Born: 22 August 1862 in St. Germain-en-Laye (near Paris)
Died: 25 March 1918 in Paris
A note on his name: Debussy was born Achille-Claude, and went by Achille when he was young, as can be seen on programs of early performances of his music. His last name was sometimes also spelled de Bussy early in his life. Mandoline, published in 1890, gives his name as Cl. A. Debussy, but in later publications he is Claude Debussy.
Debussy came from modest circumstances: his father ran a china shop when Debussy was young and wanted him to be a sailor. Despite that parental wish, the future composer entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10. Unconventional from the start, he was critical of much of his education, though he did manage to win the coveted Prix de Rome. His composition teacher was Ernest Guiraud, best known today for supplying recitatives for Bizet's Carmen. Surprisingly, Debussy did not begin composition studies until late 1880.
While still a student, the composer met two women who greatly influenced his future. One was Nadezhda von Meck, the weatlthy Russian woman who had supported Tchaikovsky for many years despite never meeting him personally. Debussy was hired by her as a kind of house musician for periods of several months at a time, including the summers of 1880 and 1882. He taught her children piano, played duets with her, and performed with other musicians in a trio. He stayed with her family in various locales across Europe, including Florence, Vienna, and Moscow, and was exposed to a wide variety of Russian music at this time including, not surprisingly, that of Tchaikovsky. This employment was preceded by his equally romantic summer job of 1879: he played piano at the glorious château of Chenonceaux, which is built so that it extends partway across the Loire River.
The other important woman in the young composer’s life was Marie Vasnier. Debussy met her when he was just 18; she was 32 and had been married since the age of 17 to a man who was eleven years her senior. Both Marie and her husband befriended Debussy, and he rapidly fell in love and remained extremely close to her for many years. It is our great good fortune that she was a talented singer, for she inspired Debussy’s earliest songs, including Mandoline.
In 1883 Debussy was runner-up for the Prix de Rome; the following year he won with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue. The prize was a minimum of two years in Rome; Debussy barely stayed that long. He was reluctant to go in the first place, leaving only at the last possible moment, and before quitting Paris he copied thirteen of his songs (including Mandoline) into a manuscript, now called the “Vanier Songbook,” that he presented to his beloved as a farewell gift.
Prix de Rome winners were expected to send annual large-scale works back to Paris; these could be either for orchestra or for chorus and orchestra. Among Debussy’s efforts was La damoiselle élue, which uses a female chorus, but it was finished only after he returned to Paris. At this time Debussy was an ardent Wagnerian, capable of playing Tristan by heart, and he visited Bayreuth in both 1888 and 1889. But he soon turned away from the German master, declaring that Wagner “was a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn,” and began to transform himself into a “musicien français.” This was done partly through close association with French writers and artists, including Stéphane Mallarmé, author of the poem “L’Après-midi d’un faune” that would be such an important inspiration for the composer. Debussy’s move away from German influence was also hastened by his exposure to music at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, where he heard a Javanese gamelan for the first time.
During much of the 1890s Debussy was involved in the composition of his only completed opera, the brilliant Pelléas et Mélisande. This was an almost literal setting of the very successful play by Maurice Maeterlinck that also inspired works by Fauré (gorgeous incidental music, 1898), Schönberg (symphonic poem, 1903), and Sibelius (incidental music, 1905). Debussy’s opera at first appeared to be headed for trouble: Maeterlinck caused serious difficulties because he wanted his mistress to play Mélisande (Mary Garden took the role instead), and the 1902 premiere was not especially successful. But the power of the work soon made itself felt, and Debussy became famous—at least in the world of music.
By this time Debussy was married; after living with Gabrielle Dupont for most of the 1890s, he wed Rosalie (Lilly) Texier in 1899 and (at least for a while) appeared to be very happy. In 1903, however, he met Emma Bardac, an artistically sensitive married woman who had previously been involved with Fauré. A great scandal ensued when Debussy moved in with Emma the following year; his wife attempted suicide and he lost many of his friends. The double divorce took years and the composer was not able to wed again until 1908, by which time he also had a child, a beloved daughter called Chouchou (born in 1905) but actually named Claude-Emma (Claude, unlike Achille, is also a woman’s name in French; the romantic origin of the child’s name is transparent).
