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Embracing nontraditional scales and tonal structures, Claude Debussy became one of the most highly regarded composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is seen as the founder of musical impressionism.
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Claude Debussy was born into a poor family in France, but his obvious gift at the piano sent him to the Paris Conservatory at age 11. At age 22, he won the Prix de Rome, which financed two years of further musical study in the Italian capital. After the turn of the century, Debussy established himself as the leading figure of French music. During World War I, while Paris was being bombed by the German air force, he succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 55.
The oldest of five children, Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. While his family had little money, Debussy showed an early affinity for the piano, and he began taking lessons at age seven. By age 10 or 11, he had entered the Paris Conservatory, where his instructors and fellow students recognized his talent but often found his attempts at musical innovation strange.
In 1880, Nadezhda von Meck, who had previously supported Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, hired Debussy to teach piano to her children. With her and her children, Debussy traveled Europe and began accumulating musical and cultural experiences in Russia that he would soon turn toward his compositions, most notably gaining exposure to Russian composers who would greatly influence his work.
In 1884, Debussy entered his cantata The Prodigal Son in the Prix de Rome, a competition for composers, and he took home the top prize, which allowed him to study for two years in the Italian capital. While there, he studied the music of German composer Richard Wagner, specifically his opera Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s influence on Debussy was profound and lasting, but despite this, Debussy generally shied away from the ostentation of Wagner’s opera in his own works.
Debussy returned to Paris in 1887 and attended the Paris World Exhibition two years later. There he heard a Javanese gamelan—a musical ensemble composed of a variety of bells, gongs and xylophones, sometimes accompanied by vocals—and the subsequent years found Debussy incorporating the elements of the gamelan into his existing style to produce a wholly new kind of sound. The music written during this period came to represent his early masterpieces—Ariettes oubliées (1888), Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892), and the String Quartet (1893)—which were clearly delineated from the works of his coming mature period.
Debussy's seminal opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, was completed in 1895 and was a sensation when first performed in 1902, although it deeply divided listeners (audience members and critics either loved it or hated it). The attention gained with Pelléas, paired with the success of Prélude in 1892, earned Debussy extensive recognition, and over the following 10 years he was the leading figure in French music, writing such lasting works as La Mer (1905) and Ibéria (1908), both for orchestra, and Images (1905) and Children's Corner Suite (1908), both for solo piano.
Debussy spent his remaining years writing as a critic, composing and performing his own works internationally, before dying of colon cancer in 1918.
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