from Paris. There were no musicians in the family. His father Manuel had been in the military, and married a seamstress, Victorine Manoury. There was an uncle who moved to Manchester in 1872 and who taught music, but Debussy never met him or his three English cousins. As a boy he was called Claude. During his adolescence he switched to Achille, even going as far as signing his name Achille de Bussy. When he was thirty he reverted to Claude, and stuck with it.

His childhood was troubled and Debussy himself never spoke of it, while admitting that he hadn’t forgotten anything. When Claude was five the family moved to Paris, where his father became a travelling salesman. After the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 Manuel joined the National Guard. When the Commune was defeated he was sentenced to four years in prison, but only served one—an incident that was covered up in Debussy’s lifetime. His mother didn’t care much for bringing up children, and left the job mostly to her husband’s sister, Clémentine. Claude in fact never went to school—something he never quite overcame. His spelling remained faulty until the end.

The family moved house four times in five years, and they were always broke. Manuel Debussy (‘the old vagabond’, as his son later called him) did occasionally take his son to hear the operettas of Offenbach (which Debussy loved all his life) but decided that Claude was to be a sailor. In 1870 a pregnant Victorine took her children to Cannes where they stayed with Clémentine and her friend, the banker Achille-Antoine Arosa. It was there that Debussy received his first piano lessons, paid for by Arosa, with a certain Jean Cerutti (who seems to have been more of a violinist than a pianist). They returned to Paris the following year, in 1871, and took a small apartment in the Rue Pigalle. Manuel, while in a prison camp, made the acquaintance of Charles de Sivry, whose mother, Antoinette Mauté, was a piano teacher from whom Debussy took lessons. Although her claim to be a student of Chopin was probably far-fetched, Debussy’s did acquire his love for Chopin’s music from her. More importantly, perhaps, she was the mother-in-law of the poet Paul Verlaine, who wrote La bonne chanson for her daughter, Mathilde. She looked after her young pupil with great affection—something which Debussy later in life remembered with gratitude.

It was after only a few months of her tuition, at the age of eleven, that the gifted boy took the entrance exam at the Paris Conservatoire, and passed. His classmates later recalled that when he turned up for it he was wearing a sailor’s cap with a tassel. Debussy spent the next eleven years trying to be himself within an institution that didn’t want him to be anything of the sort. He started off by intending to prove himself as a pianist, but this didn’t work out as planned, much to the chagrin of his parents. He probably had a very personal idea of how the classical repertoire should be played. We know that Ambroise Thomas, the Director, very much disliked his interpretation of the F minor Prelude from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, saying that he had the presumptuousness to consider it a piece of music rather than just a simple exercise. His teacher, Marmontel, appreciated his gifts and predicted a great future for the boy who had ‘a true temperament of an artist’. He won certificates for playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 before he was twelve, and for one of the Ballades a year later. But despite his attempts, he never received a Premier Prix in piano. Perhaps his aversion to competitions accounted for his lack of success.

In the harmony class of Émile Durand, which he entered when he was fifteen, things were not much better. When Debussy refused to follow the rules, Durand would purposely keep his homework for the end of the class and then ravage it with corrections. There’s a story that once, when the teacher was getting ready to leave the room, Debussy went to the piano and brought forth cascades of his favourite chords, much to the delight of the students. Durand slammed the lid on his fingers. Twenty-five years later Debussy, who by then had revolutionized the language of music, admitted that he ‘didn’t do much in harmony class’.

He did finally get a Premier Prix in piano accompaniment and this allowed him to enter the composition class of Ernest Guiraud when he was eighteen. However, two other events from that same year were important to his formation. The first was an invitation from Nadezhda von Meck, the Russian businesswoman most famous for her friendship with and patronage of Tchaikovsky, to spend the summer with her family as piano teacher and accompanist. This he did three years in a row, forming a great attachment to them (and almost marrying one of the daughters). Madame von Meck called him ‘my little pianist’ and nicknamed him Bussyk, sending one of his compositions to Tchaikovsky for his opinion. (He found it very nice but lacking in unity.) Debussy travelled all over Europe with them, and of course stayed in Moscow where he became familiar with the Russian School. All of this opened his eyes to the wider world.

