It’s well known that many famous composers have died young, so it isn’t surprising to learn that Romantic music champion Claude Debussy died in 1918 at age 55.
Debussy had been battling rectal cancer for about a decade. Through it all, he was still a highly prolific composer. In his last few years, even though he said it required “all the labours of Hercules in one” just to get dressed in the morning, he was still able to write twelve Etudes.
In fact, it may well have been his illness that spurred him into a composing frenzy. For a brief period, the declaration of World War I caused him such shock that his creativity stalled and he was unable to compose anything at all. Discovering the seriousness of his illness may have motivated him to follow through with the many musical ideas he’d kept stored in his mind.
In a letter to his doctor, Debussy wrote, “I still have so much to say. There are so many things in music which have never yet been done-for example the human voice-I don’t think it has ever been fully exploited.”
Unfortunately, he never had time to realize all his musical ambitions. He died on March 25, 1918, as German troops bombed Paris from the air and rolled through the streets in artillery vehicles. Somehow, amid the chaos, a funerary procession took place for Debussy through the deserted, disheveled streets of Paris to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The public funeral service Debussy may have had wasn’t possible in wartime; he was buried without much fanfare or publicity.
A year later, after the war was over, Debussy’s final request to rest among the birds and trees was finally granted: he was moved to the smaller Passy Cemetery and to this day is interred there alongside his wife and daughter.