Claude Debussy was born in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye on August 22, the eldest of five children. His father owned a china shop and his mother was a seamstress. The family moved to Paris in 1867. He took his first piano lessons when he was nine and in 1872 he entered the Paris Conservatoire. During the eleven years he spent at the Conservatoire he studied composition with Ernest Guiraud and piano with Antoine François Marmontel whose lessons he favored most. From the very start Debussy was argumentative and experimental in the field of harmony and sound. He challenged the academic traditions favoring dissonances and intervals, which were considered dissident at the time.
Debussy was a brilliant pianist and could perfectly read music. In 1881 he became part of the musical household of Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy patroness of Pyotr Tchaikovsky while accompanying her in her travels in Europe and Russia. Thereafter at the behest of Mme von Meck he visited Russia another two times. The acquaintance with Russian music remained an important influence on Debussy’s own style. As a winner of the Prix de Rome in 1884 he went to the Villa Medici in the Italian capital for four years to further his studies. While staying in Rome he studied Renaissance choral music, which injected new life to his creativity. The works he finally sent to the Academy (the symphonic ode “Zuleima”, the orchestral piece “Printemps”) met a chilly response. In Rome he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, he was often depressed and unable to compose. He returned back home earlier than planned. “I am sure the Institute would not approve… but I am too enamored of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas” he wrote in one of his letters to Paris.
In 1890 Debussy he started writing “Rodrigue et Chimène”, an opera abandoned two years later and unfinished. It was followed by the opera “Pelléas et Mélisande” and the year of 1894 was marked by the enormously successful premiere of his “Prélude à L'après-midi d'un Faune”. The first concert featuring only Debussy’s own works was held at an art gallery in Brussels in 1894, which seems natural taking into account the composer’s great interest in impressionistic art. During the 1890s he also wrote “Nocturnes for Orchestra”, “Proses lyriques” for voice and piano and a string quartet in G-minor.
In 1899 Debussy’s publisher G. Hartmann died leaving the composer with no financial support. Nevertheless he finished the second version of the “Pelléas et Mélisande” opera. It premiered on April 30, 1902 at the “Opéra-comique” in Paris to contradictory reactions. The work was considered the biggest achievement in the genre since the Wagnerian times. In 1903 appeared his “Estampes” for the piano. 1904 saw Debussy’s symphonic piece “La Mer”, a set for voice and piano “Fêtes galantes”, and the vocal cycles “Chansons de France”.
The rest of his life was very prolific and strenuous. During this final period most of his piano pieces were composed, also he wrote some music critique. He toured Europe including Russia conducting concerts featuring his music, wrote the ballet “Jeux”, two books of piano preludes, which were finished before the war started, the ballet “La Boîte à Joujoux” whose orchestration was completed only after his death. In 1915, in spite of the war, Debussy wrote a great number of piano pieces and started a sonata cycle of which he managed to complete just three.
Claude Debussy died of cancer on March 25, 1918 in the midst of the aerial bombardment in Paris just 8 months before the end of the war.