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Claude Achille Debussy

Debussy, Claude Achille (klôd äshēlˈ dəbüsēˈ) [key], 1862–1918, French composer, exponent of musical impressionism. He studied for 11 years at the Paris Conservatory, receiving its Grand Prix de Rome in 1884 for his cantata L'Enfant Prodigue. After traveling in Europe and Russia, Debussy settled down in Paris in 1887 and devoted himself to composing for the rest of his life. In his music he developed a new fluidity of form and explored unusual harmonic relationships and dissonances. By making use of the whole-tone scale, instead of the traditional scale of Western music, he achieved new nuances of mood and expression, as in his famous tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ( Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1894). Inspired by a pastoral poem of Mallarmé, it is one of Debussy's most sensuous and evocative orchestral works, lending itself perfectly to ballet. Other outstanding orchestral pieces are his Nocturnes (1899) and La Mer ( The Sea, 1905). His piano works exploit to the utmost the subtle coloristic possibilities of the instrument. Among them are Suite bergamasque (pub. 1905), containing the popular Clair de lune; Estampes (1903); The Children's Corner (1908); 24 preludes, including La Cathédrale engloutie (1910); and 12 études. He also wrote many exquisite songs and an opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1892–1902), based on the drama by Maeterlinck.

See reminiscences of Marguerite Long (tr. 1972); The Poetic Debussy: A Collection of His Song Texts and Selected Letters (ed. by M. G. Cobb, 1982); biographies by V. I. Seroff (1956) and E. Lockspeiser (2 vol., 1962–65, rev. ed. 1980).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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