In honor of today being Claude Debussy’s birthday we would like to remember all of the wonderful music that he has made. Claude Debussy was a French composer who was well known for his impressionist music. He was one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was the father of the modern era in classical music. Author Harvey Lee Snyder has written a book on Debussy titled, Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music For the Modern World, that tells about his life and also his music. Below is an excerpt from chapter 1 about Debussy’s early life and background.
Some historians tried to link Claude Debussy to the Burgundian aristocracy, but no—Claude’s father, Manuel de Bussy, was less nobly descended from peasant stock, men and women who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were laborers and farmers, locksmiths, tradesmen, and carpenters. Claude’s maternal family too was of humble origin.
Manuel de Bussy enlisted at eighteen in the Second Infantry Regiment of Marines and served his seven-year term. He married Victorine Manoury in 1861, when both were twenty-five years old. The newlyweds moved into an old three-story house in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, just west of Paris. Manuel ran the china shop on the ground floor, and upstairs, on August 22, 1862, their first child, Achille-Claude de Bussy, was born. Before his first birthday he had a baby sister, Adèle. Emmanuel was born in 1867, and Alfred followed three years later. Another son died in childhood.
The china shop failed after two years of Manuel’s management, and the de Bussys moved to Clichy to live with Victorine’s mother. In 1868, Manuel found work at a printing shop and moved his family to Paris. For most of his life Manuel struggled and repeatedly failed to earn enough to support his family in comfort and stability. He never held a job for very long, and Victorine sometimes worked as a seamstress to help make ends meet.
The eldest boy was called Achille (pronounced “ah-sheel”), but he was Chilo to his family. At his baptism his godparents were Manuel’s sister Clémentine and her lover, a rich financier named Achille Arosa. As a young adult, Chilo preferred to be called Claude, signed his name Claude-Achille, and modernized the family name to Debussy.
He was a quiet boy—“dreamy” was a word often used—who found refuge in solitude. Unlike his three siblings, he never went to school. His mother, who had little education herself, kept him at home and taught him to read and write. But Victorine had no enthusiasm for motherhood. More than once she sent Adèle to Cannes to be raised by Clémentine. Alfred was in Clémentine’s care until her death in 1882.
Clearly, the de Bussy clan was not an auspicious incubator of genius. Nothing in the historical record suggests that music was a significant part of the family life, or that the children were exposed to the ripe artistic and cultural climate of Paris. Manuel confidently believed Achille would follow in his footsteps: He’d be a sailor when he grew up. (Later in life, the composer of La Mer [The Sea] found this amusing.)