The Broken Friendship


In the 1890’s, Ernest Chausson and Claude Debussy were two of France’s most important composers. They had in common the cause of music that was distinctively French. Then they had a falling-out.

It’s not certain when Chausson and Debussy first met, although their names were first linked publicly in 1889 when both of them attended performances of Wagnerian operas at Beyreuth. In 1890 Chausson and a wealthy businessman financed a limited and deluxe edition of Debussy’s Five Poems of-Baudelaire.

And the following year Debussy dedicated his song “The Sea is More Beautiful” to Chausson.

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The two corresponded cordially from 1893 to 1894 and then something happened.

Early in 1894 Debussy announced his engagement to Therese Roger, a singer who was a friend of the Chausson family. A month later, when Debussy mysteriously broke off the engagement, Chausson was displeased, and the letters between him and Debussy stopped abruptly.

Then there was the matter of money. Chausson had arranged for Debussy to give a series of lecture-demonstrations on the music of Wagner at the home of Chausson’s mother-in-law. But Debussy delivered only five of the lectures, forcing Chausson to refund half of the subscription fees.

Thc broken engagement with Therese Roger and the abortive lecture series may have been enough to cause a rift between Debussy and Chausson. But a third cause may have made the break permanent–jealousy. In the early years of their relationship, Chausson had been the “big brother,” offering financial help and criticism of Debussy’s nascent style. As Debussy found his distinctive musical voice and won more and more recognition as a composer, Debussy became increasingly critical of Chausson’s’ music and Chausson in turn expressed doubts about some of the compositions that were making Debussy the more famous of the two.

Five years later the friendship was lost forever when Ernest Chausson died in a bicycle accident at the age of 44.

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