As Claude Debussy’s parents were unsettled people, their son’s decision to become a musician did not particularly upset them. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten and won its coveted Prix de Rome at 21. His String Quartet (1893) – original in its focus on musical texture rather than thematic “development”, or rigorous elaboration or working out of musical ideas, so essential a part of the Austro-German musical tradition – was performed by the celebrated Ysaye Quartet.
The real breakthrough in his career, however, came with the revolutionary Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun) for orchestra, which brought him fame in France and helped to awaken what we call modern music. But it was his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) – also revolutionary, in its eschewal of realism and in the music’s closeness to the speech rhythms of Maurice Maeterlinck’s text – that brought Debussy worldwide attention. His best-known orchestral works are the already mentioned Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, La Mer, Nocturnes and Images (1905-12). He also wrote many outstanding songs and much piano music that has remained at the heart of the repertoire, notably two sets of Images (not to be confused with the orchestral pieces) and two books of Preludes. The fascinating and intricate Jeux (1913), a ballet written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, was his last ground-breaking masterpiece. Debussy had a turbulent personal life. At 18 he travelled to Italy and Russia as music tutor to the children of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patroness, and fell in love with her 16-year-old daughter. She rejected him. After an affair with a married woman, he lived with another woman for nine years, during which he became engaged to someone else. When he eventually married yet another woman, the woman he had been living with attempted suicide, and when he left his wife for still another woman, his wife attempted suicide. This final “other woman”, Emma Moyse Bardac, a banker’s wife, eventually became Debussy’s second wife and the mother of his only child, a daughter. He died of cancer on 25 March 1918.