Achille-Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, the oldest of five children. While his family had little money, Debussy showed an early affinity for the piano, and he began taking lessons at the age of 7. By age 10 or 11, he had entered the Paris Conservatory, where his instructors and fellow students recognized his talent but often found his attempts at musical innovation strange.
In 1880, Nadezhda von Meck, who had previously supported Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, hired Claude Debussy to teach piano to her children. With her and her children, Debussy traveled Europe and began accumulating musical and cultural experiences in Russia that he would soon turn toward his compositions, most notably gaining exposure to Russian composers who would greatly influence his work.
In 1884, when he was just 22 years old, Debussy entered his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child) in the Prix de Rome, a competition for composers. He took home the top prize, which allowed him to study for three years in the Italian capital, though he returned to Paris after two years. While in Rome, he studied the music of German composer Richard Wagner, specifically his opera Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s influence on Debussy was profound and lasting, but despite this, Debussy generally shied away from the ostentation of Wagner’s opera in his own works.
Debussy returned to Paris in 1887 and attended the Paris World Exposition two years later. There he heard a Javanese gamelan—a musical ensemble composed of a variety of bells, gongs, metallophones and xylophones, sometimes accompanied by vocals—and the subsequent years found Debussy incorporating the elements of the gamelan into his existing style to produce a wholly new kind of sound.
The music written during this period came to represent the composer’s early masterpieces—Ariettes oubliées (1888), Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; completed in 1892 and first performed in 1894) and the String Quartet (1893)—which were clearly delineated from the works of his coming mature period.
Debussy’s seminal opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, was completed in 1895 and was a sensation when first performed in 1902, though it deeply divided listeners (audience members and critics either loved it or hated it). The attention gained with Pelléas, paired with the success of Prélude in 1892, earned Debussy extensive recognition. Over the following 10 years, he was the leading figure in French music, writing such lasting works as La Mer (The Sea; 1905) and Ibéria (1908), both for orchestra, and Images (1905) and Children’s Corner Suite (1908), both for solo piano.
Around this same time, in 1905, Debussy’s Suite bergamasque was published. The suite is comprised of four parts—”Prélude,” “Menuet,” “Clair de lune” (now regarded as one of the composer’s best-known pieces) and “Passepied.”
Claude Debussy spent his remaining years writing as a critic, composing and performing his own works internationally. He died of colon cancer on March 25, 1918, when he was just 55 years old, in Paris.
Today, Debussy is remembered as a musical legend, whose uniquely structured compositions have served as a base for musicians over the past century, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire musical creation for decades to come.