The second event was his meeting with the amateur singer Blanche-Adélaïde Vasnier—a married woman thirteen years his senior. She attended a singing class where Debussy was the accompanist—a job he had taken on to earn some money. He soon became a daily visitor to the Vasnier household where a room and piano were put at his disposal, living there more than with his parents. And of course he fell desperately in love. His first important compositions were the songs he dedicated to Madame Vasnier and with which he made his debut as a composer.

Debussy got along well with his composition professor, who socialized with his students outside of class, even playing billiards with them. In 1883 he competed for the famous Prix de Rome but was unsuccessful. He tried again the following year, and while waiting for the results on a bridge overlooking the Seine, a friend tapped him on the shoulder and said: ‘You got the prize!’. Debussy writes that at this moment ‘… my heart sank! I saw clearly the irritations and worries the smallest official position brings in its wake.’ As Jean Barraqué wrote in his excellent biography of the composer: ‘Every hindrance, every obligation was not only intolerable to him but undermined his vital forces. His pauses, his lazing around, his dreams—all were an integral part of his creativity. He wanted to decide at each instant what to do with his life.’

His years at the Villa Médicis in Rome, where the winners of the prize were sent, were for him a drag. He hated the place. He managed to escape several times (once meeting Mme Vanier in Dieppe without her husband’s knowledge) and finally left before the three years were up. Back in Paris, he was given a cold reception by the Vasniers (remarkably the husband had stayed a close friend and confidant throughout the affair with his wife), no doubt partly due to their disapproval of his leaving Rome. The subsequent ‘période bohème’ saw him frequenting cafés, travelling to Bayreuth to hear the operas of Wagner (paid for by a friend), hearing Javanese gamelan music at the Exposition Universelle in 1889, and frequenting the literary milieu—especially that of the symbolist poets. He didn’t get too involved with musical establishments. When asked to be a witness at a friend’s wedding, he wrote his profession in the register as ‘gardener’.

Compositions now started to be published. It is interesting to see that, although a pianist, the greatest advances in his early works were in the field of song (as seen in his beautiful Ariettes oubliées, for instance, to poems by Verlaine). They are much more advanced than his piano pieces of the same period. The latter include the Deux Arabesques, Danse, and the Suite bergamasque.

from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2012


Debussy & Ravel: String Quartets
Debussy, Fauré & Ravel: Piano Trios
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Debussy, Mozart & Glière: Harp Concertos
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Debussy: Images & Préludes II
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Debussy: La mer, Jeux & Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
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Debussy: Piano Music
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Debussy: Préludes
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Debussy: Solo Piano Music
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Debussy: Songs, Vol. 1
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Debussy: Songs, Vol. 3
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Debussy: Suite bergamasque, Estampes, Children's Corner & Pour le piano
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Debussy: The Complete Music for Two Pianos
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No Exceptions No Exemptions
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1917 - Works for violin & piano
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A Matthay Miscellany – Rare and unissued recordings by Tobias Matthay and his pupils
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Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 1 – 1947 Schumann, Chopin & Debussy
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Bartlett & Robertson – Selected recordings, 1927-1947
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Caprices & Fantasies
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Casals Encores
Eileen Joyce – The complete Parlophone & Columbia solo recordings
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For Children
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Glière, Debussy & Mozart: Harp Concertos
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Ibert & Rouse: Flute Concertos
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La Procession
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Mahler: Symphony No 4
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Michael Zadora – The complete recordings
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Moriz Rosenthal – The complete recordings
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Moura Lympany – The HMV Recordings, 1947-1952
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Musorgsky: Pictures at an exhibition
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Myra Hess – The complete solo and concerto studio recordings
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Paderewski – His earliest recordings
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Ravel & Debussy: String Quartets
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Ravel, Fauré & Debussy: Piano Trios
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Rouse & Ibert: Flute Concertos
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Stephen Hough in recital
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The Sea
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Vladimir Horowitz – The complete solo European recordings
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The Light Blues' Tour de France
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The Essential Hyperion, Vol. 1
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Debussy & Ravel: String Quartets
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Complete works available for download

