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Moonlight in Houlgate

Our postcard led us right onto the beach at Houlgate, not far from were one of the town’s most celebrated visitors was photographed with his daughter in 1911. 


That year the Debussy family spent August at the Grand Hotel, overlooking the sea.  Claude was desperate for rest after difficult concerts in Turin.  The sophisticated resort of Houlgate was ideal.

The romantic saboteur

By the time of his visit Claude was a fond father, husband and celebrated composer.  He was also a notorious romantic, leaving a trail of broken hearts across Paris. 

Always the passionate artist, Claude’s adult life had been a whirlwind of tempestuous affairs with other people’s wives and daughters, some nearly ending in tragedy.

By the time of the Houlgate holiday it was seven years since his first wife Lilly Texier had shot herself in the chest with a revolver on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, because Claude had left her for Emma Bardac.

As Claude had once left Lilly’s friend Gabby Dupont for Lilly, why was she so surprised?

Possibly his declaration in 1899 that he would kill himself if Lilly did not marry him suggested to her his love would be enduring.  Unfortunately following their marriage he soon became accustomed to her beauty and irritated by her intellectual limitations.

The smouldering Claude Debussy, note the twinkle in those eyes!
The smouldering Claude Debussy, note the twinkle in those eyes!

Love at a cost

Dubussy’s eternal search for love alienated many friends and it took years for his musical reputation to recover from his personal disasters.

After Lilly’s attempted suicide, Claude and Emma fled Paris society’s critical gaze to Eastbourne, there he completed the now acclaimed ‘La Mer’.  Judged for reasons not musical, at the time it was poorly received.

By 1911 they are back living in Paris.  Their adored daughter Claude-Emma, affectionately known as Chouchou, was born in 1905 and helped to cement an occasionally rocky union.  Money troubles and rejection by family and friends clouded their early years together, but Claude and Emma married in 1908.

The happy genius

Claude adored fatherhood, loving Chouchou with a depth of emotion he had not experienced before.  Inspired by the joy of their time together he wrote the delightful ‘Children’s corner’ suite, the music’s charm and spontaneity revealing his understanding of childhood’s magic.

The famous photos of Claude on the beach and with his daughter (too expensive to use on this blog, hence links) at Houlgate show a gentleman more comfortable perhaps in a Paris salon, but happy to be with his beloved daughter on a sandy Normandy beach.  He looks a contented man.

He wrote to friend André Caplet ‘the beach at Houlgate is by far the best, the sea’s unreservedly beautiful…’.

ChouChou’s childhood was a time of great creativity for Claude and well deserved success.


All passion spent

Sadly in a few short years he began to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him.

The sound of German bombs not the sea accompanied Claude Debussy from this world on March 25 1918. He was only 55.  With Paris under attack a public funeral was impossible; his funeral procession to the Père Lachasie cemetery travelled through empty streets.

The following year his body was re-interred in the leafy Passy Cemetery, fulfilling his wish to rest ‘among the trees and the birds’.

Love lives in moonlight

Claude’s beloved inspiration Chouchou lived only a few months without him.  She died just 13, during the diphtheria epidemic of 1919 after her doctor gave her the wrong treatment.  Chouchou is buried with her father.

Their short lives live on in Debussy’s dreamy, precious music.

Here is Claude Debussy’s beautiful ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘Moonlight‘ a prayer for love.




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