Personalities | Claude Debussy | Turn of the Century | Opera

1862–1918, French

Debussy wrote only one opera that has entered the repertoire, but there were many other compositions without which this masterpiece among masterpieces may never have come into being.

His lover, the singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier, some years his elder, had deepened his understanding of literature in his early twenties, and his interest in poetry and painting was at the root of Pelléas et Mélisande.

Pre-Raphaelite Sympathies

In the late 1880s, Debussy became fascinated by the English Pre-Raphaelites and composed a cantata, La damoiselle élue, to a text of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. At the same time the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck was similarly fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites, which somehow probed modern life through a return to images from Medieval times: literally ‘before the time of Raphael’. Artistically, the two were destined to meet, and Debussy’s encounter with Maeterlinck’s play, performed at one single matinee, changed his career. He had found the text for which he was searching: one ‘which only said things by half, and which left him the room to add’.

A Lifelong Love of Literature

Before Pelléas, Debussy had almost completed a setting of a libretto on the subject of Le Cid entitled Rodrigue et Chimène, which has some ravishing moments. He learnt a lot from his struggle with this libretto, which turned out to be too concrete to interest him, but techniques were forged and he came to Pelléas more mature. He had also wrestled with a couple of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) settings, which would have come to naught were it not for subsequent musicologists, but which confirmed his lifelong engagement with literature. He was never really a composer of absolute music, somehow relying on the ‘mysterious correspondences between nature and the imagination’, as he put it. A composer with only one real opera: but what an opera!


1893–95; 1901–02 Pelléas et Mélisande


1862 Achille-Claude Debussy born, St Germain-en-Laye
1872 Enters the Paris Conservatoire
1880 Debussy and soprano Marie-Blance Vasnier become lovers
1884 L’enfant prodigue (‘The Prodigal Son’) wins the Prix de Rome
1885 Goes to Villa Medici, Rome
1888 Visits Bayreuth Festival
1889 Hearing Javanese gamelan music at Paris Exposition has profound effect on him
1891 Becomes friends with Erik Satie
1893 Sees Maurice Maeterlink’s play Pelléas et Mélisande; begins work on his opera Pelléas et Mélisande
1894 Préludes à l’aprés-midi d’un faune is not well-received by some critics
1899 Marries Rosalie (Lily) Texier; completes work on his three Nocturnes
1902 Pelléas completed and first performed at the Opéra-Comique
1905 Premiere of La mer; composition of the Images begins
1908 Marries singer Emma Bardac
1910 Diagnosed with cancer; first volume of Préludes published
1913 Ballet Jeux for Diaghilev completed
1915 Final volume of Etudes completed
1918 Dies from cancer, Paris

Introduction | Turn of the Century | Opera
Major Operas | Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy | Turn of the Century
Personalities | Léo Delibes | Turn of the Century | Opera
Houses & Companies | Opéra-Comique | Early Romantic | Opera


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