Debussy’s last compositions are widely seen as paying homage to music from the distant past: his Violin Sonata, Cello Sonata, and Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola, for example, were all part of a projected series of six sonatas reminiscent of the eighteenth century (in concept rather than specific style). But they were written under both the cloud of World War I and the pain of the rectal cancer that killed the composer in March of 1918. His too-early death spared him, at least, from witnessing the death of his beloved daughter the following year.
It is striking how much sorrow and depression filled Debussy’s life. In addition to the numerous upheavals in his personal life and his long-lasting final illness, which began in 1909, he was plagued almost without cease by financial difficulties (for a period beginning in 1895 he received a monthly stipend from the publisher Georges Hartmann, but that did not last). Equally heartbreaking to us today are the fact that his creative years are strewn with an extraordinarily large number of projects begun and then abandoned. No other major composer has left so much unfinished work. But despite any regrets we may have about what might have been, Debussy remains one of the most brilliant and innovative composers in the history of Western art music. He left a treasury of almost unbelievable music that truly altered the history of sound.
Debussy wrote relatively little choral music. Aside from various lost, unfinished, or unpublished works we have a single piece for chorus alone, the Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898–1908). Works that pair chorus with orchestra include Le printemps (1882, with female chorus), Invocation (1883, with male chorus), the cantata La damoiselle élue, which uses women’s chorus (1887–1888), and the incidental music to Le martyre de St Sébastien (1910–1911). Far more famous than any of these is Sirènes, the third and final movement of Nocturnes, where the sixteen-voice women’s chorus wordlessly recalls the artful sirens of mythology.
Mandoline, of course, is not originally a choral work but instead a song on a text by French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896). The composition dates from the period of Debussy’s infatuation with Mme Vasnier (it is dated 25 November 1882, in Vienna), and when the song was published in 1890 it was dedicated to her (the last one to be so), even though Debussy was no longer close to her or her family. Though it is now perhaps the most popular of the composer’s early songs, it did not receive a public performance until 1904. Concentus performs the song in an arrangement for three-part treble chorus by Alan Raines, a version especially welcome given the paucity of choral writing by one of the greatest composers of fin-de-siècle Europe.
Text and Translation
Verlaine’s poem comes from his second collection, Fêtes galantes (1869), which was to inspire many songs by Debussy. Mandoline (also set by Fauré, in 1891) is an especially musical text, with its references to serenaders, singing branches, and of course the mandolin itself. Tircis, Aminte, Clitandre, and Damis are all pastoral names in keeping with the outdoor theme of the poem. Tircis is the name of a shepherd in La Fontaine’s Fables, for example, while Aminte is the subject of a pastoral by Torquato Tasso, and Clitandre appears, paired with Pierrot, in another Debussy song written the same year as Mandoline.
Debussy chooses a spritely 6/8 meter for his setting. The harmonic ambiguity that characterizes much of his music is present from the start. The piano part opens with an octave grace note to a held G (the arrangement is in the same key as the original song) and then proceeds to strumming chords that are composed of the stacked fifths G, D, and A. Not coincidentally, these are the pitches of the three lowest strings of a mandolin, and while strumming is used for all plucked string instruments, it is especially typical of a mandolin. The voices enter over this mildly dissonant yet appropriate accompaniment with a melody that at first suggests d minor before an unexpected G# intrudes. We are off and running with a song whose harmonic dips and sways both match the swirling of the characters and make it more challenging for singers to learn than one might anticipate.
The four stanzas of the poem are clearly delineated in an ABCA form, with the C section especially marked by a temporary slowing of the tempo via duplet rhythms. This is coupled with a shift (also temporary, as we might expect) to E Major before the song modulates back to the opening vocal melody. Debussy tacks on a light-hearted “la la la” closing in a solid C Major (or almost—transient flats keep intruding in the accompaniment) before ending exactly as he began, with a solo piano G preceded by an octave grace note leap—a G that, because it is the fifth of the final sonority, rather than the tonic, leaves us not quite as settled as we might expect.
