“Music ... cannot be learned. There is no theory: hearing is sufficient ... music is neither major nor minor ... but rather a compromise between major and minor thirds. Suddenly the modulations that seem the most far-fetched become quite simple.”
Debussy is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential composers. His music is characterized by its transparent instrumentation and stand-alone harmonies which, in place of the Classical and Romantic major-minor tonal system, incorporate elements of traditional Slavic and Asian music such as pentatonicism (five-tone scales) and whole-tone scales. People found the resulting “floating” sound unfamiliar and associated it with the paintings of Claude Monet, August Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. Debussy rejected this attempt to categorize his music as “Impressionist,” considering it “wrongly applied.” Detailed analysis reveals a formal awareness that is both marked and original. Debussy’s interest in French composers of the Baroque period, particularly Jean-Philippe Rameau, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and François Couperin, together with his study of Rameau’s music theoretical writings, led, from 1910 onward, to a simpler and clearer harmonic language.

© Peter Kislinger, ORF - Radio Österreich 1


  • Born on August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye

  • 1868 first piano lessons

  • 1870 a piano teacher notices Debussy’s talent; within the space of two years and without accepting payment, she turns him into a successful candidate for the Paris Conservatory, where he studies piano and composition for thirteen years

  • 1883 wins second Prix de Rome (composition scholarship of the Paris Conservatory, which entails a four-year residency at the Villa Medici in Rome); 1884 wins first Prix de Rome; unhappy at being an “inmate” at the Villa, returns home prematurely in 1887

  • 1888 and 1889 attends the Bayreuth Festival; lifelong critical fascination with the music of Richard Wagner

  • 1889 Paris World’s Fair: Javanese gamelan music makes a strong impression on Debussy, and he turns away from the major-minor system that he had long felt to be rigid

  • 1893 begins work on Pelléas et Mélisande; in his only completed opera, premiered in 1902, he brings the textual articulation, which borders on spoken singing, to a high degree of perfection. He considers this an alternative to the style of Wagner, which he criticizes as “aria-like”

  • 1894 artistic breakthrough with the orchestral work Prélude à l´après-midi d´un Faune, inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé

  • 1897–99 Trois Nocturnes for orchestra

  • 1903 begins writing about music as “Monsieur Croche”

  • 1903–1912 composes some of his most important and popular works, among them La Mer, Images (for orchestra), and piano works such as Estampes, Children’s Corner, and the Préludes vols. 1 and 2

  • Starting 1915 colon cancer, Debussy grows increasingly weak

  • March 25, 1918 Debussy dies in Paris

Did you know?

  • Debussy’s parents ran a small china shop that they closed two years after the birth of Achille-Claude when it turned out to be unprofitable. His father got a job as an accountant at a railway company.

  • Never attended school; taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother; difficulties with spelling and grammar throughout his whole life. His father took him to operetta performances as a young child.

  • 1881–1882 occasionally accompanied Nadezhda von Meck (the patron of Tchaikovsky) on tours through Europe and gave piano lessons to her children; she introduces him to the music of Russian composers.

  • Distanced, critical artistic friendships with Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel.

  • “Since they cleansed Paris of all of its foreigners, whether by shooting them or by throwing them out, it has immediately become a charming place.” (Letter written a few weeks after the beginning of the First World War).

  • With the three sonatas composed after the beginning of the war (for violin, cello, and flute, each with piano), he wanted to offer proof “that thirty million Boches (Germans) cannot destroy French thought.” He signed the scores, “Claude Debussy, musicien français.”

  • “When will hate be exhausted? Or is it hate that’s the issue in all this? When will the practice cease of entrusting the destiny of nations to people who see humanity as a way of furthering their careers?” (Letter, 1916)

  • Asteroid (4492) Debussy and Debussy Heights on Alexander I Island in Antarctica are named after him.