A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Impression, maison

Musée Claude Debussy Part 2

11 March 2011 

(Read Part 1)


The Musée Claude Debussy is located in the second-floor flat where Debussy was born in 1862.  The building, constructed in the seventeenth century, has two sections, front and back, that open onto a central courtyard.  Also within the same building today is an auditorium for concerts (we could hear rehearsals taking place while we were there), and various rooms and offices for scholars.

We browsed through the first room of the museum.  There are mementos of Debussy as a child, including photographs as a baby and as a child of around three on a little tricycle.  But Debussy did not remain in St-Germain-en-Laye.  When he was five his parents moved to Paris, and then at age eight, he and his mother moved to Cannes to escape the hostilities of the Franco-Prussian War.  While in Cannes, he started piano lessons.

Returning to Paris, Debussy entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 10, studying there for eleven years.  His piano teacher, Antoine Marmontel, said that Debussy at the age of 11 had a “véritable tempérament d'artiste.”  Later, as a teen, Debussy had the opportunity to give music lessons to the children of Nadezhda von Meck, patroness of Tchaikovsky.  For three summers (1880-2) he traveled with her family throughout Europe and Russia.

At the age of 22, on his third try, Debussy won the Prix de Rome. There is a painting in the museum of the composer when he was living in Rome.  However, Debussy stayed in Rome for only two (1885-7) of the four years that the award stipulated.  He was unhappy there — he didn’t care for the food, the lodgings, or the music, Verdi not being to his taste.  Just the same, the compositions that he made in Rome and sent to the Conservatoire were not to the taste of his teachers either, who considered them, “bizarres, incompréhensibles et impossibles à exécuter.”  Jules Massenet thought of him as an enigma.


A portrait made of Debussy while he was in Rome can be seen at the Museé Claude Debussy.


After returning from Rome, Debussy began to attend soirées at the house of Stéphane Mallarmé, where poets of the French Symbolist school (including Paul Verlaine and Paul Valéry, as well as Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, and others) gathered to discuss poetry, art, and philosophy.  This group of intellectuals, called les Mardistes (since they usually met on Tuesday —mardi), had a significant influence on the young Debussy.  He came to set many symbolist writings to music, and while he shared for a while their fascination with Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), he soon realized that Wagner was “un magnifique crépuscule que l'on a pris pour une aurore" — a magnificent twilight that one took for a dawn.  Debussy’s music, of which Deux Arabesques for piano, written around this time, is a good example, was to move in another direction.

In 1889, Debussy heard a Javanese Gamelan for the first time at the Exposition universelle, which greatly impacted his thinking about music.  The Eiffel Tower also made its debut at this world’s fair, which marked the centenary of the French revolution.  This same year he met Gabrielle Dupont, whom he called Gaby aux yeux verts (Gaby with the green eyes) and continued his relationship with her for ten years.

During this period he composed Suite bergamasque for piano (1890; of which “Clair de Lune" is justifiably famous), Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894; when Debussy asked if he might set Mallarmé's "Afternoon of a Faun" to music, Mallarmé, ever the Symbolist thinking musically, said: "But I thought I had already done that!"), and Nocturnes for orchestra (1897–1899).  He also started on his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (1893–1902), having conceded earlier to his teacher Guiraud that,Au théâtre de musique on chante trop” — the trouble with opera is that there is always too much singing.

In 1899 Debussy left Gabrielle to marry Rosalie (Lilly) Texier.  Gaby became so distraught that she attempted suicide, shooting herself but surviving.  Later, when he met Emma Bardac in 1904 and left Lilly, Lilly also shot herself, surviving as well.  Debussy, apparently noticing an emerging symmetrical pattern, remained with Emma for the rest of his life, eventually marrying her.


This caricature of Debussy was made in 1905 by Sacha Guitry. 


It was at this tumultuous time that he composed La Mer for orchestra (1903–1905).  Roy Howat, British music theorist and author, writes convincingly in his book Debussy In Proportion that La Mer is one of several of Debussy’s works that exhibits intricate proportional schemes that employ the golden section and the Fibonacci series, two mathematical constructs.  As Debussy himself once observed, “La musique est l'arithmétique du son, comme l'optique est la géométrie de la lumière,” — Music is the arithmetic of sound as optics is the geometry of light — and even more thought provoking, “La musique est une mathématique mystérieuse dont les éléments participent de l'infini." — Music is a mysterious mathematical process whose elements are a part of infinity.


The waves of "la mer" can be seen crashing behind the portrait of Debussy on this 20-franc note, now replaced by the euro.


The resulting scandal from Lilly’s attempted suicide led Debussy and Emma Bardac to flee to England in 1905.  There they had a daughter, Claude-Emma Debussy, whom they nicknamed Chouchou (literally "cabbage-cabbage,” but a term of endearment).  Children's Corner for piano (1906–1908; the English title pointing toward his stay in that country) was dedicated to his daughter, writing “À ma très chère Chouchou… avec les tendres excuses de son père pour ce qui va suivre” — To my very dear Chouchou, with tender excuses from her father for what will follow.  This suite of short movements incorporates a French lullaby, draws on American ragtime in “Golliwogg's Cakewalk,” and even pokes fun at the opening measures of Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde.


The first edition of Children's Corner by Claude Debussy can also be seen at the museum.


Early in the century, Debussy began to publish many articles and music reviews under the  pseudonym of Monsieur Croche — “Mister Eighth-Note”.  Perhaps his most challenging observation was, “De tous temps, la beauté a été ressentie par certains comme une secrète insulte,” — From the beginning of time, beauty has been felt by some like a secret insult.

Debussy went on to write Préludes for piano (Book 1, 1909–1910, which includes “La cathédrale engloutie;” Book 2, 1912–1913), Images for orchestra, and the ballet Jeux (1912–1913) written for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets russes.

the théâtre des Champs-Élysées today

Although Jeux would have a great influence on composers later in the century, at the time its première went by mostly unnoticed.  The infamous riot that accompanied Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring), which premièred a mere two weeks later at the same hall — the théâtre des Champs-Élysées on avenue Montaigne — had overshadowed Debussy’s ballet.

the Art Deco lobby of the théâtre des Champs-Élysées


It is intriguing that both Jeux and Le sacre were composed in 1912, the former signifying a revolution in form and the latter a revolution in rhythm, while the same year saw the composition of Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, emblematic of a revolution in tonality.

A word that I haven’t used yet in this entry is “Impressionism.”  We'll touch on that idea in the third part of this entry.



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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