Debussy's life is of extraordinary interest because, like Wagner and Stravinsky, he crossed artistic boundaries, associating as much with poets and artists as with musicians. His father was active in the 1871 Paris Commune and the composer's childhood was thus unsettled, his musical preparation erratic, and his subsequent lifestyle somewhat bohemian by the bourgeois norms of the French musical establishment. He never went to a proper school, but was enough of a pianist to enter the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10. Whilst still a student he rebelled against the academy-taught "rules of composition" and constructed a language of his own, in constant rebellion against the heavy Wagnerian influence prevalent at that time.
In the early 1900s he worked in Paris as a music critic. His own music during these years includes some of the greatest and most influential works of the early twentieth century: the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, his orchestral masterpieces La Mer and Images, a series of profoundly original piano works (including two books of Préludes), and the ballet Jeux, premiered in Diaghilev's 1913 season just before Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (which Debussy attended). His later years were plagued by the rectal cancer that eventually killed him in 1918. But he continued to compose until 1917
This was a period of political and cultural turmoil in French life, the Franco-Prussian war and its aftermath, the Dreyfus affair with its religious and military undercurrents, the general instability of the Third Republic, and the First World War. Stephen Walsh's study combines chronological biography with a contextualised picture placing Debussy in the broad artistic and social environment of turn-of-the-century France, making this a significant contribution to the cultural history of the time.