Debussy: the musical genius who erupted out of nowhere

Philip Hensher:

He came out of nothing, and the eruption of his genius is a complete mystery. There was no musical tradition in his very ordinary family. Within two years of starting to play the piano he was admitted to the Conservatoire; and two years after that, aged 12, he was being given prizes for his performance of a Chopin concerto. Almost from the start, his own music was exquisitely formed, and even the earliest of the songs and piano pieces give a lot of pleasure.

When his mature period began in 1894, that satisfying form was filled with inventions of extraordinary beauty and, at first, strangeness — there are chords in the sumptuous ‘Les sons et les parfums’ prelude of extreme discord. Oddly enough, his music, apart from the etudes, is not difficult for pianists to play — even the showy ‘L’isle joyeuse’ is much easier to get round than most of Ravel. Nor is he difficult to listen to. He was the first composer I really loved when I was a boy, and I don’t think there’s anything in his work that would challenge any open-minded 12-year-old. He wrote to give pleasure, and the depth of the pleasure he gives is immense.