February 16, 1889: a questionnaire
My favourite virtue: Pride.
My favourite qualities in man: Willpower.
My favourite qualities in woman: Charm.
My favourite occupation: Reading while smoking rare tobaccos.
My chief characteristic: My hair.
My idea of happiness: Loving.
My idea of misery: Being too hot.
My favourite colour and flower: Violet.
If not myself, who would I be?: Sailor.
Where would I like to live?: Anywhere not in this world.
My favourite prose authors: Flaubert. Edgar Allan Poe.
My favourite poet: Baudelaire.
My favourite painters and composers: Botticelli. Gustave Moreau. Palestrina. Bach. Wagner.
My favourite heroes in fiction: Hamlet.
My favourite heroines in fiction: Rosalind.
My favourite food and drink: Russian food. Coffee.
My favourite names: That depends on the people.
My pet aversion: Dilettantes, women who are too beautiful.
What character in history do I most dislike?: Herod.
What is my present state of mind?: Sad and seeking something, except today.
For what fault have I most toleration?: Faults of harmony.
My favourite motto?: Ever higher.


February, 1893: to Prince André Poniatowski
I may not be more talented than anyone else, but at least I can say I adore music, which I have to believe is something rare, seeing around me so many examples of how badly it’s treated, and everybody taking it as a matter of course. These last few days I’ve found some consolation in a very beautiful musical experience at Saint-Germain, a church where an intelligent priest has taken it into his head to revive the wonderful sacred music of former times. There was an a cappella mass by Palestrina. It was marvellously beautiful, this music that even though it’s very strictly written, seems completely white, and the emotion isn’t transmitted at full throttle, as was to become the rule, but by melodic arabesques, which is to say somehow by the contour, and by the arabesques interweaving to  produce what seems something unique: melodic harmonies! I also heard a mass by Victoria having a rough, ascetic mysticism, all with the same simple means as Palestrina.
When you hear this music you have to ask yourself why so beautiful an art has wandered off along paths where it’ll only meet with misfortune, because it’s the very essence that’s been transformed to have it end up, heaven help us, at the Opéra.


September 3, 1893: to Ernest Chausson
Dear friend, Try as I may, I can’t look upon the sadness of my existence objectively; sometimes my days are dismal, dark and dumb, like those of the hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and my soul as Romantic as a Chopin ballade. My solitude is invaded by too many memories, and I can’t show them the door, only live and wait. It remains to be seen if I haven’t got the wrong ticket for the Happiness bus; if that’s the case, I’d be glad enough to stand.
And now the hour has come that ends my thirty-first year, and I’m still not very sure of my aesthetic, and there are things I still don’t know (like how to create masterpieces, or how to be entirely serious, among other things, my fault being to dream my life away and not to see realities until they become insurmountable obstacles). Maybe I’m more to be pitied than blamed.
I’m working furiously but, whether because of my misanthropy or for some other reason, I’m not happy with what I’m achieving. I’d like you here a bit; I’m worried about working in a void, and my music is starting to take on the features of a young savage, without my being able to stop it.

September 4, 1893: from Ernest Chausson
To be ‘very sure of your aesthetic’. Good Lord, that’s a tall order. You complain you haven’t found yourself at thirty-one. What can I say? I won’t see thirty-one again and I’m full of doubts. It seems to me on the contrary that you know very well, and quite precisely, what you want to achieve.

The features of a young savage – but that’s ideal! I believe you’re very much the young savage, in your hair and in your mind, and your music shows a sensibility that’s totally modern and refined.


December 20, 1894: to Stéphane Mallarmé
Do I need to tell you what a joy it would be for me were you willing to encourage by your presence the arabesques that a perhaps pardonable pride has made me think were dictated by the flute of your faun?

December 23, 1894: from Stéphane Mallarmé
I came out of the concert very much moved: the marvel! Your illustration of L’Après-midi d’un faune, which is never in dissonance with my text, unless in going further, really, in the direction of nostalgia and light, with perfection, with unease, with richness! I seize your hands in admiration, Debussy.