Aimons-nous et dormons, L7Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Ariettes oubliées, L63Lisa Milne (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Caprice, L6Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Chanson triste, L24Jonathan McGovern (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Chansons de Bilitis, L97Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Children's Corner, L119Lívia Rév (piano)
Children's Corner, L119Angela Hewitt (piano)
Children's Corner, L119Alfred Cortot (piano)
Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire, L70Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Dans le jardin, L107Jonathan McGovern (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Danse sacrée et danse profane, L113Claire Jones (harp), English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Watkins (conductor)
Danse sacrée et danse profane, L113Stephen Coombs (piano), Christopher Scott (piano)
Danse, L77Angela Hewitt (piano)
Deux Arabesques, L74Angela Hewitt (piano)
En blanc et noir, L142Stephen Coombs (piano), Christopher Scott (piano)
En blanc et noir, L142Ethel Bartlett (piano), Rae Robertson (piano)
Estampes, L108Llŷr Williams (piano)
Estampes, L108Lívia Rév (piano)
Fête galante, L31Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Fêtes galantes I, L86Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Fêtes galantes II, L114Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Fleur des blés, L16Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Il dort encore, L34Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Images I, L105Lívia Rév (piano)
Images I, L105Marc-André Hamelin (piano) NEW
Images II, L120Lívia Rév (piano)
Images II, L120Marc-André Hamelin (piano) NEW
Jeux 'Poème dansé'London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
La Belle au Bois dormant, L81Jonathan McGovern (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
La merLondon Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
La plus que lente, L128Stephen Hough (piano)
La plus que lente, L128Angela Hewitt (piano)
La plus que lente, L128Walter Gieseking (piano)
La romance d'Ariel, L58Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
L'archet, L22Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Le lilas, L36Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Le petit nègre, L122Lívia Rév (piano)
Le promenoir des deux amants, L129Jonathan McGovern (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Les angélus, L88Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Les baisers d'amour, L23Jonathan McGovern (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Les baisers, L9Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Les Elfes, L25Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Les roses, L28Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Lindaraja, L103Stephen Coombs (piano), Christopher Scott (piano)
L'isle joyeuse, L109Angela Hewitt (piano)
L'isle joyeuse, L109Lívia Rév (piano)
Mandoline, L43Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Masques, L110Angela Hewitt (piano)
Masques, L110Lívia Rév (piano)
Musique, L54Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison, L147Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Nuit d'étoiles, L2Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Paysage sentimental, L55Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Piano Trio in G major, L5The Florestan Trio
Pierrot, L30Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Pour le piano, L95Lívia Rév (piano)
Pour le piano, L95Angela Hewitt (piano)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L87Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock (conductor)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L87Stephen Coombs (piano), Christopher Scott (piano)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L87Gareth Davies (flute), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
Préludes I, L125Lívia Rév (piano)
Préludes I, L125Steven Osborne (piano)
Préludes I, L125Alfred Cortot (piano)
Préludes II, L131Lívia Rév (piano)
Préludes II, L131Steven Osborne (piano)
Préludes II, L131Marc-André Hamelin (piano) NEW
Première RhapsodieMaximiliano Martín (clarinet), Inocencio Negrín (piano)
Proses lyriques, L90Lisa Milne (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Regret, L59Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Rêverie, L3Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Rêverie, L76Harold Bauer (piano)
Romance, L53Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Romance, L56Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Romances, L65Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Sérénade, L29Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Souhait, L18Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
String Quartet in G minor, L91Dante Quartet
String Quartet in G minor, L91The Fairfield Quartet
Suite bergamasque, L82Lívia Rév (piano)
Suite bergamasque, L82Angela Hewitt (piano)
SyrinxKatherine Bryan (flute)
Trois Ballades de François Villon, L126Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Trois Chansons de France, L115Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Trois Mélodies, L85Christopher Maltman (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Trois Nocturnes, L98Stephen Coombs (piano), Christopher Scott (piano)
Trois Poèmes de Mallarmé, L135Lorna Anderson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Violin Sonata in G minor, L148Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Huw Watkins (piano)
Zéphyr, L19Jennifer France (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
ERIK SATIE (1866-1925))
Gymnopédie No 1New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor)
Gymnopédie No 3New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor)

