• Steve Moretti

Claude Debussy

"I can only make my own music."

Early Life

Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a western suburb Paris, in 1862. He was christened Achille-Claude Debussy. His family was impoverished. His father, Manuel tried and failed to make money - running a china-shop. Also a travelling salesman and print worker.

His mother, Victorine, was a seamstress. His father became a captain in the Paris Commune, part of a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris for a few months in 1871 until it was put down. Manuel was sent to prison for a year. Meanwhile the government kept changing hands…

The family ended up destitute and Claude was sent to live with his dad’s sister. His mother kept wanting him to visit her, and he got bounced around a lot. In prison Manuel met an inmate, Charles de Sivry, and told him about Claude’s interest in music - he started to play the piano when he was 7 years old. He was gifted right from the start.

Claude ended up with Sivry’s mother, Antoinette Mauté, a pianist who studied with Chopin. She worked with Claude and was able to help him get into the Paris Conservatory when he was only 10 years old.

Conservatoire de Paris

Debussy spent his teenage years at the Paris Conservatory, and remained there for 11 years - age 10 to 21. Initially he was regarded initially as a charming child with a truly artistic temperament. Other described him as sketchy and cavalier.

He studied piano and solfege, composition, harmony, music history and music theory. Claude was a restless student. He tended to skip a lot of his classes and was described as “desperately careless” and only intermittently diligent in his studies. But he was a very good pianist and an outstanding sight reader. He won some piano competitions but also failed the some and was booted out of the Conservatory’s piano classes.

Nadezhda von Meck

Von Meck was the rich widow of engineer Karl Otto von Meck. Her husband left a poorly paid government engineering job in Russia to build railways and became a multi-millionaire with vast holdings across Europe.

He died suddenly when Nadezhda was 45, having born 11 children, 7 of whom were still at home. She became a rich Moscow recluse and lived in complete seclusion, even refusing to attend her children’s weddings.

She learned to play piano as a child and loved classical music. She became Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s patron (more about that in Episode 5). It was a strange relationship….

Nadezhda liked to have a pianist around the mansion. Someone who could play her favourite pieces and tutor two of her daughters. Somehow she found out about Debussy (18 at the time) and hired him to travel with her family for three summers to France, Switzerland, Italy, Vienna and their home in Moscow.

Debussy composed his Piano Trio in G major during this time, and made a transcription of a piano duet from Tchaikovosky’s Swan Lake.

He also fell in love with one of Nadezhda daughters and wanted to marry her. But Mrs. von Meck said, no.

Prix de Rome

Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884, taking the top prize called the agrèè. It came with a scholarship paid by the King of France to study in Rome at the French Academy des Beaux Arts - the Villa Medici, for up to five years.

The contest was an elimination type scholarship that was very difficult to win. Maurice Ravel tried five times and failed each time. Other composers considered suicide after losing over and over.

Debussy had no such difficulty and won, even though his composition teacher Ernest Guiraud at the conservatory really didn’t like him. Claude, he said, refused to follow the ‘rules’ for composing.

Debussy spent just two years at the Villa Medici, although he often left Italy to spend time with his mistress at the time, Marie Vasnier.

At first Debussy hated everything about the Villa. The food, the people and living accommodations, which he called ‘abominable’. He had a hard time composing there.

The music he did write there was not well received. The academy called it bizarre, incomprehensible and unperformable.

Personal Life

He was quite taken with one of the daughters of Nadezhda von Meck, during his ‘summer vacations’ travelling with her and her family. He was only 18 but wanted to marry.

Around the same time during the school year, while still at the Paris conservatory he was the accompanist for a singing class which included Marie Vasnier, who was married to Henri Vasnier, a much older man.

Marie became Claude’s mistress for the next seven years. Her husband continued to support and encourage Claude’s career as a composer. She finally ended it with Claude when he returned to Paris from his time in Rome.

His next love was Gabrielle Dupont, a tailor’s daughter. They started living together when he was about 30. But a year later, while still living with Gabrielle, he began having an affair with a singer - Thérèse Roger.

He was heavily in debt, he borrowed money from friends and relatives which he rarely paid back. He decided to propose to Therese, even though he was still living with Gabrielle.

His friends had enough. disowned him including some of his strongest supporters such as the rich and talented composer Ernest Chausson.

Claude called off his engagement to Therese after he met a friend of Gabrielle, a model, Marie-Rosalie, known as Lilly. He proposed to her in 1899 when he was 37. He threatened to commit suicide if she refused to marry him.

She agreed but he was soon unhappy with her lack of support for his music, even though he did find her very affectionate.

A few years later, Claude met the mother of a student he was tutoring on the piano. She was an accomplished singer, Emma Bardac, a kind of serial mistress to French composers. Of course she was already married. She and Claude soon became lovers.

His wife Lilly had no idea about his affair. She was busy planning their 5th wedding anniversary.

Claude sent her to see her parents in the north of France, while he took Emma to Normandy for a little holiday. He travelled incognito.

He wrote to Lilly telling her the marriage was over, but not that he had a mistress

When Lilly did find out, five days before their 5th wedding anniversary she shot herself in the chest with a revolver. But she survived and the bullet would remain lodged in her for the rest of her life.

It caused outrage against Debussy and disgrace to Emma’s family. Claude and Emma fled to England to get away from it all.

Emma’s husband divorced her and she was soon pregnant with Claude’s baby and eventually they married a few years later.

But their marriage apparently was never very happy and always pretty stormy.

List of music played on Episode #4

  1. Clair de Lune

  2. Missa Ascendo ad Patrem (by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina)

  3. Arabesque no. 1

  4. Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune

  5. La Mer

  6. The Engulfed Cathedral

Further Reading:

Claude Debussy (General bio)






Nadezhda von Meck


List of Compositions


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina


La Cathédrale engloutie


Debussy’s Deux arabesques


Debussy First Arabesque Amplified


Arabesque and the Early Music Influence in Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans


Debussy's Clair de Lune: the romantic piano piece that even has a starring role in Twilight


We should celebrate Debussy by assessing his real legacy 


Best Debussy Works: 10 Essential Pieces


The Velvet Revolution of Claude Debussy


Debussy: Deux Arabesques


The Two Arabesques 

Debussy - Arabesques


What is an Arabesque?


Debussy: 20 facts about the great compsoser


The Centre de Documentation Claude Debussy