Dreaming of Debussy and Chouchou

Confronting a Father–Daughter Relationship

Claude Debussy at the piano in 1893, via Wikimedia Commons.
When I first learned about the composer Claude Debussy—the arabesque motif intertwining throughout his piano music, the inspiration that Verlaine’s poem on still moonlight provided for Clair de Lune, and Debussy’s perplexing dismissal of Beethoven as le vieux sourd, the old deaf one—these intriguing facts paled for me next to the composer’s relationship with his daughter, Chouchou. I could not stop looking at an early 20th-century photo of Debussy and 11-year-old Chouchou picnicking in the woods near Paris. Seated on the ground next to an opened picnic basket, the pair radiated a comfortable intimacy, an intimacy made all the more poignant by her untimely death. In the story of Debussy and Chouchou’s relationship, I saw parallels—and crazy, veering departures—in my relationship with my father.

In 1904, almost exactly a century after Beethoven composed his cohesive and triumphant Fifth Symphony, Debussy’s first marriage disintegrated when his first wife, Lilly Texier, put a gun to her breast and pulled the trigger. The catalyst for her attempted suicide was Claude’s affair with a woman named Emma Bardac, an accomplished singer whom he planned to marry. During four years of marriage to Claude, Lilly had exerted considerable energy protecting and enabling his composing. Lilly lived, but many of Debussy’s friends disavowed him. A year later, in 1905, Emma gave birth to a baby girl, whom the couple named Claude-Emma, joining their Christian names. Yet the baby’s nickname of Chouchou—un chou à la crème, a filled, puff pastry, representing a person of unmatched love—stuck.


Emma Bardac, via Wikimedia Commons.

During my childhood, Dad called me Pumpkin. French and American linguists alike puzzle over how the image of a fleshy, large gourd with bright orange skin is endearing. Yet I am struck by the memory of interrupting my father in his weekend chore of mowing the backyard’s patch of grass, sweat streaming down his face, his opened beer can perched on the concrete brick wall. He quickly flipped off the motor, his hazel eyes lighting up as he bent down. “Yes, pumpkin?” he asked. Much later, given his reaction to the piano, the memory of his warmth would flummox me.

Yet in fact, during my elementary school years, Dad lavished attention on my three younger sisters and me: family board games of Memory and Monopoly, quiz show games on the world’s longest river and highest mountain. A university professor, he had an impossibly large vocabulary. He routinely used words such as gratuitous and perspicacious.

“That is so cute!” my sisters and I cooed at the tiny thimble, a Monopoly game piece.

“Cute,” Dad said, shaking his head, “not a term I frequently use.”

Whether or not Debussy used the term mignonne, Chouchou was an adorable toddler, with her father’s almond-shaped eyes and dark tresses, so curly as to appear gnarled. Claude’s remaining friends were astonished by how much time he spent with Chouchou in the nursery. Debussy, flung out on the floor next to Chouchou, playing with one of her wooden dolls, speaking to his daughter in loving tones: already I find myself forgiving him for his terrible desertion of Lilly Texier.

My own father, I found more difficult to forgive. At age 11, I started piano lessons and immediately became transfixed. I cruised through beginner books, then played a Bach Gigue for my first recital. After I turned 13, my teacher assigned me Debussy’s Rêverie, a meditative piece with breaths full of tonal color. The melody pealed with high notes, while accompanying arpeggios billowed in the bass.

Debussy composed the Rêverie early in his career, well before his first marriage to Lilly Texier, when his finances were strained. Pursued by creditors, Debussy complained to a friend that “the various lessons I rely on for my daily bread have gone off to the seaside, without a thought for my domestic economy, and the whole thing is a good deal more melancholy than all the Ballades of Chopin.” So cute!—but not a term I frequently use. As an adult, it dawns on me how similar Debussy’s sense of humor—witty and sardonic—is to that of my father. Yet by the time I studied the Rêverie, Dad no longer treated me with the tender regard that Debussy maintained for Chouchou.

In the early days of my lessons, sometimes when I practiced, Dad stood next to the piano, holding in one hand his fifth beer of the night, the other arm gesticulating, his body swaying in exaggerated motions. My sisters watched on the couch, giggling uncontrollably. I felt bewildered that Dad was imitating my swaying in time to the music.

“Stop that!” Mom complained. My mother, who relaxed by playing Chopin preludes and waltzes on the piano, often praised me when I practiced. But her interference only sparked an argument between her and Dad, which escalated into one of their frequent screaming matches. I could barely admit to myself that my practicing had caused my parents to hurl curses at each other.

Inside the Rêverie’s dulcet, slightly dissonant harmonies, I allowed myself to contemplate that Dad could not stand my music.

