The birthplace of Claude Debussy, today also known as the Claude-Debussy museum is located at 38, rue au Pain in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the French department of Yvelines.
It dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Claude-Debussy Museum is a unique place, bringing together all objects related to the famous French composer in the house where he was born: the birthplace of Claude Debussy, located in the historic district of the city of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
It is in this house of the 17th century, property of the city, that Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 and spent his early childhood. His father actually had a faience shop on the ground floor.
Hidden behind a door, you will discover a beautiful little inner courtyard, as well as a sumptuous wooden staircase, allowing you to access the museum.
The museum labeled “House of the illustrious” brings together objects and photographs that allow to better understand the creative process of the composer. He liked to surround himself with objects of various artistic origins and currents that strongly influenced his music. For example, a lacquered panel from Japan from his Paris mansion – two fish swimming under a willow – morphed into Pisces d’Or, a piano piece (1907).
Claude Debussy was born there on August 22, 1862. His parents ran a faience shop there. Placed on the inventory of historical monuments in 1972 and opened to the public in 1990, it exposes the life and musical documents of the composer. It brings together personal objects that belonged to the composer, musical scores and iconographic documents. The courtyard of the house includes a stairway with balustrades of the xvii th century. Classical music concerts are held in the Yvonne Lefébure Auditorium, dedicated to the memory of the pianist and music teacher.
Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. He was seen, during his lifetime and afterwards, as the first Impressionist composer, although he vigorously rejected the term. He was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Born to a family of modest means and little cultural involvement, Debussy showed enough musical talent to be admitted at the age of ten to France’s leading music college, the Conservatoire de Paris. He originally studied the piano, but found his vocation in innovative composition, despite the disapproval of the Conservatoire’s conservative professors. He took many years to develop his mature style, and was nearly 40 before achieving international fame in 1902 with the only opera he completed, Pelléas et Mélisande.
Debussy’s orchestral works include Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), Nocturnes (1897–99) and Images (1905–1912). His music was to a considerable extent a reaction against Wagner and the German musical tradition. He regarded the classical symphony as obsolete and sought an alternative in his “symphonic sketches”, La mer (1903–1905). His piano works include two books of Préludes and two of Études. Throughout his career he wrote mélodies based on a wide variety of poetry, including his own. He was greatly influenced by the Symbolist poetic movement of the later 19th century. A small number of works, including the early La Damoiselle élue and the late Le Martyre de saint Sébastien have important parts for chorus. In his final years he focused on chamber music, completing three of a planned six sonatas for different combinations of instruments.
With early influences including Russian and far-eastern music, Debussy developed his own style in the use of harmony and orchestral colouring, derided, and unsuccessfully resisted, by much of the musical establishment of the day. His works have strongly influenced a wide range of composers, including Béla Bartók, Olivier Messiaen, George Benjamin and the jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans. Debussy’s life was cut short by cancer. He died at his home in Paris at the age of 55 after a composing career of a little more than 30 years.
Belonging to the City of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and illustrious house, we discover today in a cozy atmosphere his family memories, his daily life, his artistic affinities and the objects he loved to surround himself with (lacquer with “Pisces d’Or”, “Arkel”, his fetish toad…), conducive to his musical inspiration.
Finally, a memorial house, the grouping of the commemorative monuments dedicated to it (Henry de Groux, Antoine Bourdelle, Aristide Maillol) also shows the interest of 20th century artists for this great composer.
An auditorium completes the museum. Inspired by music salons, it allows you to live this “free art” that is music through an annual musical season.
Debussy and Impressionism
The application of the term “Impressionist” to Debussy and the music he influenced has been much debated, both in the composer’s lifetime and subsequently. The analyst Richard Langham Smith writes that Impressionism was originally a term coined to describe a style of late 19th-century French painting, typically scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail, as in works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and others. Langham Smith writes that the term became transferred to the compositions of Debussy and others which were “concerned with the representation of landscape or natural phenomena, particularly the water and light imagery dear to Impressionists, through subtle textures suffused with instrumental colour”.
Among painters, Debussy particularly admired Turner, but also drew inspiration from Whistler. With the latter in mind the composer wrote to the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in 1894 describing the orchestral Nocturnes as “an experiment in the different combinations that can be obtained from one colour – what a study in grey would be in painting.”
