The Claude Debussy House-Museum - La Maison Debussy - A Visit February 08 2022
Houses where composers were once born in and lived for a considerable part of their childhood or formative years can hold special meanings for many, for they were a contributing factor to the development of the musician in many ways. It also gives us a glimpse into the past, taking a good look at how people lived with regards to architecture, sanitation and many more.
[Image] View of the entrance of the Museum
For today’s article, we take you to France where our team at Tamino Autographs made one of our most memorable visit in 2017, to the house where Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was born, located in the historic district of 38, rue au Pain in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the French department of Yvelines. The house has been transformed into a museum which presents a collection of objects that once belonged to the famous French composer.
The house-museum was first placed on the inventory of historical monuments in 1972 and opened to the public in 1990, with the main objective of preserving the life and legacy of this great French composer by exposing the life and musical documents of Claude Debussy.
[Image] The Claude Debussy House-Museum Street Plaque
The displays bring together personal objects that once belonged to the composer, musical scores and iconographic documents. Classical music concerts are held in the Yvonne Lefébure Auditorium, dedicated to the memory of the pianist and music teacher.
It is in this house, built in the 1600s and located a few steps from the château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, that Claude Debussy was born on 22 August 1862 and spent his early childhood, where he lived in till he was the age of 5. His father ran a fine china shop on the ground floor.
Private Musical Performances at Debussy's House
This house also happens to be home to the town’s tourism office, a very strategic location indeed for such a historical site! After the composer's death in 1918, it soon became the main gathering place of his many admirers.
This fascinating museum is labeled "Maison des Illustres” (or “House of the illustrious”) and it brings together objects and photographs that allow us to better understand the creative process of the composer.
Photographs of Claude Debussy exhibitied on the Museum's walls
It is no doubt interesting to know what Debussy was going through at a certain point in his life or how he was feeling when he was composing a certain work and as much as we would love for there to be an audio interview with the man himself, there unfortunately isn’t, so we will have to make do with the items amalgamated by the museum.
We know for a fact that Debussy liked to surround himself with objects of various artistic origins and currents that strongly influenced his music. For example, he had on display a lacquered panel from Japan from his Paris mansion – two fish swimming under a willow tree – masterfully morphed into Pisces d’Or, a piano piece (1907).
So, having said all that, we now come to the part which everyone would probably find the most exciting - what items of Debussy do we get to see in the museum? Well, we’ve had that part of the box checked for you because here is an overview of all the fascinating items you’ll be able to see at the museum, right from the comfort of your own home while reading this blog!
We start off with numerous period prints and portraits of the great French composer, shown either in his childhood years, as a teen or as a grown man of handsome built.
Photographs and glass cabinets with more objects and photos once belonging to the composer
We see Debussy in the comfort of his own home (as you are now too) surrounded by family members or simply just relaxing in his wooden rocking chair. Next we see a very touching collection of photos of Debussy’s family members, placed in a ritualistic circle around a lock of the composer’s own hair (!) and a personal book he used to own.
There are pictures of him with his much beloved daughter Claude-Emma Debussy and his wife Emma Bardac. Claude-Emma Debussy (nicknamed "Chouchou"), who carried the names of both of her parents, died of diphtheria in 1919 at age 14, just a year after her famous father perished of colon cancer.
Debussy and daughter Claude-Emma or Chouchou, mid-1910s
The Claude Debussy House-Museum Photographs exhibited on the walls
Next, on to a more Debussy-centered exhibit. This one contains two gorgeous period photos of Debussy, preserved in stunning condition and each depicting Debussy at a certain stage in his life: as a young teen and later, a man in his early 30s.
The Claude Debussy House-Museum Family Photographs exhibited
One is immediately taken aback by the beauty that is associated with the gorgeous almond brown baton that is on display at the museum, which Debussy used to own as well. It might have been a gift rather than for practical uses in conducting as the baton sure looks heavy!
The Claude Debussy House-Museum - Debussy's Baton and Metronome
We then move on to Debussy’s metronome (still in the same glass exhibit) and we can only fantasise about all the great music making that it has had the privilege to hear while the French master was composing and making drafts of his new masterpieces.
Would it have had the same controversies as the metronome of Beethoven? Perhaps not, but we will never know, for the metronome will forever be stashed away behind the glass while curious onlookers peer in to take a glimpse and hope for a morsel of inspiration - the same one that had struck Debussy which had bestowed such beauty upon him in his music.
The Claude Debussy House-Museum - A manuscript of Debussy's works
The last item in this exhibit is Debussy’s very own tuning fork. These days, the tuning fork might seem clumsy and completely out of fashion as we now have digital tuners which are far more precise…too precise, if anything. However, back in their days, the tuning fork was all these great musicians had and they had to make do with it. Maybe you could learn to tune your instrument with a tuning fork too!
Score of "Pelléas et Melisande" - Debussy's most famous opera
Moving on to another exhibit, this one might seem slightly morbid for some. Right away, one is staring face to face with Debussy himself - his death mask. Death masks, as ghastly as that idea may be, is actually a fantastic way of preserving history as it gives us an exact and precise view of the musician themselves since photos can at times be of little help in giving us a good size comparison.
Claude Debussy's death mask and photo on his death bed
Next to his death mask is a photo of Debussy on his death bed, a poignant reminder that all humans will one day meet the inevitable, regardless of how great or revered the person may have been during his lifetime.
On to the concert stage and his musical life, we see in the next exhibits a rare original program of Debussy in concert, as well as a wonderfully preserved manuscript in the hand of the great French composer, preserved for the many generations to come. Wouldn’t it have been a real treat to have heard Debussy perform in concert or at the podium conducting his own works?
The Claude Debussy House-Museum - Program for a performance
Moving on to the last stations, we see a table exhibit of writing instruments and stationaries that Debussy owned, including his pen and paper along with a nice pair of scissors. Imagine the compositions he would have written and the letters that he would have written to his many friends, such as the famed Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe among others, all with that same pen?.
Debussy's personal stationery and other belongins
The final and most interesting item on display is without a doubt Debussy’s own tuxedo, one which he would’ve worn for concerts or social events like gatherings and musical evenings. We get a superb view of how Debussy was built as a man and this is something we wish we could say for all the major composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but alas, we do not have their concert tails preserved.
Maestro Debussy's personal tuxedo, beautifully preserved
All in all, the “House of the illustrious” museum was a place which our team was extremely privileged and pleased to have visited and we would recommend the same for you when in France, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Despite the museum’s small size, it is but a beautiful tribute to one of the greatest French composers to have ever lived!
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