Debussy in Jersey by Diane Enget Moore - Page 3


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Debussy in Jersey, Summer 1904

Prelude to Jersey   Correspondence   Impressions

Prelude to Jersey

As explained in the previous section, by the time Debussy came to Jersey in 1904, he was a highly recognised musician. On February 1st 1904, Debussy received France’s highest cultural honour. He became a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. Nevertheless, as I also mentioned, his private life was often clouded by scandal. In 1898 he had left Gaby "with the green eyes" to marry Rosalie Texier, a dressmaker, whom he nicknamed Lilly-Lilo. As it emerged, Lilly did not provide Debussy with the intellectual stimulation he craved for in a woman, and when one of his students, a certain Raoul Bardac, introduced him to his mother, Emma Bardac, the wife of a rich banker (and also a previous mistress of Gabriel Fauré), Debussy was smitten. Their clandestine relationship developed during the spring of 1904, it soon became public, and a huge scandal developed, resulting in Lilly’s attempted suicide in October 1904, 3 months after the Jersey trip. Debussy lost many of his friends as a result of this and Emma Bardac was rejected by her own family.

Thus the holiday to Jersey was shrouded by a deep personal crisis. In June 1904, Debussy and Emma Bardac left Paris and went to Normandy, to the town of Pourville near Dieppe, soon to become a favourite haunt of theirs. By the last weeks of July, they were in Jersey, staying at the Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel, early 1900's.
Postcard: private collection

Their precise arrival and departure dates are difficult to pinpoint. We do know that Debussy and Emma arrived near the end of July and stayed at least 10 days, perhaps up to 2 weeks. And as I said, they  stayed at the Grand Hotel. Unfortunately, it seems that any record of their stay at the hotel has not been kept, nor is it mentioned in Ena Sangan’s book The Grand Hotel 1891-1991, The First Hundred Years published in 1991, and according to the hotel, they cannot find any guest book or ledger with information which could help us.

Debussy's stay is not mentioned in any of the local newspapers either.


Under normal circumstances it would not be a difficult task to date the trip. Debussy was a keen letter-writer and wrote to many friends. According to Denis Herlin, currently compiling the newest edition of Debussy's correspondence (Correspondance générale), a total of around 2600 letters have been found, many of which have never been published.

However, in Jersey Debussy did not write that many letters. In fact, only one letter has been  published. It was sent to Debussy’s new publisher Jacques Durand in Paris, and Denis Herlin suggests it was written at some point between Sunday July 31st and Thursday August 4th. A previous edition of the letters (Correspondance 1884-1918, edited by François Lesure) suggests it was written as early as the 20th July.  However, the latest is assumption is surely based on the fact that Debussy was submitting the completed version of Masques along with his letter, a piece he actually had had time to work on whilst on the island.  Let us take a look at the letter in its entirety, both in the French original and in  English translation, seeing it is the one piece of factual evidence we have with regard to his own personal responses to the stay in Jersey and how he felt it affected him. The French original has been annotated by Denis Herlin, the English translation is by myself.



 [entre le 31 juillet et 4 août 1904 (1)]

Grand Hôtel ­ Jersey.

Cher Ami,

excusez-moi d’être aussi en retard avec vous et d’avoir mérité l’émotion d’une dépêche… Mais ce pays est ravissant, j’y suis tranquille ce qui est encore mieux et je travaille en toute liberté, ce qui ne m’est pas arrivé depuis longtemps… Enfin si l’on veut me nommer Connétable de St Hélier = c’est ainsi qu’on dénomme les autorités dans ce pays = j’y suis tout préparé.
 La Mer a été très bien pour moi, elle m’a montré toutes ses robes. J’en suis encore tout étourdi  (2) (comme chante cette petite pantoufle de Manon !)
Vous recevrez par le même courrier les épreuves de Masques  (3) et de Fêtes Galantes ­ À propos des Fêtes Galantes je vous supplie de ne pas oublier la dédicace ainsi conçue : « Pour remercier le mois de Juin 1904, suivies des lettres. A. l. p. M. [à la petite Mienne  ] » C’est un peu mystérieux, mais il faut bien faire quelque chose pour la légende (4)  ?
Je reviendrai probablement la semaine prochaine…
En tout cas adressez-moi vos lettres à Dieppe. Poste restante. À partir de Lundi prochain.
Ma sincère et dévouée amitié.
Claude Debussy
P.S. Continuez à ignorer mon adresse pour tout le monde, y compris ma charmante famille.
P.S.P.S. Voulez-vous être assez gentil pour me conserver le bon à tirer des Fêtes galantes ?

1. Le séjour à Jersey est difficile à dater
2. Air célèbre de l’opéra de Jules Massenet.
3. Le manuscrit de Masques porte la date de « juillet 1904 » (F-Pn, Mus. Ms. 997).
4. Qualificatif intime à l’adresse d’Emma, réminiscence d’un poème de Jules Laforgue, O géraniums diaphanes : « O ma petite mienne, ô ma quotidienne… »

My dear friend, 

Forgive me for being so negligent and for having caused so much emotional commotion as to provoke a telegram . . . But this country is a delight, I'm at peace which is better still, and I'm completely free to work, which hasn't been the case for a long time . . . So, if anyone has plans to appoint me Connétable of St Helier - for such are the authorities called in these parts - then I'm quite ready for it.

