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Claude Debussy

Achille-Claude Debussy was born in St Germain-en-Laye, France, in 1862. He received little in the way of a formal musical education, but took piano lessons with Verlaine's mother-in-law, Mme Mauté de Fleurville. He showed himself to be a prodigious talent and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at the age of ten. He was known as a somewhat erratic pianist, unruly in matters of harmony and composition, and showed little respect for the great masters, calling Beethoven 'the old deaf one'.

In 1884, at his second attempt, the cantata L'Enfant prodigue won him the Prix de Rome, an opportunity to spend two years studying at the Villa Medici in Rome, where he met Liszt, Verdi, and Boito and was introduced to the music of Wagner, which was to prove a great influence on his music. In 1890, he heard something else that he found to be of even greater interest, Javanese gamelan. The French Symbolist poets Verlaine and Malarmé also heavily influenced him. His early works include the orchestral tone poem Printemps (1887), many songs and the famous Deux arabesques (1888-91) and Suite bergamesque (1890 rev. 1905).

In 1893, the same year that his string quartet was premiered, he began work on an opera after Maeterlinck, Pélleas et Mélisande. The following year, accusations of formlessness were levelled at his new orchestral work, L'Après midi d'un Faune (infamously choreographed and danced by Nijinsky in 1912). In 1899, he married his first wife Rosalie Texier, but deserted her five years later for Emma Bardac. She was already married, but divorced and married Debussy in 1908.

In 1902, Pélleas et Mélisande was finally produced at the Opéra Comique earning Debussy wide-spread fame, despite public wishes from Maeterlinck that it should fail utterly. In 1905, the same year La Mer was given its world premiere, Emma Bardac bore him an illegitimate child, nicknamed Chouchou. The scandal, gossip and rumour drove him to take a brief refuge in Eastbourne.

He continued to compose avidly until 1910 when he was diagnosed with cancer. His output lessened, but did not stop. His works include Trois nocturnes (1897-99), two books of Images for piano (1905 and 1907), a ballet for Diaghilev, Jeux (1912), two books of Préludes for piano (1910 and 1913), and sonatas for cello (1915), flute, viola and harp (1915) and violin (1916). When war broke out in 1914, he was partially disabled by his disease. The suffering of the war deeply saddened him, causing his health to suffer further and he died in Paris in 1918.

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