Master of Music, Bungler of Life


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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Claude Debussy was born in 1862 in the small French town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In 1867 he moved with his family to a poverty-stricken suburb of Paris. For Claude, though, there was a way out of poverty. He started playing piano at seven, and was so good that a Russian millionairess took him under her wing.

By age ten Debussy was a student at the Paris Conservatoire. He stayed there eleven years, studying—among other things—composition, a field in which he would make a huge contribution.

At age 18 he made his first venture in another field, becoming the lover of Blanche Vasnier. She was a beauty, and the wife of a Parisian architect. Debussy’s affair with her lasted eight years.

Four years after that affair started, in 1884, Debussy won a residence at the Villa Medici in Rome. As he made clear in letters to Madame Vasnier, he hated it, finding it a straitlaced, stifling place, and after a couple of mind-numbing years there he fled back to her and his life in Paris.

But the architect’s wife was not his only involvement. As Debussy’s Encyclopedia Britannica biography puts it:

Several other women, some of doubtful reputation, were also associated with him in his early years. At this time Debussy lived a life of extreme indulgence. Once one of his mistresses, Gabrielle (“Gaby”) Dupont, threatened suicide.

Although the French are thought of as libertine, Debussy’s Wiki biography says that his “cavalier behavior was widely condemned.” The budding young composer was already considered something of a scandal.

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PJ-Debussy-3Suicide, or threats of it, played an ongoing role in Debussy’s love life. When he finally left Gaby Dupont it was for her friend Lilly Texier, the model. He decided he wanted to marry her—and, to be on the safe side, told her that if she turned him down he would kill himself. They were married in 1899.

By then Debussy had been turning out masterpieces. The short, dreamy, bewitching piano piece “Rêverie” is today a major YouTube hit. The Suite bergamasque for piano includes “Clair de Lune” (“Moonlight”), here weighing in with 21 million views. His much-loved symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) is considered a turning point in the history of music.

Masterful achievement, though, was for his artistic endeavors; his life was a different story. Now married to Lilly, he was, as the Wiki article puts it, “increasingly irritated by her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity.” In 1904, amid this frustration, Debussy was introduced to the married vocalist, Emma Bardac.

Upon the newly formed couple’s return from the isle of joy, it was Lilly’s turn to play the suicide card — for real. On October 14 she

[shot] herself in the chest with a revolver while standing in the Place de la Concorde; she survived, although the bullet remained lodged in her vertebrae for the rest of her life. The ensuing scandal was to alienate Debussy from many of his friends, whilst Bardac was disowned by her family.

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PJ-Debussy-4The outrage surrounding Claude and Emma got so intense that in the spring of 1905 they fled to England for a time. In May Claude and Lilly’s divorce was finalized. While in England, Debussy put the final touches to La Mer, his glorious paean to the sea.

The couple returned to Paris for good in September, and on October 30 Claude-Emma Debussy was born. Claude and Emma got married in 1908, but—while staying together till Debussy’s death in 1918—had a difficult time together. Not long before he died Debussy said that were it not for Chouchou, the daughter, his “solution” to it all may have been suicide.

Although Debussy kept composing great works up to the end, on a personal level Chouchou appears to have been the saving grace of this latter part of his life. The Wiki biography calls her “possibly the only person [he] ever loved.” She was the inspiration for his charming 1908 piano suite The Children’s Corner and probably also for other works or parts of them.

She herself—in keeping with the name she was given—appears to have inherited talents from both parents. This page from a site called Claude Debussy’s Pianistic Vision says she “was an accomplished pianist and charming person who played her father’s works very well,” and also “could sing French songs with depth and maturity.”

Debussy, not quite 56, died of rectal cancer in March 1918. A bit less than a year later, Claude-Emma died of diphtheria at the age of 13. Pianistic Vision says it is “tantalizing to imagine what she could have accomplished had she lived.”

A remembered figure in France, daughter of its greatest composer, in 1995 she was the subject of the film Chouchou: Musique d’amour (Chouchou: Music of Love).

As for Emma, she went on to live until 1934 and was buried beside Claude and Claude-Emma in Paris.

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Debussy’s music has been a companion and mainstay of my life for decades. If I had to sum up very briefly what it offers me, I would call it “happy spirituality.” Naturally, his corpus includes elements of the dark and tragic, but the emphasis is on almost innocent wonder and delight in the cosmos.

It would make sense, then, that his strongest attachment was to a child. Chouchou did not live long, but the music will.

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