The Nature of Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is remembered as a legendary French composer who revolutionized Impressionistic music. Debussy’s ability to imprint misty snatches of color and emotion still fascinate audiences today; the melodies of Clair de Lune, The Girl With Flaxen Hair, and Menuet are familiar to all. So what is the man behind this table-turning ‘impressionism’ like? A musical genius, natural rebel, and not to mention extremely posh, Debussy’s personality exactly correlates with the dreamy melodies he produced.

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

Debussy was not a socially outgoing or bold person at all. He possessed a sullen couldn’t-care-less attitude towards life and was remarkably touchy- sensitive, uncomfortable, and quick to defend. As an alternative to human company, Debussy was always with at least one Siamese cat. Naturally he hated performing at concerts. One reason for Debussy’s avoidance of audiences could be that he never developed any remarkable piano-playing technique. His limited capacity in this area also influenced his bleary style of composition. In a letter to writer Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925), dated October 16, 1898: “(I have) the tiresome habit of scattering wrong notes from both hands whenever (I have) to play in front of more than two people.”He obviously had very few close friends, and as for his love life-well it was simply scandalous for that age. At twenty-five, Debussy was spending time in Rome as the private piano teacher to the children of Nadezhda von Meck. When he fell in love with her eldest daughter, Sonia, he was instantly turned away. He then returned to Paris and proceeded to spend the next ten years with a mysterious woman named Gabrielle Dupont. No one knew what their relationship consisted of or why she took care of him. During that decade, Debussy was constantly unfaithful, and Gabrielle shot herself once in an argument. She survived and returned to him, and was rewarded with the marriage of Debussy and Rosalie Texier in 1899. Unfortunately, this next relationship did not even exceed the time spent with Gabrielle. Five years later, Debussy claimed that Rosalie’s voice chilled his blood, and left her to marry singer Emma Bardac, so Rosalie also shot herself. To most of Paris, Debussy’s devotion to Emma was a questionable one. After all, she was already married with banker Raoul Bardac, had several grown children, money, and was older than Debussy. Nevertheless, she was a witty and sophisticated woman and bore Debussy his only child and daughter, Chouchou, before her divorce with Bardac.
Another look into the character of Debussy was his involvement with dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck. In 1889, Debussy finally found his dream libretto in Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Melisande; here finally was a story that had “no place, no time, no big scene”. For Maeterlinck and Debussy, the next ten years spent matching Pelléas et Mélisande to music contained episodes of pride, comedy, and much drama. In 1895, Debussy completed the score but was dissatisfied, and rewrote it, finishing in 1901. When Debussy performed the music for Maeterlinck, Maeterlinck kept dozing off from boredom and had to rely on the prodding of wife Georgette Leblanc to stay awake. Leblanc was a singer who had made a career from Maeterlinck’s plays. According to her, Debussy was “enchanted” that she should sing the premiere of the opera, and they rehearsed together. However, Albert Carré, director of the Opéra-Comique, appointed Mary Garden for the role. This was unknown to both Maeterlinck and Leblanc until they read the paper one day. This immediately resulted in Maeterlinck trying to stop the production, while Debussy adamantly denied promising Leblanc the role. They went to court, and when Debussy came out victorious, Maeterlinck was so infuriated he heroically jumped out the ground floor window of his home and broke into Debussy’s apartment. Never one to back down from an arms race to manliness, Debussy promptly sank prostrate into an armchair, cueing his wife to run for the smelling salts. Completely exasperated by this scene, Maeterlinck took his leave saying, “All crazy, all sick, these musicians”.
Debussy possessed many idiosyncrasies-he lived an intimate and fashionable life full of drama. Playing his music requires almost flat fingers to pull sound from the keys; letting the harmonies bleed into each other. You must feel the whimsy, elegance, and romance because “there is no theory. You have only to listen” (Debussy).

• The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg
• An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music, Nat Shapiro

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