Debussy and childhood.

One’s thoughts immediately turn to Children’s Corner (more on that below) but his own childhood is an interesting starting point for finding out more about the composer.


Here are a few fascinating gems about the young Claude-Achille Debussy.


Debussy’s father, grand-father and great-grand-father were all known as de Bussy.

Debussy was affectionately known as Chilo by his family

Manuel-Achille de Bussy (his father) was arrested for his part in the 1871 uprising in Paris. Whilst in prison he met Charles de Sivry, a cafe pianist whose mother was a piano teacher. De Sivry was released from prison a few months before Manuel and once out he arranged for the 9 year old Claude to play to his mother.


Claude first had piano lessons with a violin teacher, Cerruti, whilst staying in Cannes with his Aunt Clémentine who was also his god-mother.

His first ‘proper’ piano teacher was Madame MautĂ© who claimed to have studied with Chopin (a claim that is thought to be untrue although there are different perspectives on this).

Debussy’s memories of his teacher were of ‘a small fat lady who threw me into Bach and who played him as no one does nowadays, making him come alive’ [1]


In October 1871 at the age of 10 Claude was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, one of only 8 pianists admitted that year

At the Conservatoire his piano teacher was Antoine Marmontel who recognised his potential. In January 1874 he commented: ‘Charming child, true artist’s temperament; will become a distinguished musician; great future‘. [2]

Claude performed 7 major works by Chopin whilst studying with Marmontel (who had heard Chopin and wrote books about him).

The young Debussy was very shy and awkward in the company of people he didn’t know. Once friendships were established he was charming and vibrant.


Debussy’s first harmony teacher, Albert Lavignac, wrote a book on the modes and introduced modal scales to the young boy.

Once he understood the fundamentals of harmony (established by Fux in eighteenth century and crystallised by Bach) he abandoned the rules and ‘invented solutions that were ingenious, elegant and delightful but totally unacademic’. [3]

Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884 with his composition L’enfant prodigue.

If you want to find out more about Debussy’s life I can recommend Claude Debussy by Paul Roberts CLICK HERE

Also you might like to explore Debussy: A Painter in Sound, a new book by Stephen Walsh. CLICK HERE


Children’s Corner is a set of 6 piano pieces written in 1908. It was dedicated to Debussy’s beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, otherwise known as Chouchou. The citation reads: ‘to my beloved Chouchou, with the tender excuses of her father for that which follows’.

The short pieces that follow all take inspiration from Chouchou’s nursery. Debussy loved all things English and had hired an English nanny to look after his young child.

In the following video Sally discusses the fifth piece in the set, The Little Shepherd.

Subscribe to our new YouTube channel where you will find lots more teaching ideas for piano lessons.

[1] p.31. Claude Debussy by Paul Roberts. 2008. Phaidon Press.

[2] p.33. Ibid.

[3] p.35. Ibid.

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers

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