The sea has behaved beautifully towards me and shown me all her guises. I'm still in an absolute daze (as that silly little airhead Manon puts it.)*

You'll receive by the same post the proofs of Masques** and of Fêtes galantes. For the latter, please remember to print the following dedication: 'In appreciation of the month of June 1904' followed by the letters 'A.l.p.M.'*** It's a little mysterious, but one has to make some contribution to legend, doesn't one?


I'll probably be back next week.


In any case, write to me poste restante at Dieppe from next Monday onwards.


Most sincerely yours,


Claude Debussy


PS - Go on telling everybody you don't know my address, including my dear family.

PPS - Please do me a favour and keep the final corrected proof of Fêtes galantes for me. 

*   Je suis encore étourdie – Manon’s opening aria in Massenet’s opera.
** The original manuscript of Masques is dated July 1904.

* Alpm = à la petite mienne, an intimate form of address to Emma, referring to a poem by Jules Laforgue, Ô geraniums diaphanes: “Ô ma petite mienne, ô  ma quotidienne”…


(Debussy in Pourville, June 1904. © Cliché: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris) 

Impressions of Jersey

As one can see from his PS, Debussy clearly did not want anyone to know about his whereabouts, so for the purpose of research this does make our task that much harder. But if we assume he returned to France the following Monday as suggested by the letter, this makes it Monday 8th August. We do know that he was in Dieppe on Thursday 11th August, because he wrote to Lilly on that date. It was a letter which was to sign the end of their marriage, one in which Debussy, after his secret escapade to Jersey with Emma, reached the stage where he directly told his wife that he was leaving her. He doesn’t mention a third party in this letter, he simply ends the marriage stating he has used the time away to think things over and reach this conclusion. The directness of this letter contrasts sharply with the ambiguous and enigmatic nature of his previous letter written to Lilly on July 19th, shortly before he left for Jersey, a curt missive but certainly not one which would suggest he were about to end their marriage so abruptly.

Returning  to the letter he sent Durand from Jersey, it tells us quite a lot: his satisfaction is immense. The atmosphere is perfect for his work. He is at one with the sea, and after all he is working on his symphonic piece La Mer here on the island. The letter also reveals a visible show of interest in local affairs. Debussy and Emma did not quite simply live a cloistered life, enjoying their togetherness and composing music, Debussy obviously cared to find out a bit about his surroundings, hence his knowledge about the title Connétable of St. Helier and his half-serious half-tongue-in-cheek remark about being quite willing to take on the post. It can be assumed from this remark that the Francophile nature of this British isle interested Debussy. (The Connétable at the time was a Mr. Baudains).

In fact, it could be an interesting study to compare this letter with the ones he wrote from Eastbourne a year later, when he was completing La Mer. He stayed at the Grand Hotel there, and although he is happy (Emma is now pregnant with their child) and the aura of intrigue is no longer needed as he in fact celebrates his divorce from Lilly Texier on August 2nd 1905, Eastbourne does not offer the same calm as Jersey – initially he certainly seems at peace, but after nearly a month’s sojourn there he speaks of Eastbourne as a “little English seaside town, as ridiculous as these sorts of places always are... too many draughts and too much music”.

There are many things the letter does not tell us, and one of these things is much information about the weather, although we can but assume it was favourable. I thought it might be interesting for us to have a better picture of how Debussy experienced our island by actually having a look a look at the weather charts for the period of late July and early August. It was, according to the Jersey Evening Post of the period and the Jersey Almanac of 1905 (referring to events of 1904), a very hot summer. The weather reached a peak on August 4th when a record high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded, the weather broke up and there were violent thunderstorms over the island that evening. One wonders if the intense heat and the storm might have influenced Debussy’s work.

The references he makes to the works he is sending his editor Durand – Masques and Fêtes galantes – are of significance. Masques is one of the pieces he worked on and completed on the island, and I shall be discussing this piece on the Music page, and Fetes galantes is the title of his second set of music set to the poetry of Verlaine ( and Fêtes galantes is likewise the title of one of Verlaine’s major collections of poems). The second set comprised of three songs, and the inscription he refers to in his letter appears on the title page of the original manuscript. He did not write these songs in Jersey, but he obviously had the final manuscripts with him here, which he then posted to Durand for publication. These songs are in many ways autobiographical, especially the last one in the series. The half-coded inscription Alpm, a declaration of love for Emma, is juxtaposed with the sad nature of this final song, Colloque sentimental, in which two ghostly lovers meet and sadly resume their past: happiness has long since gone. "Qu'il était bleu, le ciel, et grand, l'espoir ! / - L'espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir." (“How blue was the sky and how great our hope ! / Hope is crushed and has fled towards the black sky".)
The song is almost like a kind of farewell to his wife Lilly, and underlines the dichotomy of conflicting emotions and underlying guilt which Debussy was feeling at that time, and this is something I shall return to in the section on his 1904 music.


The next  pages deal with Debussy's Blüthner piano and the music Debussy worked on whilst in Jersey as well as relevant links.

The Blüthner    Debussy's "Jersey" Music    Relevant Links