July 3, 1899: to Lilly Texier
My adored Lilly,
There’s something curiously absurd about your being far away from me, sleeping the sleep of a spoilt child as you do, and me unable to see it all. Me here, trying to kill time. (That old bloke is really in remarkably good health.) And the minutes pass, heavy, all the same. There’s nothing to laugh about, because Lilly isn’t here.
I’ve tried to teach myself patience, but there are things in me that cry out to you, like children lost in the forest. My mouth remembers all too well your mouth; it’s received an indelible mark, burning like fire, gentle as a flower. And as soon as your eyes aren’t here I become like someone blind, or like a little boat that’s lost all its sails – two images for the same, irreparable sadness.
You’ve made me love you more than is perhaps permitted a man. The impulse to destroy myself to increase your happiness becomes so violent that sometimes it’s like a death wish. And I can also love you with the charming tenderness of a child. There are no ways of loving that my love doesn’t know, or can’t discover.
For me, hours without you are boredom multiplied a hundredfold. It’s the boundless impatience of a man who’s hungry and who smashes windows to grab some bread; it’s the need to live for another, and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I assure you it had to happen like this, and we should worry only about ourselves, make our love so strong it can happily bear any kind of responsibility, never diminish it with those restricting little rules fit only for nonentities. Your love – it’s Wisdom in its most beautiful form.
I love you.
Claude


January 5, 1900: to Robert Godet
I’ll come straight away to the anecdotal side of my life. There are two events to report: first, my move, second, my marriage. Yes, dear friend – and do me the courtesy of staying seated – Mademoiselle Lilly Texier has changed her awkward-sounding name to that of Lilly Debussy, much more euphonious, as all will agree. She’s impossibly fair, pretty as a heroine out of a storybook, and to these gifts she adds that of being not at all ‘modern’. She has her own musical taste. Her favourite song is a round about a little rosy-cheeked grenadier who wears his hat over one ear like an old soldier. It’s impossible to describe and not too challenging.
I’ve got back to work, which my brain had got completely out of the habit of, choked as it was with thick, heavy lassitude, but alas with no commission. I’ve finished the three Nocturnes of which you’ve heard bits and pieces; I’m sorry you won’t be at their performance, which will take place in a few weeks’ time.


February 11, 1901: to Paul Dukas
Your article on the Nocturnes fills me with pride. The music of Fêtes was, as always, adapted from memories already distant, of a celebration at the Bois de Boulogne; the ‘spectral procession’, as you call it, was formed of cuirassiers.
To you, who have what seems to me a steel-trap mind and cold, blue, unyielding willpower, guaranteeing, now and in the future, an imperious ascendancy over this century, I can say that I no longer think musically, or scarcely at all, though I remain firmly of the opinion that music will forever be the very finest means of expression. It’s just that the works, whether ancient or modern, and that’s not just a matter of date, seem to me impoverished in the extreme, notoriously incapable of reaching beyond the worktable. They’re always lit by the sad lamp, not by the sun. Overwhelming everything else, there’s the desire to astonish one’s colleagues with contradictory harmonies. In brief, there’s nothing less moving than music nowadays.

June 9, 1902: to André Messager
Meanwhile I’m working on The Devil in the Belfry, and I’d like you to read or re-read the Edgar Allan Poe story so that you could give me some advice. I think one could draw from it something where reality is mixed with fantasy in happy proportions. It also contains a devil who is ironical, much crueller than this red sulphured clown we get illogically from tradition. I want to destroy this idea that the Devil is the spirit of evil. He’s more simply the spirit of contradiction, and maybe he’s the one who breathes on those who don’t think like everyone else. It would be hard to say they’re not the ones we need.


