Born in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, France on August 22, 1862, Achilles-Claude Debussy was one of the most influential and prominent composers of the 19th ad early 20th centuries. He was often associated with Impressionistic music, although he was not fond of this term when referring to his music. He was best known for his non-traditional scales and tonal structures, which (like the works of many of his impressionistic counterparts) resulted in very sensual music that evoked mood and atmosphere, rather than concrete images.
Debussy was one of five children, and after moving to Cannes with his mother, he began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. Debussy showed great musical talent, so at age ten he began piano studies at the prestigious Paris Conservatory. He spent the next eleven years studying music with a number of famous mentors (e.g., Isidor Philipp, Emilie Durand, and Antoine Francois Marmontel).
During his time at the Paris Conservatory, at age twenty-two, Debussy was awarded the Prix de Rome (i.e., a scholarship for arts students) for his composition L’enfant prodigue. The scholarship was to the Academie des Beaux-Arts and financed two years of study in Rome. It is said that Debussy was not happy at the academy because he felt stifled, complaining that the academy wanted him to follow their teachings and ideas. Notwithstanding his frustration about not being unable to exercise his freedom of expression, he composed several works that he sent to the academy, all of which were criticized in some way. While in Rome, Debussy also studied the music of German composer Richard Wagner, whose influence is most evident in Debussy’s opera Tristan and Isolde.
Debussy’s next significant influence came from a Javanese gamelan that he heard at the Paris World Exhibition in 1887. Gamelan is a style of music that is typically form the islands of Java and Bali, which consists of a variety of instruments, such as gongs, bamboo flutes, xylophones, bells, and sometimes includes vocals as well. In the years that followed, Debussy incorporated certain gamelan elements into his existing style, creating a unique sound that did not consist of any predetermined ideas that would eventually lead to climaxes (e.g., like that of traditional Western music).
Instead, Debussy enjoyed the gamelan philosophy of timelessness, where cycles in music do not represent the progression of time; rather, they exemplify the oriental view of the “static” and endless cycles of history. Two examples of musical devices that Debussy would incorporate were ostinato and pedal point. Ostinato refers to the use of repeating elements in a piece of work that do not develop or change over time (as in his piece Pagodes). Similarly a pedal point is a bass note that stays unchanged as the harmonies vary above it, and while it is used in Western music, Debussy used it much more, creating the impression of a long unchanging harmony.
Debussy’s repertoire of musical techniques and genres was vast and included orchestras, operas, chamber music, vocal music, and piano music. His most influential orchestra was Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), which was based on a poem by Mallarme and later used for a ballet. Debussy’s most famous opera (and the only one he ever finished), Pelléas et Melisande was based on the medieval play by Maurice Maeterlinck. He completed several chamber music projects, including a violin sonata, a cello sonata and a sonata for flute, viola and harp. As far as vocal pieces, Debussy captured the spirit of many poets, including Mallarme, Charles d’Orleans and Villon. Finally, his book of Preludes was probably the most famous of compositions for the piano and earned him great respect, then and now.