Treading in Emma Debussy’s footsteps was a deeply satisfying experience. Having first mined the resources in the Centre de Documentation Claude Debussy in Paris, I was thrilled to trace the years prior to Emma’s marriage in the archives in Bordeaux and find the house where she was born, the site of her father’s tailor’s business, the residences of her family as they became more affluent. In the nearby resort of Arcachon, still prosperous and fashionable, her uncle Osiris’s villas stand to this day, as does the little synagogue he had built specifically for her marriage to Sigismond Bardac, who would become an exceedingly prosperous banker and art collector.
Back in Paris I stared in fascination at the huge statue of Moses reigning over Osiris’s grave, surrounded by plaques dedicated to the multitude of family members he had originally wanted to lie beside him, including Emma. More plaques bearing his name and those of family members decorated the walls of the synagogue he had financed in Paris. The elegant exteriors of the Bardacs’ residences in the city bore witness to family wealth and Emma’s glittering musical gatherings in her ‘progressive’ salon where she sang to Gabriel Fauré and the musical élite of the day. Her son Raoul certainly benefited musically from these connections. The house she shared with her second husband, Claude Debussy, in its prestigious proximity to the Bois de Boulogne, certainly gives the impression of wealth and luxury, a lifestyle which the couple struggled to maintain. Emma’s final residence was close to her husband’s resting place, the attractive graveyard at Passy, which she is said to have visited daily.
My final quest for gleaning the atmosphere of Emma’s life with Debussy led me to Saint-Jean-de-Luz where they had spent their last holiday and to which Emma would return several times alone. After searching for a while for the house they had rented, I asked a passer-by if he might by any chance know where it was. How fortuitous to have stopped the very man who looked after the place during its owners’ absence and who had the key in his pocket! What a privilege to be accompanied round its ground floor and the beautiful garden.
The insight and empathy gained from reading Emma’s normally bold handwriting in her correspondence after Debussy’s death was invaluable, seeing how it varied according to her mood, how she would cover the page using margins to the side and above and below the body of the letter when she ran out of space. These letters show her dependence on other musicians to help keep her husband’s music alive until her death in 1934.
Emma’s friend Chouchik Laloy’s letters to her husband Louis Laloy paint pictures of garden tea parties with Emma, their children falling in a stream, getting covered in mud, whilst at the same time revealing surprising information about the teenage Dolly, Emma’s older daughter. My research led to little known facts about Emma’s composer son Raoul Bardac. Photographs show intimate family moments and evidence of the joy brought to her parents by Chouchou, Emma’s and Debussy’s daughter.
My research took many years, but certainly brought me close in spirit to this woman who had to overcome illness and many stressful situations to further the memory of her husband.
This post was written by GILLIAN OPSTAD, who read Modern Languages at Somerville College, Oxford and taught for a number of years in Buckinghamshire and Bristol. She specialises in French music and is the author of Debussy’s Mélisande, published by the Boydell Press in 2009.