La Belle Epoque (6) – Debussy


This is the last composer in the series selected by Matthew in our Belle Époque series and where Matthew is dealing with his early years. In his life he was seen as one of the set of composers from the group we have examined and it is only later on that he emerges as the great figure of French music who stands out from all the rest. His name is associated with impressionism but it was not he who gave it the name. His music is distinctive in its sounds, its atmosphere, its harmonies and yes its impressions. His methods cannot be compared to the impressionist painters but he evokes the same mood. You only have to set Monet’s realisations of Rouen Cathedral against Debussy’s La Cathédral Engloutie. With his harmonies he developed tone colours. With his light “brush strokes” of sound as in Jeu de Vagues, the second movement of La Mer, he produced spots and splashes of sound which bring to mind Seurat and the pointillist movement.

 Born in 1862 he was named Achille-Claude but he preferred it the other way round and switched it later on. Usually one had a relative’s name bestowed but in this case Debussy was given his father’s first name of Achille which he obviously did not like as he himself was called Claude. There is no record of his mother having dipped him in the Styx or in the Seine for that matter. He was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the north western areas above Paris, the eldest of five children. His father owned a china and hardware shop and his mother was a seamstress. Where have all the seamstresses now gone? The family moved to Paris in 1867, but as with most of the other composers in this series, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 had its effect and Debussy’s mother, pregnant again, moved for safety to an aunt in Cannes. It was there that Debussy at the age of seven began piano lessons which were paid for by his great aunt. Round about 1871 he came to the attention of Marie Fleurville, a pupil of Chopin, or so she claimed. It is incredible that, having started at the age of seven or eight Debussy by the age of ten had gained a place at the Paris Conservatoire. There he spent eleven years, shades of Prokofiev at St Petersburg.

Reports state that, though clearly talented, Debussy was argumentative and experimental, challenging the rigid teaching of the conservatoire, seeking out dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon, just as one saw with Prokofiev. It obviously goes with the age. And like Prokofiev he was a brilliant pianist and an outstanding sight reader, who could have pursued a professional career as such had he so wished.

 During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882 Debussy accompanied the wealthy Russian patroness Nadezhda von Meck, as tutor and piano tutor for her children as she travelled with her family in Europe and Russia. One will recall that she was the patron of Tchaikovsky for eleven years on condition that they never met. Madame von Meck did send a work of Debussy to Tchaikovsky for approval but he dismissed it pretty well out of hand. It was never published anyway. A greater influence was Debussy’s close friendship with Madame Vasnier, a singer he met when he began working as an accompanist to earn some money. She and her husband respectively gave Debussy emotional and professional support. The exact form that this took can only be left to the imagination. Monsieur Vasnier introduced him to the writings of influential French writers of the time, which gave rise to his first songs, settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, the son-in-law of his former piano teacher, Mme. Mauté de Fleurville. So she did have some connections after all, apart from possibly playing Chopsticks with Chopin.

 The winning of the Prix de Rome has featured extensively in this series that by now we might all feel we want a go. Debussy took first prize in 1884 with his composition L’enfant prodigue, This condemned him to a minimum three year residence without remission at the French Academy in Rome, (the Villa Medici). According to the letters he wrote to Madame Vasnier he found the artistic atmosphere stifling, the company boorish, the food bad, and the monastic quarters abominable. Otherwise it was alright except that neither did he delight in the pleasures of the “Eternal City”, finding the Italian opera of Donizetti and Verdi not to his taste. Well, you can’t please everybody. Debussy was not the first to experience the boredom of Italy. Berlioz, as related in his Memoires, went through just the same kind of experience. All that was necessary during this sojourn was to produce one work to send back a year, called envois. Debussy managed four of them, first a symphonic ode Zuleima which seems to have disappeared; then the orchestral piece, Printemps, except that it was not an orchestral piece as we now know it until 1913 after the original had been destroyed at some time by fire and only later reconstructed and orchestrated by Henri Busser. It was originally written for voices with an accompaniment of two pianos. It was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera from which one can conclude that Debussy had his good moments in Italy. The committee back at the Conservatoire pronounced it as containing vague impressionism of the most dangerous kind. The third of these was La Demoiselle Élue a cantata based on the best known poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Debussy had taken a shine to the English Pre-Raphaelites but that has not prevented one entry in Google referring to him as an Italian poet. The cantata was criticized by the committee as “bizarre”. The fourth piece, Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra, owes much to César Franck and Fauré. It is in three movements and is the nearest thing to a piano concerto that Debussy created although the piano is not so much a star as a fellow worker. The last of its movements owes a little something to D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Theme. The committee chided him for “courting the unusual” and hoped for something better. Massenet concluded, “He is an enigma”.


We have seen from an examination of the other composers in this series how they all fell under the spell of Wagner in some way. Fauré differed from the others in that, notwithstanding the magnet of Wagner, his musical output showed no sign of influence. Wagnerism can be detected in the others to a lesser or greater extent.

 In 1888, after his return from Rome, Debussy made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to become exposed to and seduced by Wagner’s operas. They had a lasting impact on his work and he responded positively to Wagner’s sensuousness and striking harmonies which is evident in La Demoiselle Élue. Wagner’s extrovert emotionalism was not to be Debussy’s way but Wagner’s methods were employed even though the outcomes were different, as was certainly the sound produced.

 In 1889, the year of the centenary of the French Revolution, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle. It was there that Debussy heard Javanese gamelan music and from then on made use of the pentatonic scale and the whole tone scale giving his music a trade mark from this time onwards.

 These extremes between Wagner and Debussy are best described in what has been my bible for the last 60 years, Music Ho by Constant Lambert, first published in 1934. I quote:

 “The emotional reaction we get from Wagner may be compared to the direct and almost cinematic emotional appeal of a ship with the hero’s sweetheart on board leaving the quay, or the departure of a troop train in time of war. The emotional reaction we get from Debussy is of the less personal and more subtle order that we get from the mere sight of an unknown ship in sail.

 The complete contrast of both method and aim between Debussy’s work and that of the German Romantics may be seen again if we compare the maddening repetitions in Wagner’s operas with the equally maddening repetitions in Pelléas and Mélisande. The Wagnerian repetitions are a mounting and rhetorical series reminiscent of a lawyer’s speech – an oratorical device whose aim is to emphasize the meaning of the argument until not even the dullest member of the jury remains unconvinced. Debussy’s static repetitions do not quicken the pulse – they slacken it. Like the repetitions of an oriental priest their aim is to destroy the superficial connotations of the phrase until it appeals to the deeper instincts rather than to reason”.

 1889 is a suitable place to pick up on Debussy’s private life. This ranks more alongside Fauré than it does alongside Franck. Debussy’s private life was extremely

turbulent. At the age of 18 he had begun an eight-year on and off affair with Blanche Vasnier. The relationship eventually started to peter out following his winning of the Prix de Rome in 1884 and his obligatory residence in Rome. On his permanent return to Paris he began a tempestuous relationship with Gabrielle (‘Gaby’) Dupont, a tailor’s daughter. They soon set up together but at the same time he was also to have an affair with the singer Thérèse Roger, to whom he was briefly engaged. He was condemned by friends for his behaviour and it ended his long time friendship with the composer, Ernest Chausson. It would have ended anyway when Chausson died from a bicycle

accident in 1899. He ultimately left Gaby for her friend Rosalie Texier (‘Lilly’), a fashion model whom he married in 1899, after threatening suicide if she refused him. Oh là là. Chausson would have been turning in his grave. More was to come on the basis of what is good for the gander is good for the goose. But that will be later on. Curtail your excitement please.

 The naughty nineties would see the emergence of Debussy as his own man, the blossoming of his own style. In an article such as this, one cannot go through his complete oeuvres but simply mention some of the better known. The first major creation was the prelude, L’Après Midi D’Un Faune, an atmospheric image based on a poem by the symbolist poet, Stéphan Mallarmé. It is a comparatively short work, about eight minutes, a languorous description of the faun stretched out on a rock in the afternoon sun. Some critics were unkind (“sounds of a rotten flute”). To-day, it does not matter how many times it gets played on Classic FM it remains as beautiful as ever.

 If we move on to the end of the nineties, the work of note is the Three Nocturnes, Not nocturnes like Chopin or a notturno like Mozart but a nocturne inspired by the impressionist paintings of that name by Whistler. The most authoritative comment I can supply is from Debussy himself who wrote:

 The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. ‘Nuages’ renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. ‘Fêtes’ gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision), which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged in it. But the background remains resistantly the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. ‘Sirènes’ depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.”

 Somehow I cannot see how either Nuages or Fêtes could ever be perceived as nocturnal. They are vibrantly filled with light.

 The next big composition was Pelléas and Mélisande, Debussy’s only completed opera from 1902. It was based on a symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck who provided the libretto. At went well until trouble broke out between Debussy and Maeterlinck. Debussy had promised the role of Mélisande to Georgette Leblanc, a singer and actress who shared a relationship with Maeterlinck from 1895 to 1918. However, on hearing the voice of the new Scottish singer, Mary Garden, Debussy became insistent that she should take the role. When Maeterlinck heard of this, he was furious and tried to take legal action to prevent the opera from going ahead. When this failed, he threatened Debussy with physical violence. Debussy’s wife, Lily, sought to dissuade the playwright from attacking her husband with a cane. On 14 April, Le Figaro published a letter from Maeterlinck in which he completely dissociated himself from the production, complaining about the cuts that had been made in the libretto although he himself had originally sanctioned them. Maeterlinck finally saw the opera in 1920, two years after Debussy’s death. He was to confess: “In this affair I was entirely wrong and he was a thousand times right.”

 Pelléas contains a composite of all the idioms and clichés which Debussy had gathered. It is a magical work, sung in a French recitative, with just one shadowy momentary chorus of sailors who disappear into the mist. It needs what it never gets, a decent production. It is a kind of Arthurian legend set in a forest and a castle and would be enhanced by an Art Nouveau decor it never gets. Wonderful musical and theatrical experiences have been ruined by clever-clever productions which show bare stages, forests made of steel constructions and projections and pre-mediaeval characters dressed in vests and jeans.

 Shortly after this time, Debussy’s domestic life was to change again. Although Lily was affectionate, loyal and liked by Debussy’s friends, he became increasingly irritated by what he felt were her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity. In 1904, he was to meet Emma Bardac, the estranged wife of a Parisian banker. Now there is a name we have come across before. Emma had had eight years, on the side with Fauré. The way some, not all, French composers switched attachments can be compared to the way English football managers, not all, switch clubs. On this basis, Debussy was in a league of his own, only on a level with ‘arry Redknapp. Anyway, as far as Emma Bardac was concerned, Debussy decided to have a trial run. Having dispatched Lily to her father’s home Debussy secretly took Emma off to Jersey for a holiday. On their return, Debussy wrote to Lily from Dieppe telling her their marriage was over although he made no mention of Emma. The consequences were sad. You will recall Debussy’s threat of suicide if she had not married him. Now it was her turn. She actually attempted suicide in the Place de la Concorde. She would have done better to have got herself run over. Instead, she shot herself in the chest with a revolver. She did however survive but with the bullet remaining lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. The ensuing scandal caused a degree of ostracism for Debussy whilst Emma was disowned by her family.


In the spring of 1905, finding the hostility towards them intolerable, Debussy and Emma, now pregnant, crossed again to Jersey. Emma’s divorce was finalized in May and the couple settled at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne from the end of July to the end of August 1905. Here, Debussy was to correct proofs to his symphonic suite, La mer, as well as to celebrate his own divorce from Lily on 2 August. The couple’s daughter (the composer’s only child) Claude-Emma, affectionately known as “Chouchou”, was born on 30 October 1905. Her parents were eventually to marry in 1908.

 The above events took place against the composition of La Mer, for me the greatest of Debussy’s works. It is called a symphonic seascape and is a three movement triptych. It is almost as if parts of the Nocturnes and Pelléas had been preparations for the sound world of the new work. It is the apex of Debussy’s impressionism where colour and atmosphere have taken over from formal principles of exposition and development. Pictorially it is Turner, not Monet. What Debussy gives us is pure cold salt water or as Constant Lambert again wrote:

 “Whereas in most works of art inspired by the sea, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony for example, we are given the sea as a highly picturesque background to human endeavour and human emotion, a suitable setting for introspective skippers, heroic herring fishers and intrepid explorers, La Mer is actually a picture of the sea itself, a landscape without figures, or rather a seascape without ships”.

 There are some works which never fail to thrill, however many times one hears them. They vary of course from person to person. For me in these is a frisson I get every time I hear La Mer in the concert hall. It is an experience never fully captured on disc. The first movement entitled “At sea from dawn to midday”. After hearing it in rehearsal Erik Satie said to the composer, “I liked it all but particularly the little bit at a quarter to eleven”. It grows to a wonderful climax. A kind of chorale sounds in the depths as the sun reaches its zenith, and one last wave breaks into foam. The second movement, Play of the Waves serves as a splashing and dancing scherzo.

The final movement is the dialogue between wind and sea which becomes an all-embracing force sometimes terrifying with alternating crashing waves and calms leading to one of the greatest orchestral swells which will continue in the mind long after the music has ceased .

 La Mer is a combination of the pictorial and the symphonic. Debussy was not to repeat it but he later produced his preludes, two books, each containing twelve miniatures for piano. Pictorial and picture postcard in size. But don’t be mistaken by this. Each states a lot more than “Wish you were here”. Picture Album might have been a better name as they are not a prelude to anything. Apart from Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp minor, no-one remembers preludes by number or key and Debussy sensibly overcame this problem by giving them all alluring titles. Mind you, he curiously wrote these at the foot of each. Was he trying to tell us that the music is more important than the impression it describes or was it abstract music he had written with a penned after-thought, as if to say “this is what it might remind you of”? Possibly so with the Dancers of Delphi or Footsteps in the Snow but surely not with the Submerged Cathedral or General Lavine – Eccentric?

 Debussy’s life descended into difficulties. One little known curio he wrote in 1910 was La Plus Que Lente (The Less Than Slow). It is written for orchestra with solo cimbalom, an instrument I have only heard before in Kodaly’s Hary Janos. It is a salon piece, a waltz, which somehow seems to look back like some tearful fond farewell to the Belle Epoque. In 1909 Debussy developed bowel cancer. The first world war would depress him and he began to suffer from a loss of inspiration but there is no hint of this in his music. Later Debussy was to include a set of orchestral Images, atmospheric impressions of England, Spain and France with England represented by the Keel Row. There was the ballet, Jeux, commissioned by Diaghileff and first performed just before the Rite of Spring. It is a curious affair of a tennis match but not of the Roland Garros – Grand Slam variety. It owes more to Zola than to Federer and I can’t imagine it being listened to by Andy Murray or his mum.

Debussy’s joy in life was Chou-Chou for whom he wrote the Children’s Corner Suite (orchestrated by André Caplet) including Jimbo’s Lullaby and the Golliwog’s Cakewalk. This latter has thankfully so far escaped the attentions of the officials of Rotherham who might ordain that it receive the same treatment as Robertson’s Marmalade.

 Towards the end he turned his attention to the abstract and his inspiration was renewed with a planned series of six sonatas but of which he only completed three, for cello, for violin and for violin, flute and harp. He died of cancer in March 1918. At the time Paris was under bombardment from the German spring offensive of that year. Debussy was buried at the cemetery at Passy. Sorrowfully, his daughter, Chou-Chou, was placed next to him after she succumbed to the great flu epidemic of 1919.

 In the end, it was Debussy who turned out to be the great individual champion for French music. He was only 56 when he died. Who knows what directions his music would have taken had he lived on till, say, the outbreak of the second world war. We will never know. We can only be thankful for what he did leave us.