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Master of Music, Bungler of Life

Claude Debussy fit the "genius" type all too well.

by
P. David Hornik

Bio

July 14, 2013 - 7:00 am
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These days the isle of Jersey, just off the coast of Normandy, is a thriving financial center and a tourist haven. With a population of 100,000 in 2009 it was swamped with no less than 600,000 tourists.

Back in 1904, though, Jersey—while already something of a tourist magnet—was less populated, certainly less built-up, and, it’s safe to say, a good deal more enchanting. For a few weeks in July and August that year, Jersey was the site of a romantic escapade by a French couple, both of them married.

The man was the great French composer Claude Debussy, then almost 42 years old and married to Rosalie “Lilly” Texier, a fashion model. The woman was the accomplished singer Emma Bardac, the same age as Debussy and married to a Parisian banker.

During the island idyll Debussy worked on parts of “L’isle joyeuse” (“The Isle of Joy”), a short piano piece of stunning strangeness and beauty; worked on and finished “Masques” (“Masks”), a similarly intense but darker and more ominous piano piece; and worked on parts of La Mer (The Sea), his popular three-part orchestral classic.

The Jersey escapade was pivotal for both Claude and Emma. It ended their marriages, led eventually to their marriage to each other, and to the birth of their daughter, Debussy’s only child, Claude-Emma “Chouchou” Debussy. The composer remained, though, a tragic figure to the end, a prototype of the disciplined genius who lacks a talent for life.

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All Comments   (12)
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'The short, dreamy, bewitching piano piece “Rêverie” is today a major YouTube hit.'

I love Debussy's music, but to me "Rêverie" just seems plodding, awkward and boring. I simply don't understand why people like it.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Once upon a time a gifted people with gifted ear create song after song ,never the same song, sounds were all virgins dancing in their ears and they then discover no need of solitude to create gifted music so they came together and in no time they learn to create songs together all virgin never before heard in their world.
The fall began when they wanted to repeat a song they created and as soon as they repeated creation a world opened up above them condemned them and took back the gift . The need for memory became urgent. Need did not help them to restore the gift. Other ways of finding pleasure were sought.
But this left them empty and faking they have gift through great effort on their part was the lie invented to take away great pain do to great loss.
Wiped away from the land were they and in afterlife they come to see all their songs they had once sung not because they created them but because they were there before they were given to them by an invisible hand figure of speech
to a more worthy people in the afterlife who lost their hearing and became invisible such like the invisible Eternal creator of all songs one has heard and one will hear this mystery of the spirit entering flesh and blood bring mystery gifts
Indian girl
why should this be depressing? as she sings she hears the song for the first time despite all the distractions or her very heavy heart that gets even more heavy as each year passes by
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxH0b7cFgj8&feature=related

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Some of the most sublime music written during the golden years in Paris around the turn of the century came from Mssr. Debussy. As a graduate student at U. of Mich, some of the best teaching came from classes that included Debussy's songs. They had a whole other level of construction, as is often the case with art songs. I enjoy his songs, in fact more than most of his symphonic literature. On another "note", I find it quite amusing that general society expects a level of morality, or at least some level of morality that would be indicative of "talent". Talent and intelligence never coincide with morals/ethics. Often the most brilliant artists ARE the most decadent. So while I loved Debussy's music, I have no interest in just how immoral he was. I have not and would not hold him up to a moral equivalency under any circumstances. But I will listen to his music all day long.....
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"For a few weeks in July and August that year, Jersey was the site of a romantic escapade by a French couple, both of them married."

There is nothing romantic about adultery.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you for a beautiful article - a welcome escape from the dreary news-scape....just as Debussey is a wonderful (and spiritual) escape.

p.s. If Bach gives the spine-tingling glimpse into the mind of God traversing the mathematical spine of the universe, then Debussey sometimes lets us hear God's laughter and delight in pure happy wandering.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thanks, and well said!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I haven't studied Debussy since my grad school years in the late 1970s, and to be honest, I wasn't exactly a star pupil. However, one of my professors was Dr. Arthur Wenk, who had written at least one book on Debussy. (So if my information is wrong, it wasn't the school's fault.)

But it seems to me that Debussy was not a very disciplined composer at all, if by disciplined you mean the ability to turn out a product. Debussy's entire reputation is based on not-very-many published works. He sat around dreaming about the great opera he was going to write on Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher", and mostly dabbled in other things to pay troublesome bills.

He took to conducting and touring, finally, as a way to earn some scratch -- and as it turned out he was very good at it. But he detested it, as he detested doing most things that would actually earn him some cash. Yet he was envious of Richard Strauss' financial success and complained that, whenever he met Strauss, all Strauss wanted to do was brag about how much money he was making.

I think a lot of Debussy's hesitance was due to the basic problem, how do you compose music in the wake of Richard Wagner? Debussy was in complete awe of "Parsifal" and I think his hesitance to embark on the Usher project was simply, where the heck do I start? He may not be the only composer ever to suffer this sort of anxiety, which (I speculate here) may be a form of the green monster, envy. Shostakovich remarked, for example, that Rimsky-Korsakov had only dabbled in opera while Tchaikovsky was still alive, but that once Pyotr Ilyich was safely interred, Nicolai produced about an opera a year for the last seventeen years of his life. Great artists, like the rest of us, are fallen creatures.

Regarding Debussy's music, I too stand in awe of La Mer and the Nocturnes. But unless you're a keyboard player, there's not much else. "Faun" and "La Damoiselle Elue" are lovely. But "Jeux" is rather bland and uninspired, in my opinion. The opera "Pelleas and Melisande" is too boring for words, which always led me to believe, by not finishing Usher, we the listening public didn't miss much.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I think a lot of Debussy's hesitance was due to the basic problem, how do you compose music in the wake of Richard Wagner?

Wagner had the bigger piano, so Debussy tried to prove he had the bigger
pe . . , personality?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Debussy was one of the truly great composers. He wasn't exceptionally prolific, but exceptionally original and innovative. I find Pelleas and Melisande enchanting, when I can find time for it. "unless you're a keyboard player, there's not much else"--there's a lot else, and the number of non-keyboard players who greatly enjoy his piano corpus is vast. His piano compositions alone are a great achievement, even if that were all he had composed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting! Thank you Mr. Hornik. I love articles such as these at PJMedia.

I suspect that the "genius" or "artist" label is often used as an excuse for bad behavior. From what I've read about J. S. Bach, he was a responsible family man, and also one of the greatest composers ever. Charles Ives was a successful, steady insurance man. And Isaac Newton led a chaste private life. A person leading a regular, middle-class life can undergo an awfully wide range of experiences which can inspire great art.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I quite agree--those more stable, decent sorts deserve a lot of credit, because a life of exceptionally high achievement is often stressful. Some hold up under it quite well, though.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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