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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

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