My father’s initial distaste and low tolerance for my music ossified into a house rule: I was forbidden to practice when he was at home. One evening, as my recital date for the Rêverie approached, I wanted to memorize the music. I did not have much time, I knew. This very moment, Dad might be crawling in his Volkswagen Beetle towards home.

Inside the Rêverie’s dulcet, slightly dissonant harmonies, I allowed myself to contemplate that Dad could not stand my music. While my fingers rippled the Rêverie up and down the keyboard, my mind traveled to the factory town of Turtle Creek, up Beaver Street’s steep hill, a dirt road in 1950. On the cresting road stood my father, 16, thin-limbed, his short haircut unable to tame the curls on top. His father, my Grandpa, in the heat of an argument with Grandma, had pushed her several times. When Dad complained about Grandpa’s abuse, Grandpa, who had fought as a professional welterweight in his early 20s, challenged Dad to a fight. Dad held his hands in a makeshift stance in front of his face. Terror throbbed in his eyes. He and Grandpa danced, kicking up dust. Dad ducked, but when Grandpa rammed the ribbed skin above my father’s heart, then the vulnerable region of his gut, my father doubled over in pain. Neighbors cowered behind curtained windows.

Behind me, the door slammed. The glass windows on my grandparents’ bookcase next to the piano quivered. Startled, my arms convulsed. Dad charged through the hallway. Clang, my fingers pealed two octaves, a quick cry of resistance, in the Rêverie’s brief forte section. Dad slammed the fallboard. “Get off the goddamned piano!” he screamed.

I hung onto the piano for two more years, performing a thunderous and complex Rachmaninoff Prelude in recital during my sophomore year in high school. Then the summer before my 16th birthday, buckling under my father’s distaste for the music and my parents’ financial difficulties, I quit the piano. In the ensuing 25 irretrievable, wasted years, I hardly touched the piano save a few tentative tries. To return to the keyboard was to confront my troubled relationship with my father.


Portrait of Claude Debussy by Donald Sheridan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite his faults, I could not imagine Debussy screaming at Chouchou to get off the piano. Since Debussy composed so much piano music, Chouchou must have played the instrument, I reasoned, and surely she learned the Rêverie, with its changes in textures so useful to the budding pianist. I combed through biographies of Debussy for some mention that Chouchou showed an early proclivity for music, that she sang beautifully like her mother, or that Claude and Emma started her early on the piano. Yet I found only a single musical connection between father and daughter, Claude’s dedication to three-year-old Chouchou when he published Children’s Corner, a six-piece suite including Serenade of the Doll and Golligwog’s Cakewalk. He wrote: “To my dear little Chouchou, with fond apologies from her father for what follows.”

I found myself reading biographies of Debussy because, with a mixture of misgivings and determination, I had decided to relearn the Rêverie in my adult piano lessons. A few years before, in my early 40s, I had miraculously reclaimed the piano after my husband enrolled our preschooler son in piano lessons. Soon I was studying with my son’s teacher, practicing with the same absorption and joy as during my adolescence.

Yet sometimes I imagined I saw shadows flickering in the empty hallway. I trembled at the unrealistic possibility that Dad, who lived across the country, would charge down the hallway at me in a rage.

In a recurring dream, I sat down at a piano to play, my father looking on. The piano in the dream would change—the grand at Frank Lloyd Wright’s school at Taliesin, which my husband, children, and I visited with Dad one year over Christmas, or the black lacquered upright in my living room—yet the dream progressed the same way. I placed my fingers on the keys, played the first few measures of a classical prelude, then trailed off until I tried jumping into a later section of the music, but my fingers only managing a fragment, my panic building, all the while a flat disgust in Dad’s eyes intensifying, his certainty that I was nothing but dramatic on the piano ballooning until it filled the room. I awoke with a choking feeling in my throat.

Upset at how he haunted me, I called Dad. “You remember that I used to play the piano?”

“Of course!” His voice took on a reminiscing tone. “I remember your piano recitals well.”

“You didn’t seem to enjoy anything about the piano at the time.”

“Nancy, what are you saying? I enjoyed the recitals immensely.”

The conversation went on in the same vein, angry blood rushing in my temples, my terse accusations followed by Dad’s protestations, until he said, “Those were hard years. I certainly am sorry for the grief I caused you and your sisters.” I hung up, unsure how to handle his blanket apology.

