NOSTALGIA: Debussy’s piano shipped to France from Eastbourne

Author Michael Ockenden visited the museum at Brive-la-Gaillarde, where the Eastbourne piano has pride of place in the entrance
Author Michael Ockenden visited the museum at Brive-la-Gaillarde, where the Eastbourne piano has pride of place in the entrance

It is said that Claude Debussy, the French composer, wrote his symphonic suite ‘La Mer’ at Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel. However, this does not square with biographies so some years ago. I called at the Centre de documentation Claude Debussy in Paris, where Mme Alexandra Laederich, the curator, clarified a few points.

Debussy was at the Grand from July 24 to August 30 1905, having completed ‘La Mer’ on March 5 1905. The copyright was lodged a week before he arrived.

His task at the Grand was to correct the proofs. Debussy was not only a composer, but also a brilliant pianist and could have become a concert performer.

He married Lilly Texier, a mannequin, in 1899 but in June 1904 left her for the mother of one of his pupils – Emma Bardac, the wife of a Parisian banker.

In the summer of 1904, Debussy and Emma fled to Jersey, where they stayed for two weeks.

The curator said, “In Jersey he is thought to have bought a Blüthner baby grand.”

No ordinary piano this but a 1904 aliquot model with additional strings in the top three octaves.

These are not struck but vibrate in sympathy, thus adding to the richness of the tone.

She drew my attention to an article by Diane Enget, a translator and literary researcher.

Enget casts doubt on Jersey as the place of purchase, arguing in favour of Eastbourne.

The Blüthner was made in Leipzig during the first quarter of 1904.

However, the archives were destroyed by bombing in 1943 and it is impossible to know when it left the factory. Some did not leave for a year or three, and even then did not sell immediately.

The time between manufacture and a sale in Jersey in June of the same year is unrealistic; moreover, if Debussy had bought it from a Jersey firm, they would have inlaid their own name.

However, S Hermitage and Sons, whose name is on the lid, did not have a branch in Jersey, but at four locations in the southeast, most importantly at Eastbourne.

A passionate pianist, Debussy needed to play while at the Grand. The newspapers were unaware of his presence for their Fashionable Visitors sections make no reference to him.

His abandoned wife had attempted a very public suicide in the Place de la Concorde so he sought a low profile, especially with Emma pregnant and a divorce pending.

He accordingly rented a piano but liked it so much that he shipped it back to Paris. He kept the Blüthner until his death in 1918.

When Emma died in 1934, it passed her son. During the war he fled with the piano to central France.

Some years later it was left to the family doctor and in 1989 was bought by the local museum at Brive-la-Gaillarde.

Eastbourne’s main dealer was Hermitage at 56-58 Terminus Road and this was where the piano was rented.

However, there is no point imagining the great composer entering one of the charity shops in Diesel Alley because the road was renumbered in 1947.

Originally the high numbers were at the railway station end, with number 1 where TJ Hughes stands today.

In 1905, Hermitage was at the present 116 Terminus Road, now Superdrug, close to WHSmith.

This shop, originally grander and wider like a miniature Crystal Palace, is described on the plans of 1883 as ‘The Winter Garden’.

In 2015 I visited the museum at Brive-la-Gaillarde, where the Eastbourne piano has pride of place in the entrance.

From time to time it goes on tour for recitals of Debussy’s music.

The above was submitted by Michael Ockenden of Eastbourne Local History Society from an article in the Eastbourne Local Historian.

For details of the ELHS contact Diana Guthrie at dhguthrie@btinternet.com or telephone Eastbourne 419181.

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