Before I became a leading figure of the French avant-garde, though, I was a simple boy that studied the beautiful piano. After I was born on May 17th, 1866, my family constantly moved around from Honfleur, a city located in Lower Normandy, to Paris, where I was primarily raised. At this time, the Wagnerian music model had already reached its zenith in Europe, but this meant nothing to me. After my mother unfortunately died when I was at the young age of six, I went to live with my grandparents back in my hometown. There, I began my first music lessons from Vinot, a local organist. Vinot was quite a kind fellow, and he introduced me to Gregorian plainsongs, which are monophonic religious chants from the Middle Ages. From dear Vinot’s teachings, I became very interested in medieval music, and I even incorporated some of these concepts to my later compositions.
However, that was quite far away, for I was first forced to enter the Paris Conservatoire. In 1878, my father had remarried to Eugenie Barnetsche, a “musically gifted individual.” Of course, she was just another conservative musician that conformed to Wagnerism and other such musical forms. Because of her, my father sent me to the rigorous and old-fashioned Paris Conservatoire in 1879. I studied under the Mathias, Descombes, and Lavignac while I was there, but they weren’t exactly encouraging instructors. In fact, they were the ones who claimed that I was the “laziest student in the Conservatoire.” I even composed two songs there; one was called Valse-Ballet while the other was titled Fantaisie-Valse. However, all of those conservative professors called these compositions insignificant, laborious, and worthless. As a result, I was eventually expelled from the Paris Conservatoire in 1882, so I didn’t really receive a complete education. I didn’t mind, though, for that school was not to my liking anyway.
After an unsuccessful entry into the French infantry—I had fallen ill with bronchitis—in 1886, I started my career of composition. In fact, just two years after I was discharged, I composed some of my most famous pieces, the Trois Gymnopédies. These pieces are a clear example of Vinot’s influence on my life, for the harmonies have a bit of Medieval music mixed in them. Around the same time, I composed Ogives (1886), Trois Sarabandes (1887), and Six Gnossiennes (1893), all of which began my career as a composer. My first three pieces leaned towards a more conservative style, although they did vary to some extent. For example, Ogives was based more upon gothic art, while Trois Sarabandes incorporated a solemn dance character. However, with Six Gnossiennes, I ultimately eliminated bar lines and time signatures from my work—until 1917, that is. In addition, I began to scribble in specific directions for the performer in my scores. For example, I liked to write things like “wonder about yourself” or “open your mind” to make whoever was performing to give the music some attitude! I mean, what is music without character and expression?
During all of that time, I lived in a small apartment in Montmartre, mostly because I was so poor. But what do you expect from a musician like me? Other than composing various pieces, I also worked as a café pianist to get a regular income at Auberge du Clou, which is where I met Claude Debussy. He’s definitely a fine fellow, except for the fact that he claims that he is the father of modern music. Of course, we still became good friends, and we advised each other later on in our careers. In the following years, I began to come involved in religion. After meeting Joséphin Péladan, the leader of the Rosicrucian (Rose et Croix) Order, I became the unofficial composer for the society, using my knowledge of medieval music and Gothic art to create a variety of religious pieces in the 1890s, such as Prelude pour la porte héroïque du ciel and Messe des Pauvres. However, the Rosicrucians weren’t exactly the most interesting people. Thus, I...
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