June 13, 1902: to Robert Godet
It’s me, Claude Debussy, which is nothing to be proud of. It can only be that overwork and irritation these last months have ended up felling me, if I find it impossible to write to Godet.
I can’t thank you for your article on Pelléas, because that would be an insult. Besides, I’ve known far too long the quality of your understanding and your scrupulously loyal love of beauty to be astonished that you have simply behaved in character. In addition to that in this case, though, it’s a joy to me personally to hear words that only one person could speak, and that convey the hope of something true being understood for ever. That’s as rare as the work itself.
But I can’t wait for the performances of Pelléas to be over. It’s certainly time. It’s starting to get treated like a repertory piece. The singers improvise, the orchestra gets weighed down, and soon they’ll just have to put on some other old warhorse.


January 26, 1903: Gil Blas
These last foggy days have made me think of London, and of that delightful play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what comes to my mind most of all is a man almost forgotten nowadays, at least in the theatre. I see him trudging the streets of London, a worn-out body caught by the lamplight, a face with that special radiance that comes from beautiful things happening within. He walks along, sustained by a feverish desire not to die before having heard his last work, drawn from the sad warmth of the last drops of his heart’s blood. What had it cost him to make sure this work had, once again, that fiery self-possession, those rhythms of Romantic chivalry that he had thrust at the world as a young genius? None will ever know…. It has, this work, a kind of dreamy melancholy,  in this period very personal to him, never weighed down by that indigestible German moonlight in which almost all his contemporaries liked to bathe themselves.
This fellow was perhaps the first to have given thought to the relationship that must exist between the vast soul of nature and the soul of a human being. To be sure, it was he who had the idea of using legends, sensing what music could find in them of the action of nature. Indeed, music alone can evoke at will the imaginary locations, the world at once defined and illusory, secretly brought about by the mysterious poetry of night, by the thousand nameless sounds made by leaves caressed by moonbeams.
Every way known of describing the fantastic in music is present at full power in the brain of this man. Even our age, so rich in orchestral chemistry, has not got far past him. If he could be criticized for too lively a taste for vocal display, it has to be remembered he married a singer. Probably he adored her. But we shouldn’t over-identify, because the uxorious concern to knot ribbons with elegant semiquavers didn’t keep him from finding, in many cases, touches of simple and beautiful humanity, clear of frivolous embellishments. This man (doesn’t everyone recognize him by now?) was Carl Maria von Weber. The opera that was the last work of his genius is called Oberon, whose first performance was given in London (so now you know I had very good reason for bringing up this city).
Some years earlier he had put on in Berlin his Freischütz, then Euryanthe. All that made him the father of this ‘Romantic school’ to which we owe our Berlioz, so much in love with Romantic colour that sometimes he leaves out the music, Wagner, great purveyor of symbols, and, nearer us, Richard Strauss, with an imagination curiously organized for a Romantic. Weber could be proud of such followers, and console himself with the glory of these sons of his genius that hardly anybody any longer plays more than his works’ overtures.


March 30, 1903: Gil Blas
A newspaper has informed us recently of the existence of a child prodigy it calls, a little prematurely, ‘the new Mozart’. Pierre Chagnon, the child prodigy in question, was born in 1893 and so is nearing eleven, at which age Mozart had composed an opera, rather primitive in how it’s written, that’s true, but even so, this isn’t something that comes easily to all children. Thank God. So far the young Pierre Chagnon has contented himself with a motet, ‘performed with great success at the church of Saint-Maur’, his father tells us.
In any case, the existence of a child prodigy cannot leave any French person indifferent. Generally this kind of thing is reserved for our competitors, so it’s reassuring to see us take back the advantage. It may not make up for our two lost provinces, but it’s something.
Monsieur Chagnon, the father, complains that his son doesn’t have a good piano and can attend the Conservatoire only once a week. These two inconveniences can be remedied at one fell stroke: let his son not go to the Conservatoire at all, and Papa Chagnon can use the money to buy a better piano.