Alphabetical listing of all musical works

«General Lavine»—excentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cake-Walk  
6 Studien in kanonischer Form, Op 56 (Schumann/Debussy)
Aimons-nous et dormons, L7 (Debussy)
Ariettes oubliées, L63 (Debussy)
Au long de ces montagnes douces  
Auprès de cette grotte sombre  
Auprès de cette grotte sombre  
Ballade de Villon à s'amye  
Ballade des femmes de Paris  
Ballade que Villon feit à la requeste de sa mère  
Brouillards: Modéré  
Bruyères: Calme  
Calmes dans le demi-jour  
Canope: Très calme et doucement triste  
Caprice, L6 (Debussy)
Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest: Animé et tumultueux  
C'est l'extase  
Chanson triste, L24 (Debussy)
Chansons de Bilitis, L97 (Debussy)
Chevaux de bois  
Children's Corner, L119 (Debussy)
Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire, L70 (Debussy)
Clair de lune  
Clair de lune  
Cloches à travers les feuilles  
Cloches chrétiennes pour les matines  
Colloque sentimental  
Couronnés de thym et de marjolaine  
Crois mon conseil, chère Climène  
Dame du ciel, régente terrienne  
Dans le jardin, L107 (Debussy)
Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé  
Dans l'ennui si désolément vert  
Danse profane  
Danse sacrée  
Danse sacrée et danse profane, L113 (Debussy)
Danse, L77 (Debussy)
Danseuses de Delphes: Lent et grave  
De fleurs  
De grève  
De rêve  
De soir  
Des pas sur la neige: Triste et lent  
Des trous à son pourpoint vermeil  
Deux Arabesques, L74 (Debussy)
Devant le ciel d'été, tiède et calmé  
Dieu qu'il la fait bon regarder  
Dimanche sur les villes  
Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum  
Elle avait de beaux cheveux, blonds  
En blanc et noir, L142 (Debussy)
En sourdine  
Estampes, L108 (Debussy)
Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut  
Étude in the form of a canon  
Études, L143 (Debussy)
Faulse beauté, qui tant me couste cher  
Fête galante, L31 (Debussy)
Fêtes galantes I, L86 (Debussy)
Fêtes galantes II, L114 (Debussy)
Feuilles mortes: Lent et mélancolique  
Feux d'artifice: Modérément animé  
Fleur des blés, L16 (Debussy)
Golliwog's Cake-Walk  
Gymnopédie No 1 (Satie/Debussy)
Gymnopédie No 3 (Satie/Debussy)
Harmonie du soir  
Hommage à Rameau  
Hommage à S Pickwick Esq PPMPC: Grave  
Il dort encore, L34 (Debussy)
Il m'a dit: «Cette nuit, j'ai rêvé.»  
Il pleure dans mon cœur  
Images I, L105 (Debussy)
Images II, L120 (Debussy)
Jardins sous la pluie  
Je regardais dans le jardin  
Je tremble en voyant ton visage  
Jeux 'Poème dansé' (Debussy)
Jimbo's Lullaby  
La Belle au Bois dormant, L81 (Debussy)
La cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme  
La chevelure  
La danse de Puck: Capricieux et léger  
La fille aux cheveux de lin: Très calme et doucement expressif  
La flûte de Pan  
La grotte  
La lune se levait, pure, mais plus glacée  
La mer (Debussy)
La mer est plus belle que les cathédrales  
La mort des amants  
La nuit a des douceurs de femmes!  
La plus que lente, L128 (Debussy)
La Puerta del Vino: Mouvement de Habanera  
La romance d'Ariel, L58 (Debussy)
La sérénade interrompue: Modérément animé  
La soirée dans Grenade  
La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune: Lent  
L'âme évaporée et souffrante  
L'archet, L22 (Debussy)
Las! Colombine a fermé le volet  
Le balcon  
Le bon Pierrot, que la foule contemple  
Le ciel d'hiver, si doux, si triste, si dormant  
Le faune  
Le jet d'eau  
Le lilas, L36 (Debussy)
Le long des blés que la brise  
Le long du bois couvert de givre  
Le petit nègre, L122 (Debussy)
Le promenoir des deux amants, L129 (Debussy)
Le son du cor s'afflige vers les bois  
