Portrait de Claude Debussy, compositeur français et pianiste, 1909
Portrait de Claude Debussy, compositeur français et pianiste, 1909 © Getty

10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about Claude Debussy

Between his symphonic work, his pieces for piano, his opera and his music chamber, Claude Debussy’s work is vast. So much so that it sometimes hides the man’s life none the less as rich as was his career.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) endorsed every role. If his contemporaries were divided between misunderstanding and admiration for his work, he soon became one of the leaders of a new French music, marked with modernity. 

Close with other artists such as Ernest Chausson, Pierre Louÿs, Stéphane Mallarmé and even Camille Claudel, Debussy lead a bohemian life and visited the cafés and the salons. Here are ten little things you might not know about a composer’s life who did much more that his famous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894). 

He owes (a little bit) his career to his father’s detention

When Debussy is born, his family is penniless. His parents are faïence merchants but they have financial difficulties with their shop and have to get other little jobs to provide for their family. The situation worsens when Manuel Debussy, the father, gets arrested ten years later and is sentenced of four years of imprisonment after his participation to the Paris Commune. He will eventually stay only one year in prison.

While in detention, Manuel Debussy meets Charles de Sivry, a bohemian musician whose mother, Madame Mauté de Fleurville, is an excellent pianist. Charles de Sivry urges Manuel Debussy to introduce his son to the lady.

Soon after, the young Achille-Claude becomes her student. Faced with his undeniable abilities, she gives him high-quality and frequent lessons. A year later, in 1872, Debussy is admitted in the Conservatoire. At only ten years old, he is one of the 33 new students when 157 applicants had tried to get in. Not long before dying, the musician wrote that it was to Madame de Mauté that “I owe the little I know about piano”.

Portrait du jeune Debussy en 1879
Portrait du jeune Debussy en 1879 © Getty

A young pianist a little astray

The young Debussy is far from the ideal boy image: besides being constantly late, he is undisciplined and taciturn as his biographer Ariane Charton tells us. His mother Victorine insisted on taking upon herself her son’s education and never sent him to school. Therefore, he strongly rejected the discipline he encountered when entering the Conservatoire. 

Among Antoine Marmontel’s students, Debussy seems out of place. The composer Gabriel Pierné tells us “his awkwardness and his clumsiness were incredible. On top of that, he was shy and even untamed. During Marmontel piano lesson, he astonished us by his weird playing, overdoing all the effects”.

His music too tries to get free of the academic rules. Through his extravagances, his teacher sees in him a “true artist nature”. Little by little, Debussy leaves the piano and turns to composition. He fails twice at winning the Prix de Rome first prize before getting admitted at the Villa Medicis in 1884 after presenting his cantata L’Enfant Prodigue. Yet this success is the starting point of a painful period tainted with melancholia. 

The Villa Medicis asks of the young composers to write pieces and to send them to Paris. Claude Debussy presents his first piece without conviction. The jury shares this feeling about his first delivery Zuleima and says “We notice with regret that this resident seems to care only about creating odd, incomprehensible and undoable pieces”. If the orders he gets don’t seem to inspire him much, Debussy finds a prolific source in his mistress Marie Vasnier. From Rome, he keeps on writing melodies for her, including La Romance and Les Cloches in 1885.

Debussy and the women: a story of infidelity

His first great love is the soprano Marie Vasnier. She is married with two children and a 32-year-old woman when he is only 18. The young man declared his feelings towards her by giving Banville and Leconte de Lisle’s poems a musical depth. They share a true artistic complicity. Unfortunately Debussy’s stay in Rome speeds up the ending of that love affair…

In 1889, while living a bohemian life, he falls for Gabrielle Dupont. The romance will end six months later with a scandal: while living with Gabriel, Debussy seduces Thérèse Roger and would have tried to marry her because she was a singer from a wealthy class. 

Debussy et sa première femme, Rosalie (Lilly) Texier, 1902
Debussy et sa première femme, Rosalie (Lilly) Texier, 1902 © Getty

He ends up marrying the model Lilly Texier in 1889. The passion he feels at first soon passes due to his wife’s lack of interest for music and her fragile health. He then fell in love with Emma Bardac, one of his students’ mother. This time, the romance would up with a tragedy. Mad with sorrow, Lilly shots herself in the belly. She survives but her suicide attempt and her husband’s infidelity are being commented in all Paris.

His friendship with Ernest Chausson

A brief but intense friendship. The affection between the composer Ernest Chausson and Debussy grew stronger in 1893 when the Société Nationale de Musique played the third delivery of Debussy from Rome La Demoiselle Élue.

Besides being a friend, Ariane Charton confesses that Chausson is also a big brother, an admirer and even a patron for Debussy. When the composer of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is in need of money, his friend comes to his rescue. The two musicians don’t have the same background: Debussy grew up in poverty whereas Chausson’s father is an entrepreneur and the family comfortably lives in a hôtel particulier on the boulevard de Courcelles.

The biographer François Lesure tells us that Debussy saw a united family when Chausson invited him to spend time with them at their country house in Luzancy in Seine-et-Marne. The two men enjoyed themselves, as kids would have done, playing ball and pleasure boating.

Debussy et la famille Chausson, à Luzancy en Seine-et-Marne (1893)
Debussy et la famille Chausson, à Luzancy en Seine-et-Marne (1893) © Getty

Their friendship ended with the Thérèse Roger affair and because of debts that were due. They didn’t have a chance to reconcile for Chausson died in a bicycle accident in 1899.

Poor but sophisticated

From a very young age, Debussy had a weakness for luxury and delicate objects. But his inclination was always confronted to his difficult circumstances. More than once he had to accept a series of orders, an exercise that he hated.

