French composer and pianist, regarded as the originator of impressionism in music.
The son of a shopkeeper, Debussy was first encouraged in his love of music in 1871 by Mme Mauté de Fleurville, a former pupil of Chopin and mother-in-law of Verlaine, whose poetry he was later to set. From the age of ten Debussy was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, studying chiefly with Marmontel (piano) and Guiraud (theory). In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata L'Enfant prodigue, but in 1887 he cut short his scholarship and returned to Paris to compose. There he associated with artists and writers rather than musicians but was influenced by Wagner, Mussorgsky, Grieg, and Javanese gamelan music heard at the Paris Exhibition in 1889. His marriage in 1899 to a dressmaker broke down because of lack of intellectual compatibility; they were divorced in 1905 and he married Emma Bardac, by whom he had one daughter: Claud-Emma (Chouchou), to whom he dedicated the Children's Corner piano suite (1906–08).
As a composer, Debussy had a great influence on the development of twentieth-century European music: he carried the ideas of impressionist art into music to create a specifically French style, evocative of moods and atmospheres. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1899), the first of Debussy's truly impressionist orchestral pieces, was followed by the Nocturnes (1899), the symphonic sketches La Mer (1905), and the ballet Jeux (1913). His opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), based on Maeterlinck's symbolist play, brought him professional recognition. His distinctive piano style is at its most impressionistic in the two books of Préludes (1910–13); later his style became more classically austere, as in the two books of piano Études (1915) and the two-piano suite En blanc et noir (1915). A reluctant performer in public, he conducted his own works in the Queen's Hall in London on two occasions (1907 and 1908).