Philandering…a daughter…a beautiful work for piano

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was certainly one of the most eminent French composers of the 20th century. Although he died early in the century– in Paris, his lifelong home, during a German aerial and artillery bombardment of the city—there are many who consider Debussy the most important composer of the century for his innovative use of harmony and form.

Dupont – Texier – Bardac

Although Debussy’s temperament has always appeared to me—from his music—to be laid-back and contemplative, his actual life was definitely on the tumultuous side, especially when it came to relationships. While living in Montmartre as a striving composer—after attending the Paris Conservatoire—he took up with Gabrielle Dupont, who was his lover for 10 years as he tried (successfully) to establish himself as a composer. While in this relationship, Debussy had numerous other “side” affairs, one of which was with a friend of Gabrielle’s, fashion model Rosalie Texier. Debussy ditched Dupont to marry Texier in 1899. Debussy was 37 at the time.

Debussy admitted to friends, though, that Rosalie’s lack of intellect bored him to death, and five years into their marriage, he took up with Emma Bardac, the daughter of a wealthy banker. Bardac was no stranger to extra-marital affairs, having been involved in one with composer Gabriel Faure. When this relationship became known to Rosalie, she unsuccessfully tried to kill herself. The bullet from her gun lodged in her spine, thereby ruining the rest of her life.

As can easily be seen, when talking about Debussy, there is no moral high ground upon which to stand. In him, one can easily see that composers—and by extrapolation, writers and painters—were as human as everyone else. Achieving a level of comfort in thinking about Debussy involves the separating of the artistic talent from the artist it indwells.

Before either he or Emma were able to finalize their divorces, she and Debussy had a daughter, Claude-Emma (their first names, combined), who he affectionately called Chouchou. Chouchou was born in 1905, Claude and Emma were married in 1908. Biographers who attempt to delve into Debussy’s psyche, only to discover that Debussy could not love anyone or anything except his music, all agree that it appeared that he truly did love his daughter.


I have not even mentioned the fact yet that Debussy, as a young man, won the Prix de Rome, and was, for his entire life, regarded with affection and admiration as France’s leading composer. He was known and performed all over Europe, and was even invited to visit and perform in Russia near the end of his life. His success was definitely not a post-mortem event. People everywhere recognized his genius during his lifetime.

I will treat Debussy’s compositional life in more detail when I post his greatest orchestral work, La Mer.

Debussy spent the first decade of the twentieth century writing much of the piano music that he would ultimately become known for: Estampes, Masques, L’isle joyeuse, Images, Preludes, and his Children’s Corner Suite. Most pianists, somewhere in their own development, play one or more of the delightful pieces from the Children’s Corner.

I should say a word about the title of this work so as not be misleading. The six pieces of Children’s Corner are often utilized as entry vehicles for a pianist’s first Debussy. Like Schumann’s Kinderscenen, though—Scenes From Childhood—Debussy’s Children’s Corner consists of pieces that are supposed to be reminiscent of childhood, but which always sound best in the hands of accomplished players, not children.

Debussy dedicated them to 3-year old Chouchou with the inscription: “To my dear little Chouchou, with tender apologies from her father for what follows.”


Gradus ad Parnassum had been a piano exercise book written by Muzio Clementi. Debussy humorously invokes its pages here.


“Jimbo” was actually “Jumbo”, an elephant from the Sudan who lived, at that time, in the Jardins des Plantes in Paris.


The doll Debussy is trying to depict here was a porcelain doll, which he musically characterizes by the presence of a Chinese pentatonic scale and an instruction to the pianist to use the soft pedal throughout the entire piece.


A depiction of snow, and objects seen through it by a child.


A shepherd with his flute. Debussy uses modal harmonies, finally dissolving into traditional tonality.


Golliwog may be the most familiar of all these pieces, it is so widely played. A golliwog was a black fictional character, a ragdoll. A cakewalk was a dance or strut. The piece is a ragtime piece, with a wide dynamic range. Those who would have been familiar with the music of Richard Wagner—once adored by, but then later abhorred by, Debussy—can hear a poke at him in the middle of Golliwog where the action seems to momentarily slow down—it is a parody of the theme from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde opera.

As is so often the case–fortunately–one does not need to know any of these things to truly love Golliwog’s Cakewalk—or any of the Children’s Corner pieces.


Ivan Moravec, the Czech pianist who I have posted before, was one of the giants of pianism in the mid- and late-twentieth century. He gives each one of these pieces a thoughtful and penetrating performance, avoiding the flash and speed with which some of these pieces have traditionally been played. In the process, he gives a new perspective to these lovely works.


A sad postscript regarding Chouchou, the only real object of love in Debussy’s life. She died of diphtheria at the age of 14, one year after Debussy’s death.

Pics are of Debussy and Rosalie, Debussy and Emma, Debussy and daughter Chouchou.

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