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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.