April 6, 1903: Gil Blas
I’m out of luck. The one time when I might have had the pleasure of talking to you about Wagner, the Société des Grandes Auditions de France does not allow me the honour of hearing their performance of Parsifal. Did they want to punish me for my Wagnerian iconoclasm? Did they fear something subversive? A bomb? I don’t know. All I do know is that these sorts of occasions are made for those whom a noble title or a place in high society allows to attend such petty goings-on with an elegant indifference to what’s being performed.
In Parsifal, the last product of a genius before whom one must bow, Wagner tried to be less rigidly authoritarian where the music’s concerned; the score has a larger breath. There’s not the enervated gasping to keep up with the morbid passion of a Tristan, the enraged animal cries of an Isolde, or Wotan’s grandiloquent commentary on inhumanity. Nothing in Wagner’s music attains a beauty so serene as that of the prelude to the third act of Parsifal and the whole Good Friday episode. Wagner’s particular insight into humanity, too, shows itself in the behaviour of certain characters in this drama, the finest being Klingsor. It would be easy to argue that this cunning magician and old lag is not just the only human character but also the only moral character, in a drama where the most deluded moral and religious ideas are put forward, ideas whose heroic simpleton champion is Parsifal himself.
To sum it up, in this Christian drama nobody is willing to be sacrificed. The atmosphere is certainly religious, but why do these children’s voices have such suspect progressions? Think for a moment what childlike candour there might have been here if the spirit of Palestrina had been able to give dictation.
But all this is only about Wagner’s so much admired poetry and has nothing to do with the decorative aspect of Parsifal, which is supremely beautiful all through. One hears orchestral sonorities that are unique and unexpected, fine and strong. It’s one of the most beautiful monuments in sound ever erected to the imperishable glory of music.
I’ve been able to talk at length about Parsifal, despite the Société de Grandes Auditions, because of the memories that remain of my stay at Bayreuth in 1889. 1889! That delightful time when I was a crazy Wagnerian. Why am I not still? Excuse me, but that’s another story.


September 12, 1903: to André Messager
I’m working on three symphonic sketches entitled: (1) ‘Glorious sea at the Îles sanguinaires’, (2) ‘Play of the waves’, (3) ‘The wind makes the sea dance’. Under the general title of La Mer.
You may not know that I was promised for the fine career of a sailor, and that only life’s vicissitudes took me in another direction. Nevertheless, I’ve retained a real passion for such a life. You’ll reply that the ocean doesn’t exactly bathe the hills of Burgundy, where I’m now staying, and that what I’m talking about is something like a landscape painted in a studio. But I have numerous memories, and they’re worth more, in my view, than a reality whose charm weighs too heavily on your thinking.
One shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to say ‘It’s done’ where The Devil in the Belfry is concerned. The scenario is almost complete, and I’ve pretty much sorted out the musical colour I want to use; beyond that, though, it needs a lot of sleepless nights and a good deal of hope.


July 7, 1906: to Jacques Durand
If some twist of fate doesn’t mess up my papers, I expect to have finished Ibéria next week, and the two others by the end of the month. After that I have to go back into the Belfry, and to the devil who might end up wanting to be left alone.
With regard to this project, I think I’ve found a quite new way of handling the voices, which has the extra advantage of being simple. But I still have my doubts about it, so it should be kept between you and me. I’m always afraid of discovering some grey morning that it’s idiotic.
So I’m making use of my life to the utmost, and if music doesn’t grant me a smile, that’s because she has a heart of stone.

September 3, 1907: to Jacques Durand
The orchestral Images will be ready once I finish Rondes, which I want to do and must do. The music of this piece has the special feature of being immaterial, and one can’t therefore tackle it as if it were a robust symphony, walking on its four feet (sometimes three, but walking all the same).
More generally, I’m coming to the conclusion that music, in its essence, isn’t something that can flow in a rigorous, traditional form. It consists of colours and rhythmicized time. The rest is a practical joke invented by coldhearted imbeciles on the backs of the masters, people who almost always were creating just the music of their era. Only Bach saw ahead to the truth. In any case, music is a very young art, in terms of its means and of what we know of it.


