(Born; St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; Died; Paris, 25
March 1918). French composer. He studied with Guiraud and others at the Paris
Conservatoire (1872-84) and as prizewinner went to Rome (1885-7), though more important
impressions came from his visits to Bayreuth (1888, 1889) and from hearing Javanese music
in Paris (1889). Wagner's influence is evident in the cantata La damoiselle élue
(1888) and the Cinq, poèmes de Baudelaire (1889) but other songs of the period,
notably the settings of Verlaine (Ariettes oubliées, Trois mélodies, Fêtes galantes,
set 1) are in a more capricious style, as are parts of the still somewhat Franckian G
minor String Quartet (1893); in that work he used not only the Phrygian mode but also less
standard modes, notably the whole-tone mode, to create the floating harmony he discovered
through the work of contemporary writers: Mallarmé in the orchestral Prélude à
'L'après-midi d'un faune' (1894) and Maeterlinck in the opera Pelléas et
Mélisande, dating in large part from 1893-5 but not completed until 1902. These works
also brought forward a fluidity of rhythm and colour quite new to Western music.
Pelléas, with its rule of understatement and
deceptively simple declamation, also brought an entirely new tone to opera - but an
unrepeatable one. Debussy worked on other opera projects and left substantial sketches for
two pieces after tales by Poe (Le diable dans le beffroi and La chûte de la maison
Usher), but nothing was completed. Instead the main works were orchestral pieces,
piano sets and songs.
The orchestral works include the three Nocturnes
(1899), characteristic studies of veiled harmony and texture ('Nuages'), exuberant
cross-cutting ('Fêtes') and seductive whole-tone drift ('Sirènes'). La mer (1905)
essays a more symphonic form, with a finale that works themes from the first movement,
though the centrepiece ('Jeux de vagues') proceeds much less directly and with more
variety of colour. The three Images (1912) are more loosely linked, and the
biggest, 'Ibéria', is itself a triptych, a medley of Spanish allusions. Finally the
ballet Jeux (1913) contains some of Debussy's strangest harmony and texture in a
form that moves freely over its own field of motivic connection. Other late stage works,
including the ballets Khamma (1912) and La boîte à joujoux (1913) and the
mystery play Le martyre de St Sébastien (1911), were not completely orchestrated
by Debussy, though St Sébastien is remarkable in sustaining an antique modal
atmosphere that otherwise was touched only in relatively short piano pieces (e.g.'La
The important piano music begins with works which, Verlaine
fashion, look back at rococo decorousness with a modern cynicism and puzzlement (Suite
bergamasque, 1890; Pour le piano, 1901). But then, as in the orchestral pieces,
Debussy began to associate his music with visual impressions of the East, Spain,
landscapes etc, in a sequence of sets of short pieces. His last volume of Etudes
(1915) interprets similar varieties of style and texture purely as pianistic exercises and
includes pieces that develop irregular form to an extreme as well as others influenced by
the young Stravinsky (a presence too in the suite En blanc et noir for two pianos,
1915). The rarefaction of these works is a feature of the last set of songs, the Trois
poèmes de Mallarmé (1913), and of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915),
though the sonata and its companions also recapture the inquisitive Verlainian classicism.
The planned set of six sonatas was cut short by the composer's death from rectal cancer.
Operas: Pelléas et Mélisande (1902);
several sketches, incl. La chûte de la maison Usher (perf. 1977).
Cantatas: Le printemps (1882); L'enfant prodigue (1884); La damoiselle élue (1888).
Play with music: Le martyre de St
Orchestral music, ballets: Printemps
(1887); Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (1890); Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune'
(1894); Nocturnes (1899); La mer (1905); Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904); Khamma
(1912); Images (1912); La boîte à joujoux (1913); Jeux (1913).
Chamber music: Str Qt (1893); Syrinx, fl (1913); Vc Sonata (1915); Sonata, fl, va, harp (1915); Vn Sonata (1917).
Piano music: Suite bergamasque (1890); Pour le piano (1901); D'un cahier d'esquisses (1903); L'isle joyeuse (1904); Masques (1904); Images (1905, 1907); Préludes (1909-10, 1912-13); Six épigraphes antiques, 2/4 hands
(1914); Etudes (1915); En blanc et noir, 2 pf (1915).
Songs: Ariettes oubliées (1888); Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (1889); Trois mélodies (1891); Fêtes galantes (1891, 1904); Proses
lyriques (1893); Chansons de Bilitis (1898); Trois ballades de Villon (1910); Trois
poèmes de Mallarmé (1913).
© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK