Her affair with Debussy resulted in a scandal that split the Parisian music world apart – and almost led to the death of Debussy’s first wife.
Today we’re looking at the life of Emma Bardac-Debussy: singer, legendary conversationalist, wife, mother, and most famously, mistress.
1. Emma Léa Moyse was born in July 1862 to a Jewish family from Bordeaux. She was a musical child and loved to sing. At the age of seventeen, she married a wealthy banker named Sigismond Bardac, and the couple settled in Paris.
2. In 1881, when she was eighteen, she had her first child, a boy named Raoul. Raoul inherited his mother’s passion for music and grew up to become a pianist and composer. He befriended Maurice Ravel and studied with Claude Debussy (and was actually the man who introduced those two giants).
3. Almost a decade later, she had another baby: a girl named Régina Hélène.
4. Like many charming, artistic Parisian women of the fin de siècle, Emma hosted a salon. During this time, she met composer and pianist Gabriel Fauré. Fauré was a bit of a tragic figure when it came to romance. In 1877, his singer fiancée had broken off his engagement, and he never really recovered from the heartbreak. He entered into a loveless marriage and became involved with other women. He fell for Emma the beautiful singer, who was seventeen years his junior, and she returned his affections.
5. During their relationship, Fauré wrote one of his most famous works for Régina Hélène, whose nickname was Dolly: the “Dolly Suite,” a collection of pieces for piano duet written between 1893 and 1896. He gave each piece a descriptive title, some of which had direct connections to the Bardac family. “Mi-a-ou” referred to the way that Dolly tried to pronounce her brother Monsieur Raoul’s name. “Kitty-valse” is, contrary to what you might think based on its title, not an homage to a cat, but rather to the Bardac family dog, Ketty. In fact, Fauré was so inspired by Emma and her family that some people started gossiping that he was Dolly’s biological father, although no evidence exists to prove that particular suspicion.
Gabriel Fauré: Dolly Suite, Op. 56 for piano 4-hands (1896)
6. Fauré was also inspired by Emma herself, especially when he wrote his nine-song cycle La Bonne Chanson, which was composed between 1892 and 1894. He wrote it while staying with the Bardacs. Every day that he’d write something, Emma would sing it back to him.
Gabriel Fauré: “La Bonne Chanson”
7. After a few years, the relationship with Fauré cooled. But on 1 October 1903, another great composer crossed the threshold of the Bardac house: Claude Debussy, who, at forty-one years old, was just a few weeks younger than Emma. Like Fauré, he was one of Raoul’s teachers. Debussy was married, and he started bringing his new wife Lilly along on his visits. However, Lilly felt intimidated by the worldly and intensely charming Emma, and she eventually started staying home when Claude went to visit Emma. The stage was set for a combustible affair.
8. During the summer of 1904, Debussy began treating his wife especially abysmally. That July, he sent Lilly off on a visit to her parents, then accompanied Emma on a vacation to the island of Jersey. While there he wove his feelings of forbidden passion into his work “L’isle joyeuse.”
Claude Debussy L’isle Joyeuse
9. He soon decided that he was done with Lilly, and wrote her a letter telling her so. When she found out their marriage was over, she shot herself on the Place de la Concorde. After Debussy heard the news, he went to visit her doctor. When he was told that she’d survive, he left to return to Emma. Parisian society was horrified that he didn’t pay his wife’s medical bills, and a collection had to be taken up (to which many of the great musicians and artists of the day contributed). His former friends and acquaintances abandoned him, and the couple moved to England together to ride out the storm.
10. In early 1905, at the age of 42, Emma became pregnant with Debussy’s child. That May, her divorce was finalized, and in August, so was Claude’s. Their daughter Claude-Emma, nicknamed Chou-Chou, arrived in October. They married in 1908.
11. The deeply adored Chou-Chou inspired Debussy; he wrote the Children’s Corner suite for piano for her when she was just a toddler. However, his relationship with Emma wasn’t going so well. On top of the social ostracization they were struggling with, her wealthy great-uncle disinherited her, and then, in 1909, Debussy was diagnosed with cancer, which ultimately killed him. Their relationship got so rocky that Emma contemplated a trial separation, but they stayed married until he died in 1918, toward the end of WWII.
Claude Debussy: Children’s Corner, L. 113: 1. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
12. The following year, in a devastating blow, Emma’s daughter Chou-Chou died at the age of fourteen after doctors gave her the wrong treatment for diphtheria. She was a pianist and singer. One wonders what kind of musician she would have developed into, given the talents of her parents.
13. Emma Bardac-Debussy died in 1934. She is best remembered today for the explosive affair she had with Debussy, but she was a fascinating person in her own right, and a major presence in the sensuous world of French fin de siècle music.