Claude Debussy's (1862-1918) artistic ideal was that of a free musical style, which, however, was at odds with the views of his time. The musical world he grew up in, which was influenced by German Romanticism, presented the composer with the choice of either adopting academic forms or expressing a specific idea in his music. Debussy rejected both. He envisioned a music whose individual movements were connected by a mysterious bond and the gift of luminous clairvoyance, as he explained using Mussorgsky as an example, which did not draw on formal music theory. The notion of descriptive music struck him as utterly vulgar, although he certainly based his works on non-musical, often figurative ideas. These ideas, however, are not narrative, but remain distinctively vague and ephemeral. What inspired him were phenomena such as the play of ocean waves, the impression of drifting clouds, or tracks in the snow. The specific intangibility of his subjects corresponds with Debussy's basic aesthetic conviction that music is made for the ineffable. This artistic approach established Debussy as one of the founding fathers and key figures of 20th-century music.
Debussy came from a petty bourgeois background far removed from music. He received his first music lessons from an aunt during the holidays in 1870. Professional piano lessons followed shortly thereafter, and at the age of 10 Debussy passed the entrance exam to the Paris Conservatoire. Despite many difficulties – Debussy was a lifelong individualist with a dubious talent for offending and upsetting even his friends – he was finally awarded the Prix de Rome in 1884, the highest honour to be bestowed on a young composer in French music circles. This prize was not only prestigious, but also came with a three-year residency in Rome. After returning to Paris in 1887, Debussy kept his head above water with occasional musical jobs. Often his financial situation was more than precarious.
Stylistically, Debussy found himself in a kind of incubation process during this time. His work was already characterised by individual traits but did not yet represent a real creative breakthrough. This he achieved with an orchestral work, the famous "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (1891-94). In this piece, Debussy sketched a musical progression which, starting from an almost magical beginning, was sustained by a "mysterious bond" and not by a formula taken from the principles of music theory. His decisive work was the opera "Pelléas et Mélisande", which he composed with lengthy interruptions from 1893 until shortly before the premiere in the spring of 1902. The opera was an immediate success and was recognised as a pivotal work leading to a new way of composing. Here was music of incomparable sensual appeal, in which sounds and colours were no longer mere accompaniments to thematic processes, but carried their own value. After "Pelléas", Debussy then achieved an unmistakably personal style of composition in 1902 with the "Estampes", written for his main instrument, the piano.
The success of "Pelléas" suddenly elevated Debussy to the status of an established composer. His older works now also attracted interest and the number of high-ranking interpreters who performed his music with enthusiasm and understanding increased steadily. Nevertheless, Debussy still experienced creative crises. Alongside masterpieces such as "La Mer" or the "Préludes" for piano, there is a large number of abandoned projects. The compositions of the last years from around 1912 onwards show new facets in Debussy's creative work. With a series of sonatas for various instruments, he turned to chamber music for the first time since his youth. The year 1915, in which, among other works, the "Douze Études" for piano were written, once again shows an extraordinary creative flight of fancy. This creative surge was based on the short-term recovery from cancer, which Debussy had been suffering from since 1909. Subsequently, however, the symptoms worsened again, and Debussy did not recover from the disease. He was buried in Paris on 19 March 1918.