Biography

Formative Years

1862

House at Saint-Germain-en-Laye where Debussy was born and spent the first two years of his life [© Centre Debussy]

22 August
Birth at Saint-Germain-en-Laye (38, Rue au Pain) of Achille-Claude Debussy, first child of Manuel-Achille Debussy and Victorine Manoury. Debussy's parents ran a china shop.

1863

September
Birth of their second child, Adèle-Clémentine.

1864

Debussy as a baby (circa 1863) [© Centre Debussy]

31 July
Christening of Achille-Claude Debussy. Godmother and godfather to the infant were, respectively, his aunt Clémentine Debussy, and her friend, Achille Arosa.

End of year
The unsuccessful china shop is closed up. The Debussy family move to Clichy in northern Paris, where they are taken in by Edmée Manoury, Achille-Claude's grandmother.

1867

19 September
Birth in Paris of the third child, Emmanuel.

1868

Manuel Debussy finds work at the Paul Dupont printing shop. The family sets up in Paris (69, Rue Saint-Honoré).

1870

Victorine Debussy takes her children to Cannes to stay with her sister-in-law Clémentine, Claude's aunt. Debussy has his first music lessons with the violinist Jean Cerutti.

16 February
Birth of the fourth child, Alfred.

1871

March-May
Manuel Debussy joins the National Guard and takes part in the Paris Commune. After the Commune is defeated, he is held prisoner at the Satory camp, where he meets the composer Charles de Sivry. Sivry recommends Debussy to his mother, Antoinette Mauté, a piano teacher. For many months, Victorine Debussy and her four children live in a very small apartment (59 bis, Rue Pigalle). She provides for Debussy's education at home. Unlike his brothers and sisters, he does not go to school.

December
Trial of Manuel Debussy by the Conseil de Guerre (War Council), which sentences him to a four-year gaol term.

1872

May
Victorine Debussy petitions the military authorities to reduce her husband's prison sentence.

Debussy as a pupil at the Conservatoire (circa 1874) where he began his studies at the age of ten [© BnF]

22 October
After a year under Antoinette Mauté's teaching, Debussy is admitted to the Conservatoire, joining Antoine Marmontel's piano and Albert Lavignac's solfeggio classes.

1873

Beginning of year
After a year in prison, Manuel Debussy is released, his custodial sentence converted into a four-year suspension of civic rights.

1 September
The family moves into a two-room apartment at 13, Rue Clapeyron.

10 November
Birth of the fifth child, Eugène-Octave.

1874

13 January
Debussy's piano examination inspires the following comment from his teacher Marmontel: “Charming child, true temperament of an artist; will become a distinguished musician; a great future.”

July
Second honorable mention in piano examination, playing Chopin's Second Piano Concerto.

1875

Debussy strikes up friendship with Gabriel Pierné and Paul Vidal.

Juillet
First honorable mention in piano examination, playing Chopin's first Ballade.

1876

Programme of Debussy's first public concert, where his talent as accompanist was acclaimed in the local press [© BnF]

16 January
Debussy's first appearance at a public concert at Chauny (Aisne), organised by the local industry's brass band. He accompanies the singer Léontine Mendès in a program of operatic extracts and instrumental pieces

18 March
Second concert at Chauny.

June
Awarded first medal in solfeggio exam; no award for piano.

1877

Spring
Claude's brother Eugène dies from meningitis, aged less than 4 years.

July
Second prize in piano examination, playing the first movement of Schumann's Sonata in G minor. This second prize shared with Camille Bellaigue, who later became a music critic.

27 November
Debussy enters Émile Durand's harmony class.

1878

June
Failure in the piano competition. Debussy receives no prize.

1879

Beginning of year
Makes friends at the Conservatoire with Raymond Bonheur and René Chansarel.

20 June
No prizes for Debussy in his piano and solfeggio examinations. Émile Durand makes the following assessment: “Extremely gifted in harmony, but desperately careless.”

Summer
Debussy stays at the Château of Chenonceaux with Marguerite Wilson-Pelouze, a woman of substantial means and an ardent admirer of Wagner. He discovers the charms of a life of luxury, and decides to become a composer.

October
Debussy enters Auguste Bazille's accompaniment classes, along with Maurice Emmanuel. Definitive failure in the piano competition.

End of year
First compositions : Madrid, princesse des Espagnes and Ballade à la lune, songs on poems by Alfred de Musset.

1880

June
First prize as accompanist, but no award in the harmony examination. After three years of study with Émile Durand, Debussy's name is removed from the class list on 30 September.

The Nadezhda von Meck Trio in 1880: P. Danilchenko (violon), Ladislas Pachulsky (cello) and Debussy (piano) [© BnF]

20 July - 5 November
Debussy is engaged as accompanist by Nadezhda von Meck, and stays at Interlaken (Switzerland), Arcachon (Villa Marguerite), Paris, Nice, Genoa, Naples, Florence (Villa Oppenheim). In September, he composes his first Trio en sol majeur for piano, violin and cello, for Madame von Meck's small ensemble which he formed with Pachulsky (violin) and Danilchenko (cello). Transcription for piano duet of three dances from Tchaikovsky's Lac des cygnes, Act III.

End of year
Debussy becomes piano accompanist for Madame Moreau-Sainti's singing class, a position he was to keep for four years. Here he meets Marie Vasnier, wife of Henri Vasnier

24 December
Debussy enters Ernest Guiraud's composition class. Attends César Franck's organ class for a few months, as an auditor.

1881

Beginning of year
Debussy sends his Symphonie en si mineur for piano duet to Madame von Meck. He gives private lessons to his first pupil, Georges Cuignache.
Debussy is a frequent visitor to the Vasnier household in Paris at 28, Rue de Constantinople. He composes a dozen songs for Marie Vasnier, with whom he falls in love, among them Caprice, Aimons-nous et dormons, Les Baisers, Rondel chinois, Jane, La fille aux cheveux de lin, Fleur des blés.

Mid-July – beginning December
In Moscow until the end of September with Madame von Meck, moving to Rome on 2 October and then to Florence. Composes Triolet à Philis and Souhait, songs on poems by Théodore de Banville, and Diane, overture for piano duet.

1882

8 January
Debussy completes Fantoches on a poem by Paul Verlaine in the latter's Fêtes galantes a collection he must have found at the Vasniers.

12 May
Public concert at Flaxland's, the piano maker, in Rue des Mathurins, where Debussy and Marie Vasnier give the first rendering of Fête galante and Les Roses, songs on poems by Théodore de Banville.
Unsuccessful competition entry for the Prix de Rome, with Le Printemps, sung by the Anatole de Ségur choir for female voices and orchestra.

June
First published work: Nuit d'étoiles on a poem by Banville, published by Société artistique d'édition d'estampes et de musique (E. Bulla). Counterpoint and fugue examinations: second honorable mention.

11 July
Composition examination: second honorable mention.

14 July
Death of his aunt, Clémentine Debussy.

8 September - end December
Debussy's third stay with Madame von Meck, at Plechtchevo, some fifty kilometres from Moscow, and from 3 October in Vienna. He composes En Sourdine (1st version) and Mandoline on poems by Verlaine.