July 8, 1910: to Jacques Durand
Since you left to take the waters, I’ve been continuing this strange existence that is my life, and will be from now on. Those around me refuse to understand how I’ve never been able to live in the reality of things and people, hence this unconquerable need to escape from myself, into adventures that seem inexplicable because they show a man nobody knows, but who is perhaps the best in me.
I’m working as much as I can, and it’s still at such moments that I can best satisfy my taste for the inexpressible. If I can succeed as I wish in bringing about this voyage into anguish that The Fall of the House of Usher must be, I believe I will have given good service to music – and to my publisher and friend Jacques Durand.
You haven’t said anything to me about The Firebird. It’s not perfect, but under some lights it’s still very good, because the music isn’t the docile servant of the dance. And sometimes there are rhythmic combinations that are exceedingly unusual.


February 6, 1911: to Robert Godet
This letter is long overdue, but it isn’t my fault if I’ve had to take up the life of a commercial traveller.
First, Vienna, an old city in make-up where the music of Brahms, of Puccini, is regularly abused, officers with chests like women, women with chests like officers. There, an orchestral concert. Numerous congratulations in German, which I don’t understand, so could interpret as I liked.
Then, Budapest, where the Danube refused to be as blue as is claimed by a certain waltz. The Hungarians insincere and kind. The best thing there is a gypsy called Radics, who loves music far more than people who have a reputation for it. In an ordinary café he gives the impression of being seated in the shade of a forest, and seeks out from the bottom of his soul that special melancholy we so rarely discover. He could extract confidences from a safe.
Back in Paris I set to work on a ballet for a Miss Maud Allen, English to the tee. To make up for it, the ballet is Egyptian. The plot is nothing, as usual.
Right at the same moment Gabriele d’Annunzio arrived with Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien, for which I’ve agreed to compose incidental music. It’s a lot more splendid than the little Anglo-Egyptian ballet. I don’t need to tell you that in it the cult of Adonis is joined to that of Jesus, or that it’s very beautiful, beyond question. Indeed, if I’m given enough time, there’d be some fine movements to discover.
The two Edgar Allan Poe stories are put off till I don’t know when. You I can tell that I’m not too bothered, because there are a lot of touches I don’t like any more, and the handling lacks rigour – especially in The Devil in the Belfry, where I want to achieve choral writing that’s extremely simple and yet extremely flexible. I don’t like the veneer of Boris any more than the relentless counterpoint of the second act of The Mastersingers, which is nothing more than chaos gone cold. There’s certainly another way of doing things – a masterly aural illusion, for example.


February 11, 1911: Excelsior
I’ve made myself a religion of mysterious nature. Watching the movement of the sky, contemplating for hours its magnificence, constantly being renewed, I am seized by an incomparable emotion. The vastness of nature becomes reflected in my scrawny little soul. Here are trees with their branches reaching up into the firmament, here are scented flowers smiling amid the grass, here is the sweet earth with an unruly carpet of little plants…. And unconsciously one’s hands take up a posture of adoration. Being aware of the troubling and majestic spectacles to which nature invites us who pass by, trembling and ephemeral – that’s what I call prayer.
Who could know the secret of musical composition? The sound of the sea, the curve of a horizon, wind through leaves, the call of a bird – these things leave manifold impressions within us, and suddenly, without any will of our own, one of these memories reaches beyond us to express itself in music. It carries its own harmony. However you try, you cannot find anything more appropriate or more truthful. Only thus can a heart destined for music come up with the most beautiful discoveries.
This is why I want to write my musical dream in the most complete detachment from myself. I want to sing my inner landscape with the naive candour of childhood.
No doubt this innocent aesthetic won’t go unopposed. It will always shock the partisans of artifice and lies. I’m prepared for that and even rejoice in it. When I don’t cause trouble any more, then would be the time for bitter self-reproach.


February 14, 1911: to André Caplet
For the moment I’ve set aside the strange tales of Mr Edgar Allan Poe for the twirling legs of one of the most notorious dancers of our time, or any other: Ida Rubinstein, this in collaboration with Gabriele d’Annunzio, who is a sort of irresistible whirlwind. The thing will be called Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. Naturally I have very little time to write a lot of music – you know how much I enjoy that – so there isn’t a minute to spare. In the output from a mine there’s a kind of coal they call ‘all-purpose’. That’s how it is with me, absolutely. I nevertheless accepted because, first of all, it’s worth the risk you break a leg in the process, and then there’s still time for me to make a fool of myself. Among the pals, whom you know, they’re doing me the honour of placing bets on how little chance I have of succeeding in such a dangerous enterprise.
Just now I can’t say anything definite, but I think there’s going to be something for you in this story.


December 18, 1911: to Robert Godet
Do you know that close by you, in Clarens, there’s a young Russian musician: Igor Stravinsky, who has an instinctive genius for colour and rhythm? I’m sure you’d enjoy him and his music. He doesn’t show off. Also, he writes directly for orchestra, without any intermediate stage, according to a plan that’s troubled only by the course of his emotion. There’s no precaution and no pretension. Its childlike and primitive. And yet done with great delicacy. If you get the chance to meet him, don’t hesitate.
As regards getting things done, I haven’t yet found what I want for the two little dramas after Edgar Allan Poe. They smell of the lamp, and you can see the seams. The further I go, the more I detest that willful disorder whose only purpose is to trick the ear. The same applies to bizarre and charming harmonies, which are no more than parlour games. How much you have to suppress before you can get to the naked flesh of the emotion. Instinct alone ought to warn us that textures, colours, are only illusory disguises.

December 22, 1911: to André Caplet
I’m not getting close to finishing the two Edgar Allan Poe dramas; it all seems to me as dull as a hole in the ground. For one bar that has any freedom there are twenty suffocated by the weight of a deaf tradition, and despite all my efforts I can still see its hypocritical and despicable influence. Never mind that this tradition is mine. It’s no less dismaying, like finding that whatever mask you wear, underneath you’re only yourself.


April 13, 1912: to Igor Stravinsky
Thanks to you I’ve had a delightful Easter holiday in the company of Petrushka, the terrible Moor and the delicious Ballerina. I guess you’ve had some good times with these three dolls – and I don’t know much that’s worth as much as the sequence you call ‘The Trick’. In that there’s a kind of magic in sound, a mysterious transformation of mechanical souls that become human through a spell of which, up to now, you seem to me to be the sole inventor. And there are orchestral certainties that I’ve encountered only in Parsifal. You’ll know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. You’ll go further than Petrushka, for certain, but you can already be proud of what this work represents.

November 7, 1912; to Igor Stravinsky
We talk about you here at least once a day. Your friend my daughter Chouchou has composed a fantasy on Petrushka enough to make the tigers roar. Whatever punishments I threaten, she goes on claiming that you’ll find it very beautiful. So how can you imagine we’re not thinking of you?
I still remember when you played your Rite of Spring at Laloy’s place. It haunts me like a beautiful nightmare, and I try in vain to recover the terrifying impression it made. That’s why I’m looking forward to the première like a greedy child who’s been promised jam.
As soon as I have a proper proof of Jeux I’ll send it to you. I’d like to have your opinion on this byplay for three. You say you’re surprised by the title and would have preferred ‘The Park’. I beg you to believe ‘Jeux’ is better. First off, it’s shorter. Then it speaks more suitably of the ‘horrors’ that go on among these three characters.


June 9, 1913: to Robert Godet
Whatever Arkel says in Pelléas, there are indeed such things as meaningless events, and among them allow me to include the production of Jeux, where the perverse genius of Nijinsky has applied itself to a particular branch of mathematics. This fellow adds up demisemiquavers with his feet, checks the result with his arms, and then, suddenly paralysed down one side, glares at the music as it passes by. Apparently this is called ‘stylization of the gesture’. It’s awful. The music doesn’t defend itself. It just has its weightless arabesques try to trip up those ill-intentioned feet.