Claude and Chouchou picnicking in the woods somewhere near Paris—I drank in the details of that photograph, Chouchou’s floppy white hat a nod to Debussy’s straw boater, the thin, widely spaced stripes on her dress echoing his seersucker suit. Despite their dressy clothing, father and daughter sat on the bare ground, both extending one leg forward, pushing their heels into the soft dirt strewn with pine needles. Chouchou was on the verge of adolescence, her thick hair still in large ringlets, yet her expression attentive and intelligent. I dug around in the biographies and calculated that at the time of the photograph, Chouchou was around 11, the age I started on the piano. Debussy’s callous treatment of Lilly Texier is one of many indicators that he, like my father, could be intensely selfish. Yet there in the park sat Chouchou and her father, still getting along on the eve of her adolescence, whereas at that age Dad had begun to ridicule me.

Why had Dad reacted with such furor to my playing? His drinking marring his judgment? The piano a symbol of my mother? His discomfort with my entering adolescence? The violence his own father heaped on him? These fragments of explanation merely circled what happened, but failed to provide a true explanation.

Chouchou never had a chance as an adult to evaluate her relationship with Debussy. At the time of the picnic with her father in the wooded park, Parisians already had suffered through two years of the Great War. In March of 1918, a few days after Germans began to bombard Paris, Debussy died of colorectal cancer. He left behind three unfinished sonatas. Despite his productive oeuvre of almost 150 published works of piano music, songs, and chamber music (although like his maligned Beethoven, only one opera, Pelléas et Mélisande), the fact of those incomplete sonatas weighed on me.

A year and some months later, Chouchou died of diphtheria, a painful coating of the throat that complicates breathing and swallowing. She was only three months shy of her 14th birthday. I speculated that Chouchou had succumbed not only to diphtheria, but also to grief. I told myself that the proximity of the father and daughter’s deaths, Chouchou perishing on the heels of Debussy, suggested their lives may have been too intertwined.

The notes struck and purified something inside my scarred soul.

Almost a hundred years after Chouchou’s death, I began my practices of Debussy’s Rêverie with the piece’s ending, not for technical reasons but because I couldn’t wait to hear the ending’s sonorities. Small chords floated upwards, becoming higher in pitch, more crystalline in tone, while underneath, single notes strode slowly but decisively down the keyboard, traversing the distance of a sixth, from A to G, a quick stride from F to E, a pause, then from D to middle C. Someone was leaving, at first with halting, then quickening steps. The notes struck and purified something inside my scarred soul.

I required almost a decade of piano lessons to forgive my father. My modulating, even blissful nightly practice sessions helped—during which I completed Debussy’s Rêverie, Chopin nocturnes and preludes, Beethoven bagatelles and sonata movements, a Schubert impromptu, and Debussy’s wistful Clair de Lune, to name a few—but so too did performing for others, giving to people what once had been taken from me.

I have performed in AIDS hospices, medical centers, retirement homes, churches, and to gatherings of people with hearing loss. During this time, Dad and I have fallen back into a relationship, chatting on the phone with increasing frequency, in between family visits. Yet Dad has not heard me play the piano, not since my teenaged recitals.

One night when I am preparing the Brahms Intermezzo in B Minor for a benefit concert, Dad calls. Impulsively, I offer to play the Brahms for him. I gently place the phone, now on speaker, on the piano. I play through the entire first page, cries in minor keys with hopeful thirds falling delicately down the keyboard, a switch to a tender, reminiscing waltz in major keys, a quick explosion of anguished octaves marching downwards, all the while my hands trembling and my throat constricted as though I am struggling with nervousness on stage. The final B-minor chord is rich, resigned, and lovely.

When I pick up the phone, the tips of my knuckles gleam white from clenching the handset. I am afraid that Dad will denigrate my music. I clear my throat. “That’s just the first half. But it gives you an idea of the piece.”

“I like the Brahms very much,” Dad says. My hand loosens on the phone from sheer relief.

Chouchou—a person of unmatched love. There’s no record in the biographies of whether Debussy and Chouchou’s relationship changed in the last two years of his life. The pain he experienced from his colorectal cancer—which his doctors initially mistakenly ascribed to hemorrhoids—perhaps made Claude withdrawn or irascible at times. Living in Paris during the Great War no doubt contributed to the family’s stress. Yet most likely Claude and Chouchou’s close relationship endured to his death. By all odds, laments the biographer Lederer, “Chouchou was Debussy’s great love.”

I am grateful that my father, who is now in his early 80s, and I have one luxury not available to Debussy and Chouchou: that of time. It’s taken us a while to arrive at this place of a loving relationship, yet I still cherish this endpoint. I see now that I rationalized Chouchou’s premature death as a symptom of an unhealthy closeness to her father, a calculation made out of jealousy and keen longing for a father who would love me as unreservedly as Debussy once loved Chouchou. And yet my father does love me, as best he can.

Excerpted from Nancy M. Williams’s memoir-in-progress.
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