Le temps a laissié son manteau  
Le tombeau des naïades  
Le vent dans la plaine: Animé  
Le zéphyr à la douce haleine  
L'échelonnement des haies  
Les angélus, L88 (Debussy)
Les baisers d'amour, L23 (Debussy)
Les baisers, L9 (Debussy)
Les cloches  
Les collines d'Anacapri: Très modéré  
Les donneurs de sérénades  
Les Elfes, L25 (Debussy)
Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses: Rapide et léger  
Les feuilles s'ouvraient sur le bord des branches  
Les hauts talons luttaient avec les longues jupes  
Les ingénus  
Les roses étaient toutes rouges  
Les roses, L28 (Debussy)
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir: Modéré  
Les tierces alternées: Modérément animé  
Lindaraja, L103 (Debussy)
L'isle joyeuse, L109 (Debussy)
L'ombre des arbres  
Lorsque le ciel de saphir est de feu  
Mandoline, L43 (Debussy)
Masques, L110 (Debussy)
Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses  
Minstrels: Modéré  
Mon âme vers ton front où rêve, ô calme sœur  
Musique, L54 (Debussy)
Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison, L147 (Debussy)
Non, les baisers d'amour n'éveillent point les morts!  
Nous aurons des lits pleins d'odeurs légères  
Nuit d'étoiles, L2 (Debussy)
Ô floraison divine du lilas  
Ô rêveuse, pour que je plonge  
Oh! quand la Mort, que rien ne saurait apaiser  
On entend un chant sur l'eau  
Ondine: Scherzando  
Paysage sentimental, L55 (Debussy)
Petite suite, L71 (Debussy/Choisnel)
Piano Trio in G major, L5 (Debussy)
Pierrot, L30 (Debussy)
Placet futile  
Plus de fois, dans tes bras charmants  
Poissons d'or  
Pour ce que Plaisance est morte  
Pour le 'cinq doigts' (d'après Monsieur Czerny)  
Pour le jour des Hyacinthies  
Pour le piano, L95 (Debussy)
Pour les accords  
Pour les agréments  
Pour les arpèges composés  
Pour les degrés chromatiques  
Pour les huit doigts  
Pour les notes répétées  
Pour les octaves  
Pour les quartes  
Pour les sixtes  
Pour les sonorités opposées  
Pour les tierces  
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L87 (Debussy)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, L87 (Debussy/Sachs)
Préludes I, L125 (Debussy)
Préludes II, L131 (Debussy)
Première Rhapsodie (Debussy)
Princesse! à jalouser le destin d'une Hébé  
Proses lyriques, L90 (Debussy)
Quand je baise, pâle de fièvre  
Quant j'ai ouy le tabourin  
Quoy qu'on tient belles langagières  
Reflets dans l'eau  
Regret, L59 (Debussy)
Rêverie, L3 (Debussy)
Rêverie, L76 (Debussy)
Romance, L53 (Debussy)
Romance, L56 (Debussy)
Romances, L65 (Debussy)
Rondel I  
Rondel II  
Scaramouche et Pulcinella  
Serenade for the Doll  
Sérénade, L29 (Debussy)
Si j'étais le Zéphyr ailé  
Silence ineffable de l'heure  
Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille  
Souhait, L18 (Debussy)
String Quartet in G minor, L91 (Debussy)
Suite bergamasque, L82 (Debussy)
Sur la mer les crépuscules tombent  
Syrinx (Debussy)
Tes beaux yeux sont las, pauvre amante!  
The Little Shepherd  
The snow is dancing  
Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois  
Trois Ballades de François Villon, L126 (Debussy)
Trois Chansons de Charles d'Orléans, L99 (Debussy)
Trois Chansons de France, L115 (Debussy)
Trois Mélodies, L85 (Debussy)
Trois Nocturnes, L98 (Debussy/Ravel)
Trois Poèmes de Mallarmé, L135 (Debussy)
Un vieux faune de terre cuite  
Violin Sonata in G minor, L148 (Debussy)
Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches  
Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur la tige  
Voilà Silvandre et Lycas et Myrtil  
Voiles: Modéré  
Votre âme est un paysage choisi  
Yver, vous n'estes qu'un villain  
Zéphyr, L19 (Debussy)