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Debussy and the Great War

By Eric Frederick Jensen


When war was declared in the summer of 1914, Claude Debussy was fifty-one. Widely regarded as the greatest living French composer, he lived in Paris in a fashionable, elegant neighborhood near the Bois de Boulogne. Politics had never held much interest for him, and as the movement toward war increased in both France and Germany, Debussy’s focus was on more personal matters. He worried about his growing debt, a result of consistently living beyond his means. And he was frightened by his lack of productivity: in the past few years he’d produced only a handful of compositions.

When France’s armies were mobilized, Debussy was genuinely astonished by the fervor it aroused. He himself was not a flag-waver, and took some pride in observing that he had never “had occasion to handle a gun.” But he was drawn into a more active role as family and friends became involved, and as the German invasion threatened to overrun Paris.

That September he witnessed the repulse of the German forces from temporary asylum in Angers, and grew increasingly horrified by daily reports in the French press of “Hun atrocities” against civilians in Belgium and France. The violation of Belgian neutrality by the Germans (“the rape of Belgium”) served as the basis for what became a well-organized propaganda campaign, one that soon drew on Debussy’s fame.

One of the first publications intended to broaden support for the Allies appeared in November 1914: King Albert’s Book. A Tribute to the Belgian King and People from Representative Men and Women Throughout the World. The popular English novelist, Hall Caine, was listed as “general organizer,” and there were more than 200 contributors from all branches of the arts, including Edward Elgar, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Walter Crane, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Anatole France. Debussy was one of the few composers approached to be part of the project, and contributed a short piano piece, Berceuse héroïque. He described it as as “melancholy and discreet . . . with no pretensions other than to offer a homage to so much patient suffering.”

Claude Debussy. Ink drawing by Joseph Muller. Digital ID: 1147651. New York Public Library.
Claude Debussy. Ink drawing by Joseph Muller. Digital ID: 1147651. New York Public Library.

The Berceuse was followed by two brief piano pieces similar in intent: Page d’album and Elégie. Page d’album was composed in June 1915 for a concert series created to supplying clothing for the wounded. Debussy’s wife, Emma, was involved with the project, and that helps to explain his participation. The Elégie, a simple and solemn piece, was published six months later in Pages inédites sur la femme et la guerre. Profits from sale of the book were intended for war orphans.

That same month Debussy completed his final work directly inspired by the war effort: Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus des maisons (Christmas for Homeless Children). Here Debussy presented children as an illustration of the horror and atrocities of war. He composed both words and music. Its recurrent refrain—“Revenge the children of France!”—gives an indication of its mood. (The following year Debussy started work on a cantata about Joan of Arc, Ode à la France, set in Rheims—whose cathedral, destroyed by German shelling, had become a symbol both of French fortitude and German barbarity—but completed only a few sketches.)

Life in Paris during the war years became more and more of a challenge, with increasing shortages of food and fuel, and a steady escalation in their cost. In time it became difficult for Debussy simply to earn a living. Concert life was reduced, as were commissions for new compositions. Debussy’s last surviving, musical autograph—a short, improvisatory piano piece—was presented as a form of payment to his coal-dealer, probably in February or March 1917.

It came as a surprise to Debussy that, in the midst of all these hardships, he began to compose more than he had in years, including works more substantial in size and broader in their appeal. Among them were En Blanc et Noir (for two pianos), the Etudes (for solo piano), and a set of sonatas, including ones for violin and cello. These were not propagandistic pieces, but the war affected them nonetheless. They were created, Debussy confided to a friend, “not so much for myself, [but ]to offer proof, small as it may be, that 30 million Boches can not destroy French thought . . . I think of the youth of France, senselessly mowed down by those merchants of ‘Kultur’ . . . What I am writing will be a secret homage to them.” For the sonatas, the last compositions completed before his death, he provided a new signature: “Claude Debussy, musicien français”—an indication not just of Debussy’s nationalism during a time of war, but of the heritage he drew upon in writing them.

Debussy died of cancer on 21 March 1918, at a time when Paris was under attack as part of a mammoth, final German offensive. But by that time his perception of the war had altered. The years of carnage had made a straight-forward patriotic stance simplistic. “When will hate be exhausted?” Debussy wrote. “Or is it hate that’s the issue in all this? When will the practice cease of entrusting the destiny of nations to people who see humanity as a way of furthering their careers?”

Eric Frederick Jensen received a doctorate in musicology from the Eastman School of Music. He has written widely in his areas of expertise: German Romanticism, and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French music. His studies of Debussy and Robert Schumann are in the Master Musicians Series.

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