Debussy strongly objected to the use of the word “Impressionism” for his (or anybody else’s) music, but it has continually been attached to him since the assessors at the Conservatoire first applied it, opprobriously, to his early work Printemps. Langham Smith comments that Debussy wrote many piano pieces with titles evocative of nature – “Reflets dans l’eau” (1905), “Les Sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (1910) and “Brouillards” (1913) – and suggests that the Impressionist painters’ use of brush-strokes and dots is paralleled in the music of Debussy. Although Debussy said that anyone using the term (whether about painting or music) was an imbecile, some Debussy scholars have taken a less absolutist line. Lockspeiser calls La mer “the greatest example of an orchestral Impressionist work”, and more recently in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy Nigel Simeone comments, “It does not seem unduly far-fetched to see a parallel in Monet’s seascapes”.
In this context may be placed Debussy’s pantheistic eulogy to Nature, in a 1911 interview with Henry Malherbe:
I have made mysterious Nature my religion… When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvellous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpeted earth,… and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration.
In contrast to the “impressionistic” characterisation of Debussy’s music, several writers have suggested that he structured at least some of his music on rigorous mathematical lines. In 1983 the pianist and scholar Roy Howat published a book contending that certain of Debussy’s works are proportioned using mathematical models, even while using an apparent classical structure such as sonata form. Howat suggests that some of Debussy’s pieces can be divided into sections that reflect the golden ratio, which is approximated by ratios of consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Simon Trezise, in his 1994 book Debussy: La Mer, finds the intrinsic evidence “remarkable,” with the caveat that no written or reported evidence suggests that Debussy deliberately sought such proportions. Lesure takes a similar view, endorsing Howat’s conclusions while not taking a view on Debussy’s conscious intentions.
Debussy wrote “We must agree that the beauty of a work of art will always remain a mystery we can never be absolutely sure “how it’s made”. We must at all costs preserve this magic which is peculiar to music and to which music, by its nature, is of all the arts the most receptive”.
Nevertheless there are many indicators of the sources and elements of Debussy’s idiom. Writing in 1958, the critic Rudolph Reti summarized six features of Debussy’s music, which he asserted “established a new concept of tonality in European music”: the frequent use of lengthy pedal points – “not merely bass pedals in the actual sense of the term, but sustained ‘pedals’ in any voice”; glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of tonality; frequent use of parallel chords which are “in essence not harmonies at all, but rather ‘chordal melodies’, enriched unisons”, described by some writers as non-functional harmonies; bitonality, or at least bitonal chords; use of the whole-tone and pentatonic scales; and unprepared modulations, “without any harmonic bridge”. Reti concludes that Debussy’s achievement was the synthesis of monophonic based “melodic tonality” with harmonies, albeit different from those of “harmonic tonality”.
In 1889, Debussy held conversations with his former teacher Guiraud, which included exploration of harmonic possibilities at the piano. The discussion, and Debussy’s chordal keyboard improvisations, were noted by a younger pupil of Guiraud, Maurice Emmanuel. The chord sequences played by Debussy include some of the elements identified by Reti. They may also indicate the influence on Debussy of Satie’s 1887 Trois Sarabandes. A further improvisation by Debussy during this conversation included a sequence of whole tone harmonies which may have been inspired by the music of Glinka or Rimsky-Korsakov which was becoming known in Paris at this time. During the conversation, Debussy told Guiraud, “There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law!” – although he also conceded, “I feel free because I have been through the mill, and I don’t write in the fugal style because I know it.”
Among French predecessors, Chabrier was an important influence on Debussy (as he was on Ravel and Poulenc); Howat has written that Chabrier’s piano music such as “Sous-bois” and “Mauresque” in the Pièces pittoresques explored new sound-worlds of which Debussy made effective use 30 years later. Lesure finds traces of Gounod and Massenet in some of Debussy’s early songs, and remarks that it may have been from the Russians – Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky – that Debussy acquired his taste for “ancient and oriental modes and for vivid colorations, and a certain disdain for academic rules”. Lesure also considers that Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov directly influenced Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. In the music of Palestrina, Debussy found what he called “a perfect whiteness”, and he felt that although Palestrina’s musical forms had a “strict manner”, they were more to his taste than the rigid rules prevailing among 19th-century French composers and teachers. He drew inspiration from what he called Palestrina’s “harmony created by melody”, finding an arabesque-like quality in the melodic lines.
For Chopin’s piano music Debussy professed his “respectful gratitude”. He was torn between dedicating his own Études to Chopin or to François Couperin, whom he also admired as a model of form, seeing himself as heir to their mastery of the genre. Howat cautions against the assumption that Debussy’s Ballade (1891) and Nocturne (1892) are influenced by Chopin – in Howat’s view they owe more to Debussy’s early Russian models – but Chopin’s influence is found in other early works such as the Deux arabesques (1889–1891). In 1914 the publisher A. Durand & fils began publishing scholarly new editions of the works of major composers, and Debussy undertook the supervision of the editing of Chopin’s music.
Although Debussy was in no doubt of Wagner’s stature, he was only briefly influenced by him in his compositions, after La damoiselle élue and the Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire (both begun in 1887). According to Pierre Louÿs, Debussy “did not see ‘what anyone can do beyond Tristan’,” although he admitted that it was sometimes difficult to avoid “the ghost of old Klingsor, alias Richard Wagner, appearing at the turning of a bar”. After Debussy’s short Wagnerian phase, he started to become interested in non-Western music and its unfamiliar approaches to composition. The piano piece “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk”, from the 1908 suite Children’s Corner, contains a parody of music from the introduction to Tristan, in which, in the opinion of the musicologist Lawrence Kramer, Debussy escapes the shadow of the older composer and “smilingly relativizes Wagner into insignificance”.
A contemporary influence was Erik Satie, according to Nichols Debussy’s “most faithful friend” amongst French musicians. Debussy’s orchestration in 1896 of Satie’s Gymnopédies (which had been written in 1887) “put their composer on the map” according to the musicologist Richard Taruskin, and the Sarabande from Debussy’s Pour le piano (1901) “shows that [Debussy] knew Satie’s Trois Sarabandes at a time when only a personal friend of the composer could have known them.” (They were not published until 1911). Debussy’s interest in the popular music of his time is evidenced not only by the Golliwogg’s Cakewalk and other piano pieces featuring rag-time, such as The Little Nigar (Debussy’s spelling) (1909), but by the slow waltz La plus que lente (The more than slow), based on the style of the gipsy violinist at a Paris hotel (to whom he gave the manuscript of the piece).
In addition to the composers who influenced his own compositions, Debussy held strong views about several others. He was for the most part enthusiastic about Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, respectful of Mozart and was in awe of Bach, whom he called the “good God of music” (“le Bon Dieu de la musique”). His relationship to Beethoven was complex; he was said to refer to him as “le vieux sourd” (the old deaf one) and asked one young pupil not to play Beethoven’s music for “it is like somebody dancing on my grave;” but he believed that Beethoven had profound things to say, yet did not know how to say them, “because he was imprisoned in a web of incessant restatement and of German aggressiveness.” He was not in sympathy with Schubert or Mendelssohn, the latter being described as a “facile and elegant notary”.
With the advent of the First World War, Debussy became ardently patriotic in his musical opinions. Writing to Stravinsky, he asked “How could we not have foreseen that these men were plotting the destruction of our art, just as they had planned the destruction of our country?” In 1915 he complained that “since Rameau we have had no purely French tradition We tolerated overblown orchestras, tortuous forms we were about to give the seal of approval to even more suspect naturalizations when the sound of gunfire put a sudden stop to it all.” Taruskin writes that some have seen this as a reference to the composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, both born Jewish. In 1912 Debussy had remarked to his publisher of the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue by the (also Jewish) composer Paul Dukas, “You’re right, is a masterpiece – but it’s not a masterpiece of French music.”
Despite his lack of formal schooling, Debussy read widely and found inspiration in literature. Lesure writes, “The development of free verse in poetry and the disappearance of the subject or model in painting influenced him to think about issues of musical form.” Debussy was influenced by the Symbolist poets. These writers, who included Verlaine, Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Rimbaud, reacted against the realism, naturalism, objectivity and formal conservatism that prevailed in the 1870s. They favoured poetry using suggestion rather than direct statement; the literary scholar Chris Baldrick writes that they evoked “subjective moods through the use of private symbols, while avoiding the description of external reality or the expression of opinion”. Debussy was much in sympathy with the Symbolists’ desire to bring poetry closer to music, became friendly with several leading exponents, and set many Symbolist works throughout his career.
Debussy’s literary inspirations were mostly French, but he did not overlook foreign writers. As well as Maeterlinck for Pelléas et Mélisande, he drew on Shakespeare and Charles Dickens for two of his Préludes for piano – La Danse de Puck (Book 1, 1910) and Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Book 2, 1913). He set Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel in his early cantata, La Damoiselle élue (1888). He wrote incidental music for King Lear and planned an opera based on As You Like It, but abandoned that once he turned his attention to setting Maeterlinck’s play. In 1890 he began work on a orchestral piece inspired by Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and later sketched the libretto for an opera, La chute de la maison Usher. Another project inspired by Poe – an operatic version of The Devil in the Belfry did not progress beyond sketches. French writers whose words he set include Paul Bourget, Alfred de Musset, Théodore de Banville, Leconte de Lisle, Théophile Gautier, Paul Verlaine, François Villon, and Mallarmé – the last of whom also provided Debussy with the inspiration for one of his most popular orchestral pieces, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.