A complete works edition, published by Durand-Costallat, is in progress.
- Children’s Corner
(includes The Snow is Dancing)
- Deux arabesques
- En blanc et noir (for two pianos)
Pagodes / Soirée dans Grenade / Jardins sous la pluie
- Études, Bks. 1 & 2
- Images, Series 1 (1905)
Reflets dans l’eau / Hommage à Rameau / Mouvement
- Images, Series 2 (1907)
Cloches à travers les feuilles / Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut / Poissons d’or
- L’Isle joyeuse
- Pour le piano
- Preludes, Bks. 1 & 2
- Suite bergamasque (includes Clair de lune)
- Ariettes oubliées
- Chansons de Bilitis
- Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire
- Clair de lune
- En sourdine
- Fêtes galantes, Sets 1 & 2
- Le Promenoir des deux amants
- Proses lyriques
- Trois ballades de Villon
- Trois Chansons de France
- Trois poèmes de Mallarmé
- Cello Sonata
- Sonata for Flute, Harp, and Viola
- String Quartet in gm
- Syrinx for solo flute (Flûte de Pan /
Piece for Psyché)
- Violin Sonata
- La Damoiselle élue (with women’s chorus)
- L’Enfant prodigue (w/solo voices; no chorus)
- Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Gigues / Iberia / Rondes de printemps
- La Mer (autograph manuscript of short score in Sibley Library!)
- Nocturnes (title from Whistler; wordless women’s chorus in Mvt. 3)
(Nuages / Fêtes / Sirènes)
- Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune
(Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun)
- Jeux (for Diaghilev’s Ballets russes)
- Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien (for dancer Ida Rubinstein)
- Pelléas et Mélisande
The bibliography on Debussy is extensive. Selected items are given below.
Beginning in 1901 Debussy wrote music criticism, first for Revue blanche and then for Gil Blas, under the name of Monsieur Croche. François Lesure collected and published these writings as Monsieur Croche et autres écrits; an English translation by Richard Langham Smith is available as Debussy on Music (Secker and Warburg, 1977).
Debussy’s Correspondence, 1872–1918 has been published by Gallimard (2005). A selection of letters, translated by Roger Nichols, appears in Debussy Letters (Faber and Faber, 1987).
Roger Nichols, The Life of Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 1998) is a short but helpful book for the non-specialist that includes a very useful annotated bibliography. Longer studies include:
- Edward Lockspeiser, Debussy: His Life and Mind, 2 vols. (2nd ed., 1978)
- Marcel Dietschy, A Portrait of Claude Debussy (Clarendon Press, 1990). This is an English translation by William Ashbrook and Margaret C. Cobb of a book originally published in 1962 as La Passion de Claude Debussy. The translators have edited and corrected the original, provided more source references, and omitted some of the author’s personal comments.
- Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist (first published in 1937 and reprinted, unabridged and slightly corrected, by Dover in 1967). Though not always accurate, this first American biography of the composer has several useful features, including a translation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune as well as an extended section on the composer’s music that is helpfully organized by pieces within genre.
- François Lesure, Catalogue de l’oeuvre de Claude Debussy (Minkoff, 1977).
- James R. Briscoe, Claude Debussy: A Guide to Research (Garland, 1990).
- François Lesure, Claude Debussy (Minkoff, 1975). This is an iconography.
- Debussy’s song texts are annotated in Margaret G. Cobb, The Poetic Debussy, trans. Richard Miller (2nd ed., University of Rochester Press, 1994).
- Simon Tresize, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Debussy (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Richard Langham Smith, ed., Debussy Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
- Roger Nichols & Richard Langham Smith, Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (Cambridge Opera Handbook, Cambridge University Press, 1989)
Not surprisingly, there is no study of Debussy as a choral composer.