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His music

by Marie Jeanne Baeli

Pieces worked or composed by

Claude Debussy at Bichain
during the years 1901, 1902 et 1903

Many letters addressed to his publisher or to his friends, allows us to know precisely the work of the composer during his stays at Bichain and gives us the opportunity to enter his musical universe


The works cited in his letters are:

Pelléas et Mélisande,

lyrical drama in five acts, poetic text by Maurice Maeterlinck

Acte 3 -
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In May 1901, Debussy received the promise that his opera Pelléas et Mélisande , , in progress since 1893, would be performed at the Opéra Comique in the next season, an event that will be celebrated with champagne at the home of the writer Colette and her husband Willy, rue de Courcelles. He starts work on writing the orchestral score

During the summer that he decided to spend part of his time in Bichain, he continued this heavy work to rest from the intense frequentation…  

"… of this little neurasthenic  Mélisande... " (letter to P. Louÿs dated September 2).


Ten years of work on this piece, the only opera composed by Debussy 

"...has remained without imitation. Claude Debussy had said it all in his own language." (Jean-François Gautier, Claude Debussy, La musique et le mouvant, Actes Sud 1997).


For a long time he had been looking for a poet who

" ...would say things halfway, who would allow me to graft my dream onto his, who would conceive characters whose story and home would be of no time and no place .... who would not argue but endure life and fate..."  (conversation with his teacher Ernest Guiraud around 1889, told by Maurice Emmanuel, student of the conservatory at the same time as Claude Debussy).


Debussy fell in love with Maeterlinck's text and was the first composer to use a poet's text as an opera libretto..

"Sublime music : Pélléas et Mélisande can be compared to nothing ." (André Boucourechliev, Debussy, La révolution subtile, Fayard 1998)


Ravel is the first to speak of genius:

"The musical work is an absolute masterpiece, the public doesn't understand anything about it " (Meg de Saint Marceaux, known at the time for her "salon" where fashionable artists met).


"I have to look for something else or I'm lost! " (Erik Satie, composer and friend of Debussy's).


I used, quite spontaneously moreover, a means which seems to me rather rare, that is to say silence..." (Claude Debussy, letter to Ernest Chausson, October 2 1893).


You had to look  for Wagner… 

I wanted music to have a freedom that it contains perhaps more than any art, not being limited to an exact reproduction of nature, but to the mysterious correspondences of nature and imagination." (Claude Debussy, Pourquoi j'ai écrit Pélléas, La Revue Blanche, April 1902).


First performance at the Opéra Comique on April 28 1902. Scandalous, but nevertheless successful in Europe and the United States.


Even today, this opera still arouses the keen interest of enthusiastic amateurs for this sublime music which has served so well  the confusing but strong text of Maeterlinck.

La Damoiselle Elue,

La Damoiselle Elue -
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During the summer of 1902, exhausted by the 40 performances of his opera, he rested but nevertheless revised the orchestral score of La Damoiselle Élue, composed fourteen years earlier during his stay at the Villa Medici in Rome.


This work, described as poetry steeped in music by his contemporaries, was published by Durand with a cover by the painter Maurice Denis. The poem, sung to verses by Dante-Gabriel Rossetti, is in the purest Art Nouveau style.


A work of symbolist inspiration, made up of decorative curves and arabesques in the style of a group of English painters of that period who sought to reproduce the artistic purity of the Italian primitives, Raphael’s predecessors, the Pre-Raphaelites.

Maurice Denis ,

Sheet music cover,


from the fantasy tale by Edgar Poe.

Le Diable dans le Beffroi,

From Bichain, he wrote to André Messager on September 7, 1903:

"I worked on the libretto of Le Diable dans le Beffroi (The devil in the belfry). When I return to Paris, I will read this to you.."


Considering that the most annoying thing is to start all over again, , he wanted - after Pélleas - to renew himself and, fascinated for many years by the world of Poe, so different from that of Maeterlinck, he took over, in Bichain, the writing of the scenario of  Le Diable :

Since Poe's imagination is the most vivid I know, it's imperative that I find the equivalent musical atmosphere."


Everyone knows this tale by Edgar Poe: a single character, almost, the devil who comes to strike a thirteenth knock at noon on the clock of the Dutch village, so grotesquely called vondervotteimittis (humorous transcription of the English words: "I wonder what time it is")


This project will remain at the draft stage:

"I don't think I will ever be able to complete any of these works. I write for myself alone, the impatience of others does not concern me."

Rhapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone

These ten minutes of music were commissioned by Elisa Hall, an American patron of the arts, of French origin and president of the Boston Orchestral Club. With great difficulty, he completed this work in August, just before composing the first measures of La Mer.


To Pierre Louÿs who was in Algeria in July 1903:                                    

"I'm sorry… For the past few days I've been the Man-who-works-on a-fantasy-for-alto-saxophone (say that three times without breathing...). Since this fantasy has been ordered, paid for, eaten for more than a year, it seems to me that I'm late? At first, I was having very little fun with it, then I couldn't have written you a letter neat enough. The saxophone is a reed animal, whose habits I know little about. Does it like the romantic sweetness of clarinets or the slightly rude irony of the sarrusophone (or contrabassoon)? At last I made him whisper melancholic phrases, under military drum rolls. The saxophone, like the Grand Duchess, must love the military... The whole thing is called Arabic Rhapsody... (Long live the Army all the same). You see how it's not boring in the countryside?         "


To Lilly in June 1903:

"Doesn't it seem indecent to you, a woman in love with a saxophone, whose lips suck the wooden mouthpiece of this ridiculous instrument? - It must surely be an old biddy that dresses like an umbrella."

Les Estampes

September 7, 1903 to Messager:

"I also wrote three piano pieces, the titles of which I especially like: Pagodes, La Soirée dans Grenade, Jardins sous la pluie (Pagodas, The Evening in Granada, Gardens in the Rain). When you can't afford to travel, you have to make up for it with imagination... "


Travel to the East and North Africa was fashionable among the writers and intellectuals of the time, all wealthy friends of Debussy. They wrote to him and recounted him their travels: Pierre Louÿs, Pierre-Jean Toulet, Maurice Curnonsky, Victor Segalen, André Gide.


Staying in Bichain, he replied to Pierre Louÿs in July:

"…the sun that sets on the hillsides of Bichain is not the same as the one that falls asleep on the white terraces of Biskra..."


Imaginary travel books, they inaugurate Claude Debussy's great creative period for the piano... (Alfred Cortot, La musique française de piano).     


He wanted to render in these pieces the evocative and exotic qualities of Japanese prints.


Pagode, evocation of the East, reminiscences of the music of Java discovered at the Universal Exhibition of 1889 (pentatonic scales + western harmonies).


La Soirée dans Grenade, with its "Habanera" movement evoking Spain, " is amazing when you consider  that this music was written by a foreigner guided almost solely by the vision of his genius" (the spanish composer Manuel de Falla).


Jardins sous la pluie, a stream of droplets where the light plays, quoting a childish round, We will no longer go to the woods...

"The luminous sumptuousness of the tone contrasts with the naivety of the childlike roundness and envelops the distant notes with mystery, the modest, hesitant notes, like the precious drops of a spring rain through the leaves"  (Pierre Boulez, Relevés d’apprenti, Seuil, 1966).


Testimony of a resident of Bichain interviewed by Louis Pasteur Vallery-Radot:

"Mr Debussy seemed strange to me. You could see him leaving his house, walking along the road and then suddenly running back to the piano... One day, after playing us I don't know what, he told us: "the rain on the tiles is what inspired me! "


"Debussy has played his new piano pieces for me again, a copy of which he will send me at the end of the month. What a coincidence, I told him that these pieces reminded me of Turner's paintings, and he replied that precisely before composing them, he had spent a long time in the Turner Hall in London!" (Ricardo Viñes, pianist).


They were immediately a great success, and have been part of the repertoire of all seasoned pianists ever since.

Jardins sous la pluie -
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La Mer

De l'aube à midi sur la mer -
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Cover of the score reproducing

The Hokusai Wave

Editors Durand & Fils

On September 12, Debussy wrote from Bichain to Durand, that he worked on three symphonic sketches based on many memories:

1. De l’aube à midi sur la mer (from dawn to noon on the sea)

2. Jeux de vagues (Wave games)

3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue beetween wind and sea)

The composition of this tryptic will continue in Jersey: "The sea was very good for me: she showed me all her dresses", then in Dieppe and Paris from August 1903 to March 1905.


I - De l’aube à midi sur la mer

It is a continuous progression: the very movement of the waves in warm sounds and rhythmic flamboyances to end up in a burst of light (noon burst with brass instruments)..


II - Jeux de vagues

The most beautiful of the three movements "a sound pulverization such that musical time becomes almost elusive." (Jean Barraqué, Debussy, Seuil, 1994).

He exerted a great fascination on the musicians of the 20th century by a new way of treating the orchestra: the timbre (instrumental sound groups) becomes the main element of the music and, in the oriental way, can generate itself:

": the strings set the scene, the woodwinds draw the arabesques of the wind and the waves, the trumpet and the horns impart a more imperious rhythm and a mysterious color, the harps symbolize the liquid element and the glockenspiel, the plays of light."

(Revue Analyse Musicale, 1986)    

"Moving or undefined contours, flexible and varied rhythms, a clear majority of soft dynamic nuances, fluid and clear orchestration, with divided strings and pure timbres (flute, oboe), the harp nonchalantly underlines the liquid suppleness of the joints, the feline charm of the harmonic shifts" (Stefan Jarociński, Debussy, impressionism and symbolism, Seuil, 1971).


III - Dialogue du vent et de la mer

From Dieppe, to its publisher Jacques Durand, summer 1904 :

"I would have liked to finish La Mer here, but I still have to perfect the orchestra, which is as tumultuous and varied as...the sea!"


It is a succession of oppositions, Debussy's "most accomplished and visionary work"  (André Boucourechliev, Debussy, la révolution subtile, Fayard, 1998.)


In 1908, Debussy was led to successfully direct his work himself. On this occasion, the critic Willy (Gauthier-Villars) wrote in the magazine Comoedia, on January 20, 1908 :

"They were, for an indeterminable length of time, screams of wild joy, crackling of clenched palms, recalls and demented cries. Debussy crossed the forest of music stands ten times to come and take the blower's hole to witness his emotional gratitude; from time to time, a whistle, violent and energetic like a departure signal given by a conductor, would set the triumphal convoy in motion again, warming the zeal of tired biceps and burning hands. To satisfy these delirious music lovers, we had to bring back one last time, from the staircase where he was rushing, the triumphant man already dressed in his overcoat and wearing the bowler hat which, in our modern costume, plays the role of the ancient laurels."


Erik Satie's humor about the first movement of De l’aube à midi sur la mer :

"There is a nice moment between half past eleven and a quarter to noon! "

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