Produced and Directed by
Matthew Brown and Th. Emil Homerin
Technical design by Christopher Winders
Musical direction by Dariusz Terefenko
“Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more gruesome word.”
Officer, German Army 1916
This famous battle occurred a century ago in the poppy fields of Northern France. It was intended to break the gridlock of the first years of WWI. But the battle turned into a bloodbath. Claude Debussy responded by writing some of his most poignant music. Pairing this music with relevant images and texts, allows us to see how people and landscapes were scarred at the Somme and how those scars continue to disfigure us today.
When Germany declared war in August, its goal was to sweep through Belgium and northern France. But Belgium offered stiffer resistance than expected. Many historic buildings were destroyed. Stories of alleged German atrocity flooded Allied press. The German advance was finally halted at the Marne.
The two sides hunkered down in trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland. Frontal assaults were inevitable but futile. Conditions went from bad to worse … outbreaks of trench foot, infestations of rats, and the use of poison gas, flame-throwers, machine guns, tanks, and other weapons of terror.
The war had a chilling effect on Claude Debussy. Born in 1862, Debussy was France’s pre-eminent composer. But he had suffered from cancer since 1909. He also had childhood memories of the Siege of Paris (1870). And he had concerns about friends and family who served. “My life is one of intensity and disquiet. I’m nothing more than a wretched atom hurled around by this terrible cataclysm, and what I’m doing seems to me so miserably petty!” Debussy worked for aid agency for musicians and wrote Page d’album for the relief organization “Le Vêtement du Bless.” He also composed Berceuse héroïque to honor Belgium’s King Albert and his country’s sacrifices.
In March 1915, the war hit him personally: Lieutenant Jacques Charlot was killed in action. Debussy later dedicated the second movement of En blanc et noir to the memory of the young composer. Debussy’s mother died a few weeks later: “My poor mother is dead... Her passing, though long, was apparently without suffering... who can be sure what happens to us in the final moments?
Debussy found some peace in the summer during his stay at the seaside town of Pourville. In just three months, from July to October, he completed some of his most poignant music: En blanc et noir for two pianos, twelve Études for piano, a sonata for cello and piano, and a sonata for flute, viola, and harp.
Debussy’s life took another downturn at year’s end. In December he underwent further cancer surgery. The operation failed and he was left in constant pain. While convalescing, Debussy wrote two more pieces: a Christmas carol Noël des enfants and Élégie for Pages inédites sur la femme et la guerre.
I9I6 the Somme
In December 1915, Allied commanders planned to break the gridlock. They would begin on 1 July in Northern France at the Somme. Allied artillery would shell German defenses, Allied infantry would then advance across no-man’s-land, and Allied cavalry would rupture enemy lines. The British were so confident they filmed the battle.
But it turned into a bloodbath. British losses on the first day were catastrophic: 19, 240 dead and 39, 230 wounded. Nevertheless, the Allies eventually claimed victory. Mission accomplished! The film was a smash hit. Some, however, raised doubts about the success. The Allies gained little ground. Over 1,000, 000 soldiers were killed or wounded: 200,000 French, 465,000 German, and 420,000 British.
Debussy watched events unfold in a state of horror. He saw troops going to and from the front. He saw countless wounded soldiers – some were blind and some were terribly disfigured. He watched funeral processions. He experienced bombing raids by German airships. And he encountered numerous funeral processions. He despaired: “The war continues… but it is impossible to see why. When we will stop entrusting the destiny of nations to people who see humanity as a way of furthering their careers? When will hate be exhausted?”
To show “what an invalid can write in time of war,” Debussy completed his Violin Sonata in the spring of 1917. He performed the work with violinst Gaston Poulet in May, to aid blind soldiers, and again in September to support victims of the Somme.
Debussy died at home eight months before the Allied victory. The Germans were shelling Paris in their last spring offensive. Debussy’s life and works were memorialized by artists working in many media. Those who perished at the Somme were honored at Thiepval and other battleground monuments.
But Debussy never lost faith that scars can eventually heal. “I’ve at last finished the sonata for violin and piano… By one of those very human contradictions it’s full of happiness and uproar.”
- Opening Credits
- Debussy, Khamma, Prelude.
- Debussy, Berceuse héroïque.
- Debussy, La chute de la maison Usher.
- Debussy, Cello Sonata.
- Debussy, Elegie.
- Debussy, En blanc et noir, mvt. 2.
- Debussy, Violin Sonata, mvt. 1.
- Stravinsky, Fragments des Symphonies pour instruments.
- Debussy, Violin Sonata, mvt. 3.
- Exit Credits
- Debussy, Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon.
Griffin Campbell, alto saxophone
Elinor Freer, piano
Albert Kim, piano
Dariusz Terefenko, keyboards
James Thompson, trumpet
James VanDemark double bass
David Ying, cello
Christopher Winders, tech design
Th. Emil Homerin, producer
Matthew Brown, director