Debussy: Master of Colors

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Achille-Claude Debussy was born August 22nd, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the outskirts of Paris. Deemed one of the foremost Impressionist composers along the likes of Ravel and Satie, he did much to push music in his day to new heights and expressions. He was quite a musical prodigy, notwithstanding that he came from a very poor family. Early on he attended the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11, after only have taken piano lessons for 4 years. While he was taking lessons, he is taught by a former student of Chopin, and thus finds his long-life respect and attraction of the Romantic composer. Nadezhda von Meck, who had supported Tchaikovsky, also took Debussy under her wing financially, as he taught her children piano and travelled with their family throughout Europe, and was eventually influenced by Russian composers. He won the Prix de Rome, a composition competition by 22 with his cantata L’Enfant Prodigue. There, he continued studying music for two more years at Villa de Medici, coming under additional influence of Wagner. Claude was popularly characterized as Impressionist, but he preferred to not be associated with the painters of his time, as he proclaimed to revel more in darkness, mystery, and the dream world. He was even nicknamed the “Prince of darkness” by his fellow colleagues back in Rome! He attended the Paris World Exposition, and it is here he first encounters the oriental, exotic sounds of a gamelan band from Java, which inspires him to compose Pagoda. Probably the strongest influence from outside the musical world, is that of poet Mallarmé, whose works focused on mystery and the very sound of words. The first piece Debussy composes based off of Mallarme’s poems is Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, in 1894. His love life started off a little unstable—he had only been married to his 1st wife, Rosalie, until he met an excellent singer, Emma Bardac, then married her and had their beloved daughter, ChouChou. A few of his other important and popular pieces are: Pelléas et Mélisande (his only complete opera), La Mer, Nocturnes, Images, Chansons de Bilities, Children’s Corner Suite, and Suite Bergamasque, which contains arguably his most well-known piece, Clair de Lune. In 1914, he unfortunately discovered he had colon cancer, and just four short years later, he passed away on March 25th, 1918. However, having been such an innovative and musical genius his legacy lasted beyond his generation, and continues to influence modern composers, inspire performers, and touch audiences to this day.


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