Claude Debussy


20th Century

Claude Debussy was a French composer. His music reminded people of the Impressionist paintings that he so much admired – paintings that give an impression of light and colour shifting, rather than crisp outlines of objects. Instead of the clear melodies and huge orchestras favoured by many Romantic composers, Debussy created quite lush, dreamy music with fewer instruments, full of glittering passages and strange harmonies. Listen to Debussy’s famous orchestral piece La Mer (‘The Sea’). It is a musical painting of the sea. Can you feel the rush of the waves and see the sun reflected in the water?

Debussy was a true revolutionary. He wanted to free harmony from its rules! One of the first works to do this was his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’). A faun is a mythical creature that is half human and half goat. You can imagine the strange creature lazing in the sun playing his flute. Debussy wrote one opera – Pelléas et Mélisande. But it sounds nothing like the Romantic operas of Wagner, for example. The music is dream-like, a floating world of sound. Debussy was fascinated by the Javanese gamelan, an orchestra of drums and bells, which he heard in Paris in 1889. He loved the music of Russian composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov because of its exotic quality and rich orchestration.

Debussy was a brilliant pianist and admired Chopin; he wrote many piano pieces that are regularly performed today. They create strange harmonies that were new to piano music of the time. In his piece ‘Pagodes’ from Estampes you can almost hear the sounds of the gamelan. Towards the end of his life, Debussy wrote a more austere kind of music: his ballet Jeux (‘Games’), for example, and his three sonatas for cello, for violin, and for flute, viola and harp. The sounds are still sensuous, but somehow cleaner – what people call ‘neo-classical’.

Debussy wrote music like no one had ever heard before. He broke the rules about how music was supposed to sound but he did so successfully. It could be said that he really did free harmony – and this was to influence many composers for years and years to come.

Claude Debussy, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

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Dip into Debussy – pick a track...

Suite bergamasque: Clair de lune

Debussy’s most famous piano work, much loved by good amateur pianists, is Clair de lune (‘Moonlight’). Does it make you think of the stillness and beauty of a moonlit night?

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555800

La Mer: De l’aube à midi sur la mer

La Mer (‘The Sea’) is a masterpiece: a sensuous and epic picture of the sea. The music is full of unforgettable melodic lines and unusual orchestral sounds.

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.553275

Cello Sonata in D minor: I. Prologue

Written near the end of Debussy’s life, the prologue of this sonata is slow and atmospheric. The whole sonata is a modern masterpiece and calls for a wide use of the cello’s resources.

Performers: Tatjana Vassiljeva, cello; Yumiko Urabe, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.552127-28

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What adjective did people use to describe the kind of music Debussy wrote?

a. Romantic
b. Classical
c. Impressionist

 Which of these other composers wrote music labelled ‘impressionist’?

a. Ravel
b. Berlioz
c. Wagner

 Which mythical creature is in the title of one of Debussy’s most famous pieces?

a. A Pixie
b. A Phoenix
c. A Faun

 Why did no one turn up to Debussy’s funeral in Paris?

a. No one liked him.
b. People didn’t know he had died.
c. Paris was being bombed by the Germans

 Debussy’s final orchestral work, Jeux, was written for which great creator of ballets?

a. Diaghilev
b. Tchaikovsky
c. Sir Fredrick Ashton

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Although people described his music as ‘impressionist’, because it conjured up impressions of things and pictures in the mind, Debussy didn’t like the term.
  2. Debussy suffered from colon cancer for many years, undergoing an operation which gave him great trouble for years. He died in Paris in 1918, aged 55, as the Germans bombarded the city towards the end of the First World War.
  3. Debussy had many girlfriends. His wife married him after he threatened to kill himself; and, when he left her, she shot herself in the chest!
  4. During the First World War, when fuel was scarce and the weather cold, Debussy offered to pay for his coal with a piece of piano music. The coal merchant accepted! The work was Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, (‘Evening Lit by Burning Coals’)!
  5. Debussy spent more money than he earned. He bought an enormous house, employed servants and hired a car. He loved luxury. As a result he was always in debt!

