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Celebrating Claude Debussy

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 23 June 2012

Tom Service visits cafes, art-houses and research institutes of Paris to get the French view of the composer on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

  • Debussy at 150

    2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy and in a special edition of Music Matters Tom Service travels to Paris to get an authentically French perspective on the life and music of arguably the most influential French composer of all time.

    Tom begins his journey at the composer’s birth place in St-Germain-en-Laye, about half an hour outside the centre of Paris. The Debussys were here only for the first couple of years of his life. When they moved into the city his father would be arrested for his part in the Commune in 1870; a traumatic experience for the young child to lose his father to jail during the formative years of his life.

    In the centre of Paris, at a café that Debussy used to frequent, Tom meets Denis Herlin, a musicologist and editor of Debussy’s music who tells him how important Debussy’s social circle of writers and artists were to the young composer.

    At the Orangerie Museum in Place de la Concorde Tom visits the exhibition Debussy, Music and the Arts. Jean-Michel Nectoux has curated an exhibition that tells the story of Debussy’s relationship with the other arts, especially painting. Tom talks to him by one of the Rossettis that inspired Debussy, the picture that gave rise to a cantata he wrote in Rome, La damoiselle élue.

    Tom discusses what is probably the central piece of Debussy’s output, the opera Pélleas et Mélisande, with two singers who have recently made the piece their own: the husband and wife team of Laurent Naouri and Natalie Dessay.

    The pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a musician who had a moment of Damascene epiphany on the road to his relationship with Debussy’s music. Originally he felt little affinity with it but after hearing Pelleas he found himself unable to listen to a note Debussy wrote without being consumed by tears. He tells Tom about this inescapable connection with Debussy’s music and the challenges of playing his complete piano music.


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