Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was born in St. Germain-en-Laye on August 22, 1862. He came from a non-musical family but surprised his parents when he demonstrated a talent for playing the piano. Debussy progressed very quickly and entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of ten. His successes as a performer brought him much fame and attention. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy patron of the arts was so impressed with him that she employed Debussy as a pianist, and his work for her led to performances in Italy, Russia, and Vienna.
Debussy’s most important contribution to the world of music is not as a performer but as a composer. He was a key figure in establishing a new French style of music that was unlike that of any other country. For more than 200 years German composers dominated the European music scene. In an attempt to escape from a German style of composition Debussy sought new ways to express himself through music. New ideas came to him in 1889 when he heard music from Eastern Asia at the International Exhibition in Paris. He was particularly impressed with the Indonesian gamelan orchestra that filled his mind with exotic sounds and changed his melodic and harmonic approach to composition.
Debussy was also influenced by French poetry and French impressionist art. His music shares many characteristics with the painting of his time and he was therefore labeled an impressionist composer. His melodies are often vague and his textures can be very misty or cloudy, similar to the paintings of Claude Monet and August Renoir.
Tone color was elevated to a new level in Debussy’s music, and, in fact, was sometimes more important than melody. He grouped instruments in combinations that had never used by German composers. He also implemented non-western scales and approaches to harmony, adding a unique appeal to his sounds. We can see Debussy’s musical intentions in many of the titles of his compositions. Most of his music is programmatic and has titles like The Sea, Sails, and Sounds and Perfumes Swirl in the Night Air.