Debussy’s Erotic Fauns, Damsels Romp in Paris Shows: Review

``Portrait of Claude Debussy''
``Portrait of Claude Debussy'' (1884) by Marcel Baschet. The painting is at the Orangerie through June 11. Photographer: Herve Lewandowski/Musee d'Orsay via Bloomberg

Paris is celebrating the 150th anniversary of French composer Debussy in style.

The most original event is “Debussy, Music and the Arts,” an exhibition at the Orangerie that traces his relationships with contemporary writers and painters.

When Debussy (1862-1918) was still young and struggling, one of his patrons was the painter and collector Henry Lerolle. In Lerolle’s salon, Degas and Renoir rubbed elbows with Mallarme, Gide, Claudel and other luminaries.

In the show, you’ll find Lerolle’s daughters at the piano, painted by Renoir. One of the two, Yvonne, whom Debussy liked to call “la petite soeur de Melisande,” also appears in three different poses on a canvas by Maurice Denis.

Debussy was a well-read man whose compositions often were inspired by literature.

“The Blessed Damozel,” a poem and a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the British Pre-Raphaelite, is a case in point. She morphed into “La Damoiselle Elue,” a cantata for female voices and chorus, one of Debussy’s early works.

“Le Prelude a l’Apres-midi d’un Faune,” his first masterpiece, was inspired by Mallarme’s eponymous poem. Danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, the faun’s Elvis-like gyrations created a scandal. Looking at Adolphe de Meyer’s photographs, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about.

A Greek vase portraying a maenad chased by a satyr in the full bloom of his manliness is decidedly more risque.

Sapphic Fantasies

Mallarme had called his poem an “eclogue” (Latin for: song of a cowherd), bowing to the craze for classical poetry at the time.

Debussy’s friend Pierre Louys made fun of the fad by passing off his erotic fantasies, “Les Chansons de Bilitis,” as translations from a Greek poetess contemporary with Sappho.

The hoax was a hit. Debussy set three of Louys’s prose poems to music.

“Pelleas et Melisande” appears in the guise of maquettes for the set, sketches for costumes, paintings and prints such as “Attraction,” “Jealousy” and “Vampire” by Edvard Munch.

The show is silent about the row between the composer and Maurice Maeterlinck on whose play the opera is based. When Maeterlinck’s mistress Georgette Leblanc failed to get the title role he tried to disrupt the dress rehearsal and expressed in a letter to “Le Figaro” newspaper the hope the opera would fail.

Master Painters

Around “La Mer,” Debussy’s best known symphonic poem, the organizers have grouped some 20 canvases by Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Degas, Turner and Winslow Homer that are more or less related to the subject.

Among other highlights, the Bastille Opera has dusted off Robert Wilson’s 1997 production of “Pelleas and Melisande” with Stephane Degout and Elena Tsallagova in the title roles. Philippe Jordan conducts. The opera is in repertory through March 16. Information:

The house at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris, where Debussy was born in 1862 and where his father kept a china shop, is mounting an exhibition with memorabilia from his life. The show runs through Sept. 16. Information:

“Debussy, Music and the Arts,” runs through June 11 at the Orangerie in Paris and then travels to the Bridgestone Museum in Tokyo where it will be on view from July 13 to Oct. 14. Information:,

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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