Music History 102

The Twentieth Century

Claude Debussy

Bildnis Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)
Born: St.Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862
Died: Paris, March 25, 1918

Achille Claude Debussy, commonly also known as just Claude Debussy, greatly influenced 20th century modern music with his own system of harmony and musical structure. He broke the barriers set by traditional music with his use of chromaticism and unusual scales, establishing a new course for the development of music. His most famous works include Clair de lune, L’Après-midi d’un faune, and Pelléas et Mélisande.

Beginning piano lessons at a very young age, Debussy’s progress was so remarkable that he was able to enter the Paris Conservatory at the age of eleven. He remained at the Conservatory for over ten years, alternately claiming prizes and perplexing his teachers with his harmonic ideas. He won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1884, and by 1887 had begun attending the meetings of the Symbolist poets in Montmarte. The credo of the Symbolists was that art should appeal to the senses before the intellect. Debussy also fell under the influence of the French Impressionist painters of the day, in their concentration on color for its own sake and the play of light on surfaces. Both of these schools would become crucial to Debussy’s developing musical style.

painting of faun

Debussy’s earliest works are mostly pieces for voice or piano solo, including the very popular piano piece Clair de lune. In 1894, he composed the orchestral tone poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the seminal works in western music history. To convey the images and atmosphere of Mallarmé’s poem “L’Après-midi d’un faune,” Debussy employed a tonal palette of sighing and sensual diaphanous harmonies. With the premiere of his only opera in 1902, Pelléas et Mélisande, the demand for more of his music increased. Most notable among these later pieces is a work that is the closest thing to a symphony that Debussy wrote, the symphonic suite La Mer. Comprising three symphonic movements Debussy called “sketches,” the work is a musical “impression” (for lack of a better term, and one that Debussy loathed) of the sights and sounds of the ocean.

Debussy remains well-known for his piano music, and his two books of piano Preludes contain much of his best writing. The descriptive titles of these pieces were added by the composer after their completion. “Footsteps in the snow” is the title given to the Prelude, Book I: no. 6 and is a fine example of Debussy’s evocative writing for the piano.


  • What is the name of Debussy’s most famous piece?

Claude Debussy’s  most famous pieces of music include Clair de Lune, La Mer and Nocturnes.

  • What techniques did Claude Debussy use in his music?

Widely regarded among the first to bring the Impressionist art movement to music, Claude Debussy innovated tremendously with his compositions. He deviated from the traditional methods and utilized techniques such as circular melodies and dissonant chords to achieve an effect in his scores similar to what Impressionism produced on canvases –  ambiguity that played with the listener’s perception.

  • How did Debussy die?

Debussy died of cancer on March 25, 1918, aged 55.

Related Resources

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane