Claude Debussy: 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the composer of "Clair de Lune"

Claude Debussy’s vast musical repertoire, including symphonic works, works for piano, operatic works, and music chamber, often overshadows an equally vast and fascinating personal life. Here are 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the composer of "Clair de Lune".

Claude Debussy: 10 (little) things you (may) not know about the composer of "Clair de Lune"
Portrait de Claude Debussy, compositeur français et pianiste, 1909, © Getty

Pianist, composer, musical critic, conductor... Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a man of many talents. Though his contemporaries were often divided between a misunderstanding and admiration for his work, he nonetheless became one of the leaders of a new French music, marked with modernity. 

Close to other artists such as Ernest Chausson, Pierre Louÿs, Stéphane Mallarmé and even Camille Claudel, Debussy led a bohemian lifestyle, a frequent patron of the local cafés and salons. Here are ten little things you (may) not know about the life of a composer whose work goes far beyond his famous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894).

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He owes his career (partly) to his father’s imprisonment

Debussy was born into a penniless family. His parents were faïence merchants but their shop experienced frequent financial difficulties and the parents were forced to work various other jobs on the side in order to provide for their family. The situation worsened when the father, Manuel Debussy, was arrested ten years later and sentenced to four years in prison following his participation in the Paris Commune; he only served one year in prison.

While detained, Manuel Debussy met Charles de Sivry, a bohemian musician whose mother, Madame Mauté de Fleurville, was an excellent pianist. Charles de Sivry urged Manuel Debussy to introduce the young Debussy to his mother.

Soon after, the young Achille-Claude became her student. Faced with his undeniable talent, she gave him frequent and enriching lessons. A year later, in 1872, Debussy was admitted to the Conservatoire. At only ten years old, he became one of the 33 new students admitted of 157 applicants. Shortly before his death, the musician wrote that it was to Madame de Mauté that “I owe the little I know about the piano”.

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

A young and distracted pianist

The young Debussy was far from well-behaved: besides being constantly late, he was taciturn and undisciplined, as noted by his biographer Ariane Charton. His mother Victorine insisted on taking upon herself her son’s education, refusing to send him to school. Naturally, Debussy strongly rejected the discipline he encountered when finally entering the Conservatoire.

Debussy seemed out of place amongst Antoine Marmontel’s students. The composer Gabriel Pierné noted how “his clumsiness and awkwardness were extraordinary, in addition to which he was shy and even unsociable. In Marmontel's piano class he used to astound us with his bizarre playing [...] he used to charge at the piano and force all his effects."

Much like the composer, the music of Debussy also seeks to free itself from academic rules. Through Debussy's extravagances, his teacher saw in him a “true artist nature”. Little by little, Debussy distanced himself from the piano and turned to composition. Twice he missed the Prix de Rome first prize, before finally being admitted at the Villa Medicis in 1884 with his cantata L’Enfant Prodigue. Yet this success was to be the starting point of a painful and melancholic period. 

The Villa Medicis asked of its young resident composers to compose works and send them to Paris. Claude Debussy presented his first work without conviction. The jury expressed the same sentiment regarding his work Zuleima, stating: “This candidate, we note with regret, seems today to be preoccupied solely with creating the strange, the bizarre, the incomprehensible, the unplayable”. Barely inspired by his commissions, Debussy found far greater inspiration in his mistress Marie Vasnier. From Rome, he continued writing melodies for her, including La Romance and Les Cloches in 1885.

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Debussy and women: a story of infidelity

Debussy's first great love was the soprano Marie Vasnier. A married woman with two children and fourteen years the elder of Debussy, only 18 at the time. The young man quickly declared his sentiments by setting to music for her the poems of Banville and Leconte de Lisle. Though the couple shared a true artistic like-mindedness, Debussy’s time in Rome hastened the end of their love affair…

In 1889, Debussy the bohemian fell in love with Gabrielle Dupont. Their romance ended six months later with a scandal: whilst living with Gabriel, Debussy seduced Thérèse Roger, a singer from a wealthy family whom he hoped to marry, mainly for financial reasons.

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

Debussy eventually married Lilly Texier, a model, in 1889. His initial passion soon faded due to Texier's lack of interest in music and her fragile health. He soon fell in love with Emma Bardac, the mother of one of his students: this time, Debussy's relationship almost became a tragedy! Mad with sorrow, Lilly shot herself in the belly. She fortunately survived, but her suicide attempt and her husband’s infidelity became all the talk of 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 performed La Demoiselle Élue, Debussy's third commission sent from Rome.

Besides being a friend, Ariane Charton explains that Chausson was also a big brother, an admirer, and even a patron for Debussy. When the composer of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was in need of money, his friend came to his rescue. The two musicians came from very different backgrounds: Debussy grew up in poverty whereas Chausson’s father was an entrepreneur and the family lived comfortably in a hôtel particulier on the Boulevard de Courcelles.

The biographer François Lesure tells us that Debussy discovered 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 going 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 of unpaid debts. There was no chance to reconcile their friendship 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 commissions, 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 Debussy 500 francs a month. But instead of using that money to provide for his family, Debussy, as a real lover of all things beautiful, often bought instead antiques or a work of art. Gabriel Pierné wrote that, already as a child “he showed a marked preference for tiny objects, for fine and delicate things”.

He painted with notes

For Debussy, music and art were in constant dialogue. The composer often looked to the vocabulary of painting to find titles for his compositions (Estampes, 1903; Images, 1905 and 1907).

Debussy showed a strong interest for the 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 impressions. 

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In 1903, when he returned to writing for the piano, he began working upon 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 memory of a stormy day when Debussy stayed in the garden instead of taking shelter, “he 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 bring to mind the East and Spain. Debussy wrote to the composer and conductor André Messager in September 1903, explaining “when you can’t afford to travel, you have to use your imagination instead”.

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, the work is filled with inspirations of paintings by Monet, Turner and Hokusai. Incidentally, the score's cover is The Wave by Hokusai. 

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The battle of Pelléas et Mélisande

Ten years after the first drafts, Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande 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”. The composer was right to be worried, since the work's production proved problematic. In addition to the frustrations due to the scenery or the copying of instrumental parts, the main obstacle came from the libretto author Maurice Maeterlinck.

For the part of Mélisande, Debussy chose a 28-year-old Scottish artist Mary Garden with a “pre-Raphaelite appearance, bound to seduce Debussy and evoke the childlike appearance of Mélisande as depicted by Maeterlinck” (Ariane Charton). Maeterlinck strongly disagreed with Debussy's choice and insisted the part go to his companion Georgette Leblanc. Debussy refused as he thought she had not enough talent as a singer. Maeterlinck therefore tried everything to have the work banned: 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 30 April 1902, at the Opéra-Comique with Mary Garden as Mélisande.

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

However, Debussy was not spared from the scandal nonetheless. The piece divided the critics: 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 discovered the music of the Far East. He found himself fascinated by a ensemble from Saigon and by a gamelan orchestra composed of percussion instruments. He also discovered instruments such as the angklung, made of pipes of bamboo, and the kendang, a kind of drum. Far from the traditional French academism, Debussy was seduced and influenced by this world and quickly infused his music with these new eastern colours.

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)

Other than Asian music, Debussy was also passionate about works of Russian composers since a young age, and admired in particular The Mighty Handful, notably Moussorgski. During the Exposition Universelle in 1889, with the presence of Rimski-Korsakov and Glazounov, Debussy was confronted with a new face of Russian music.

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

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Monsieur Croche, his alter ego

Besides being a composer, Debussy was also a music critic. In 1901, he worked for La Revue Blanche, an important artistic and literary newspaper during the Belle Epoque, for which he penned a series of columns. He decided to take on the role in full and created a character that became his alter ego, the famous Monsieur Croche.

The composer wrote concerts summaries and talked about the composers or works that were fashionable. For example, he praised Moussorgski but lashed out against the Prix de Rome. He also took the opportunity to tell the readers about his own musical aesthetics.

In 1971, his columns were gathered and published by Gallimard with the title Monsieur Croche et autres écrits.

Chouchou, his darling daughter

On 30 October 1905, Emma Debussy gave birth to a little girl that they called… Claude-Emma. “Chouchou”, as she would later be called, quickly became a source of inspiration for her father. The works 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 Chouchou's parents, both finally divorced from their previous unions, finally marry and move to avenue du Bois de Boulogne. However, their happiness was not to last: between Debussy's poor health and his financial difficulties, Debussy’s last years were far from joyous. He was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1918, when Chouchou was only twelve years old. In a letter to her half-brother Raoul, she wrote: “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 was sadly taken from her mother by diphtheria.