August 8, 1914: to Jacques Durand
You know I don’t have any sang-froid, still less military mettle, never having had occasion to handle a gun, added to which there are my memories of 1870, when my father was imprisoned for supporting the Commune, which prevent me giving way to enthusiasm – not to mention my wife’s anxiety, having a son and a son-in-law in the army. All that puts me into a frame of mind at once driven and troubled, where I’m no more than a poor atom at the mercy of this dreadful cataclysm. What I do seems so miserably little. I’m coming to envy Satie, who’s seriously occupied in defending Paris with the rank of corporal.


October 24, 1915: to Igor Stravinsky
Music is in a bad situation. Personally, for over a year I wasn’t able to write anything; it was only these last three months, staying with friends by the sea that I’ve rediscovered how to think musically. Unless you’re directly involved, the war is contradictory to thought. It was only that Olympian egoist Goethe who could work under such circumstances. Or Pythagoras, who was killed by a soldier when he was just about to solve some mathematical problem. What I’ve written is all pure music: twelve études for the piano, two sonatas for various instruments, in our old form, which graciously refrains from demanding auditory powers on a Wagnerian level.

January 4, 1916: to Robert Godet
I’ve been ill a long while. Ironically, this began when my work was going well, which doesn’t happen every day, and you have to use the good moments to make up for the bad hours. I was about to finish, or very nearly, The Fall of the House of Usher, but my illness put a stop to that. Of course, they don’t care on Aldebaran or Sirius whether I write music or not, but I don’t like being crossed and don’t take kindly to this turn of fate.

September 4, 1916: to Robert Godet
I wish we could leave this house – did I tell you that first my daughter and then her mother caught whooping cough? The place has curious resemblances to the House of Usher, for, except that I don’t have Roderick Usher’s disorders of the brain, nor his passion for Weber’s last waltz, there’s a certain hypersensitivity we have in common.


December 11, 1916: to Robert Godet
Of course I don’t take this wreck that I’ve become for walks any more, for fear of frightening small children and tram conductors. But yesterday I went to the house of my publisher, Jacques Durand, to hear a performance of the Sonata for flute, viola and harp. It’s not for me to talk about the music – though I could without blushing, as it’s by a Debussy I no longer know. It’s terribly sad, and I don’t know whether one should laugh or cry. Perhaps both.

May 7, 1917: to Robert Godet
Life goes on, moving like a tired old machine. Clearly it’s had enough.
I’ve finished, at last, the Sonata for violin and piano. In a very human contradiction it’s full of joyous tumult. In future don’t trust works that seem to glide through the air; they’ll often have been stagnating in the depths of a morose mind. Example: the finale of this same sonata, which goes through the oddest deformations to end up simply with an idea that turns on itself.

October 31, 1917: to Robert Godet
Don’t be angry if I stopped telling you of my projects some time ago. Music has abandoned me completely. If that’s not something to cry about, it is at least a little ridiculous, but I can’t do it any more. I’ve never forced anyone to love me, and if music feels hard done by here, she can go somewhere else. I’ll give her some useful addresses.


November 26, 1917: from Robert Godet
In the course of moving my things about – strategic concentrations in the one room I can heat, given the cost of fuel – I’ve just picked away once more at your complete works, including, for example, that early song ‘Nuit d’étoiles’ you told me not to bother looking for. Naturally I couldn’t resist the temptation of a return voyage through this magical archipelago, from which I came out a little drunk and dizzy. And what a richness of infinite emotion! I don’t too much like the word ‘maturity’, but everything is just perfect, as if you waited every time for the moment when the fruit would come off the tree and all you had to do was hold out your hand, with this simple and pure gesture that conveys all the refinement of your style. Allow me, my very dear and precious friend, to gently protest that you have the least right of anyone to feel discouragement. But you do have the right to rest.



March 25, 1918 - 2018
Debussy in his own words



paul griffiths