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Orchestral Works

Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune

Described as ‘the beginning of modern music’, Debussy’s 10-minute work was the first in which he freed himself from the old harmonies of the Romantics. It is based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé – a ‘Symbolist’ poet. Debussy liked Symbolist poets because their poems were dreamy and imaginative. The music describes the faun of the title relaxing in the afternoon shade of a summer’s day.

Performers: Orchestre National de Lyon; Jun Märkl

Taken from Naxos 8.570759


Described as a ‘poème dansé’ (‘danced poem’) when it was written, this work was produced for the famous choreographer, Diaghilev. A choreographer is someone who works out the steps and moves in a ballet. The title means ‘games’ and the story involves a boy, two girls, and a game of tennis.

Performers: Orchestre National de Lyon; Jun Märkl

Taken from Naxos 8.570759


The three movements of Nocturnes seem to float and shimmer. A nocturne is a ‘night piece’. Debussy was inspired to write his Nocturnes after seeing the impressionist paintings called ‘Nocturnes’ by the great American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In the mysterious ‘Sirènes’ (Sirens), you can hear women singing, though they have no words.

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.550262


These late orchestral works are sometimes melancholy and sometimes cheerful. The scoring is magical. The first, ‘Gigues’, was based on memories of England; the second, ‘Ibéria’, a piece in three parts, was based on memories of Spain; the third, ‘Rondes de printemps’, used folksongs.

Performers: Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos .50505

Piano Music

Children’s Corner Suite

Debussy dedicated this delightful set of six pieces to his beloved daughter Claude-Emma. He called her ‘Chouchou’. She was only three at the time, so the pieces weren’t for her to play! But he perhaps thought of her as he was writing them; they are gentle and playful.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550885

Préludes – Book 1

Debussy’s first book of Préludes was published in Paris in 1910. They are like a musical kaleidoscope: they capture so many moods and make the piano sound really colourful. Debussy placed the titles at the end so that the pianist could experience each individual sound-world without being influenced by Debussy’s titles beforehand.

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553293

Estampes (‘Prints’)

Debussy’s Estampes (‘Prints’) evokes moods and sound-worlds unknown to earlier composers. Pagodes reflects the metallic bells and drums of the Javanese gamelan. In La soirée dans Grenade (‘Evening in Grenada’) you hear the sounds of Spain, and in Jardins sous la pluie (‘Gardens in the Rain’) Debussy conjures up brilliantly the sounds of rain in the gardens, both heavy rain and then the gentle drip-drip-drip from the trees when it has stopped.

Performers: Akihiro Sakiya, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.573502


Debussy wrote his Études (Studies) towards the end of his life. They are exercises that refine the pianist’s technique – a challenge for the fingers! They don’t give impressions of things and places, like his music had before. They are more sparse than the Préludes. There are 12 in total; three are played here.

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553294

Chamber and Instrumental Music

String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 10

Until Debussy wrote this work in 1893, quartets often showed the influence of the great quartets of Beethoven and Haydn. But this is quite unlike any quartet written before! It is impressionistic and sensual. Debussy has thrown away the rule-book! The great French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez said that Debussy set chamber music free from its rigid structure. Listen to the spirited use of pizzicato (plucking) in movement 2.

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550249


Few people had written for solo flute since the days of C.P.E. Bach. Debussy’s brief and atmospheric piece quickly became the best-known solo flute work. It inspired many later pieces for flute.

Performers: Patrick Gallois, flute

Taken from Naxos 9.50085

Violin Sonata

This beautiful sonata was Debussy’s last major work. Both instruments – violin and piano – are given satisfying, often rich and shimmering music to play. Listen to how it wanders, almost dreamlike; there are passionate outbursts… and then it is dreamy again. At its first performance, Debussy played the piano part; it was the last public appearance of his life.

Performers: Dong-Suk Kang, violin; Pascal Devoyon, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550276