Fortunately the musician could count on his friends. For example, Georges Hartmann, the editor of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, gave him 500 francs a month. But instead of using that money to provide for his family, Debussy, as a real beauty lover, would rather buy an antique or a piece or art. Gabriel Pierné tells us that, already as a child “he showed a marked preference for tiny objects, for fine and delicate things”.

He paints with notes

With Debussy, music and painting talk to each other constantly. The composer often looks into the painting vocabulary to find his pieces names (Estampes, 1903; Images, 1905 and 1907).

Debussy showed a strong interest for visual arts. He wrote in a chronicle for the Revue Blanche in 1901 “I talk about an orchestra partition as I would of a painting”. Through music, he tried to express his feelings. 

In 1903, when he turned to compositions for piano once more, he started writing Estampes (Pagode, Soirée dans Grenade and Jardins sous la pluie). He spent his summer in Bichain, in Yonne, with the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche. The artist said Jardins sous la pluie was the remembrance of a stormy day when Debussy stayed in the garden instead of taking shelter, “decided to fully enjoy the smell of the soaked ground or the clinking sound of the rain drops on the leaves”. The two other pieces take us to the East and to Spain. Debussy wrote to the composer and orchestra conductor André Messagerwhen you can’t afford to travel, you have to use your imagination instead” in September 1903

The same year, he wrote the first notes of La Mer, a piece inspired by his stay with Emma by the English Channel. According to Ariane Charton, that piece is filled with paintings by Monet, Turner and Hokusai. The cover of the partition is incidentally The Wave of Hokusai. 

The battle of Pelléas et Mélisande

Ten years after the first drafts the opera was finally to be presented. Nine months before its creation, Debussy was anxious. He wrote to the poet Henri de RégnierI am extremely worried with Pelléas et Mélisande for they will soon leave my house for destinies that I foresee tumultuous”. And the composer was right as the problems kept adding up. On top of the frustrations due to the scenery or the copying of partitions, the main obstacle came from the booklet author Maurice Maeterlinck.

For the part of Mélisande, Debussy chose a 28-year-old Scottish artist Mary Garden who had “prophetic appearances, bound to seduce Debussy and near the chil-like woman look of Mélisande” (Ariane Charton). Maeterlinck strongly disagreed with that choice and insisted the part would go his companion Georgette Leblanc. Debussy refused as he thought she had not enough talent as a singer. After that Maeterlinck tried everything for the piece to be prohibited: he complained to the Société des Auteurs, he published an open letter in Le Figaro… His efforts remained useless and the premiere took place on the 30th of April 1902 at the Opéra-Comique with Mary Garden.

La soprano Mary Garden dans le rôle de Melisande, en 1902
La soprano Mary Garden dans le rôle de Melisande, en 1902 © Getty

Debussy was not spared from the scandal nonetheless. The piece divided the critics in two sides: on one side his dazzled supporters who saw in the composer a new musical authority, on the other his detractors who judged the opera to be insufferable.

Fascinated by exotic music

In 1889 at the occasion of the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, Debussy discovers the music from the Far East. He finds himself fascinated by a company from Saigon and by the gamelan orchestra composed of percussions. He also discovers instruments such as the angklung made of pipes of bamboo and the kendang, a kind of drum. Far from the French academism, Debussy is seduced by this world, dives into it and soon taints his music with eastern colors.

C’est le rythme éternel de la mer, le vent dans les feuilles, et mille petits bruits qu’ils écoutèrent avec soin, sans jamais regarder dans d’arbitraires traités.(Dans Monsieur Croche et autres écrits, 1913)

(It’s the endless rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves and a thousand little noises they would listen to with care, without ever looking into arbitraries treaties. (In Monsieur Croche et autres récits, 1913)

Besides the Asian music, Debussy had been passionate about the Russian compositions since a young age and admired especially The Mighty Handful, including Moussorgski. During the Exposition Universelle in 1889, due to the presence of Rimski-Korsakov and Glazounov, he is confronted to a new side of the Russian repertoire.

During his entire life Debussy takes an interest in the “music from far away”. While touring in Vienna around 1911, he fell in love with the gypsy music. So much so that he would write a part for cimbalom, a plucked string instrument, in the orchestral version of La plus que lente.

Monsieur Croche, his alter ego

Besides being a composer, Debussy is also a music critic. In 1901, he works for La Revue Blanche, an important artistic and literary newspaper in la Belle Epoque period, and writes a series of columns for it. He decides to play the part fully and creates a character that becomes his alter ego, the famous Monsieur Croche.

The composer writes concerts summaries and talks about the composers or pieces that are fashionable. For example, he praised Moussorgski but lashed out the Prix de Rome. He also took the opportunity to tell the readers about his musical aesthetics

In 1971, his columns were gathered and published by Gallimard into a book called _Monsieur Croche et autres écrits._Chouchou, sa fille chérie

Chouchou, his darling daughter

On the 30th of October 1905, Claude and Emma welcome a little girl that they will call… Claude-Emma. “Chouchou”, as she later on would be called, soon becomes a source of inspiration for her father. The pieces Children’s Corner (1906-1908, a series of pieces for piano) and La Boîte à Bijoux (1913, a ballet for children) were both dedicated to her.

Debussy et sa fille Claude-Emma (Chouchou), en 1909
Debussy et sa fille Claude-Emma (Chouchou), en 1909 © Getty

In 1908 her parents finally get out of their previous unions, get married and settle avenue du Bois de Boulogne. Happiness will not last long though: between his poor health and his financial difficulties, Debussy’s last years are a bit sad. He learns about his cancer and dies in 1918, while Chouchou is only twelve years old. In a letter she wrote to her half-brother Raoul, she said “it will be only night now. Papa is dead! (…) And being here by myself fighting Maman’s inevitable sorrow is really dreadful!”. One year later, the little girl is taken away by a diphtheria.

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