Friday, 17 January 2014

Debussy as Grand Master of the Priory of Sion

Readers of my blog will know that I have previously posted a few articles on the Priory of Sion. Today, on 17 January, it is appropriate to post another essay on the topic. This essay was written by Pieter Smal. 

1. Introduction
Many famous composers and personalities in the past were involved with secret societies. Both Mozart and Haydn were Freemasons along with famous contemporaries like Lessing, Voltaire and Goethe (Thomson 1976: 25). A private compilation of documents called Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau (“The Secret Dossiers of Henri Lobineau”) was deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris circa 1967. One of these documents cites Claude Debussy (1862–1918) as the twenty-fifth Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. (Baigent et al. 2001: 88, 121.) Although many scholars are reluctant to write about Debussy and the occult, Leon Guichard's book Debussy et les occultistes has sparked an academic interest in the topic (Goldman 1991: 130). The aim of this paper is to relate the life and music of Debussy to the occult, thereby creating a profile that could be associated with a secret society. Since Debussy's music is notably mystical and revolutionary (when compared to the music of his contemporaries) we should explore esoteric hints in the titles of his compositions.

2. The occult and the Priory of Sion
The Priory of Sion is said to be secret organisation founded by Godfroi de Bouillon in 1090, nine years before the conquest of Jerusalem. The aim of this society seems to be the restoration of the Merovingian bloodline and dynasty to the thrones in Europe. A document published in 1967 entitled Le serpent rouge (“The red serpent”) links the Priory (of Sion) with the Rosicrucian Order. In addition to the slogan Ormus the Priory adopted a second subtitle, Ordre de la Rose-Croix Veritas (“Order of the Rose-Cross Veritas”), in 1188. It is speculated that the Knights Templar was the military wing of the Priory. Famous grandmasters cited in Dossiers Secrets include Nicolas Flamel, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo and Jean Cocteau. (Baigent et al. 2001: 97, 111, 113, 122; Brouillard 2009: 1.)

Most individuals listed as Grand Masters of the Priory were associated with hermetic ideologies and the occult. Priory grandmaster Nicolas Flamel is perhaps the most famous medieval alchemist whilst Robert Fludd studied the Kabbalah and astrology. (Baigent et al. 2004: 123, 127; Yarker 2006: 201.) Hermeticism should not be confused with hermeneutics – the proposal and interpretation of theory (Beard and Gloag 2005: 77). Hermeticism is taken from Marsilio Ficino's Latin translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, the alleged teachings of the Egyptian god Thoth, also known as “Hermes Trismegistus”. The original document was assembled during the first few centuries after Christ and consists of various teachings surrounding astrology, alchemy, Pythagorean mathematics, Platonic philosophy, divination, necromancy and magic. Hermeticism is thus a collective term that refers to teachings surrounding the occult. (Levy 2010: 59; Thomas 1976: 267.)

3. Debussy's involvement in the occult
In 1892 Joseph Péladan opened a Parisian salon called Salon de la Rose+Croix (“Salon of the Rose+Cross”) (Hand 1984: 45). This salon became a fashionable place for luminaries who associated themselves with the Rosicrucian Order or the occult, including composers like Scriabin, Satie, Holst and Debussy. (Dalrymple Henderson 1987: 8.)

Debussy was an esoteric individual: both his music and private life are shrouded in secrecy. Many letters are either lost or remain unpublished in private collections. Frequently we find names omitted and whole sentences carefully excised. Perhaps these letters were written for the purpose of disinformation. Researchers know that lost letters and correspondences were sent to Serge Diaghilev, Vincent d'Indy, Paul Dukas, Manuel de Falla, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, Maurice Maeterlinck, Stéphane Mallarmé, Joseph Péladan, Igor Stravinsky and Paul Valéry. (Baigend et al. 2004: 469; Lockspeiser 1978a: 232–233; Greer 2013: 149.)

A report by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1887 first linked music to the term “impressionism”, making reference to Debussy's Primtemps. Biographers insist that this work was inspired by Botticelli's Primavera, which is significant since Botticelli was listed as a Priory Grand Master in Dossiers Secrets. (Jarocinski 1976: 11–12.) Besides impressionism, musicologists also regard Debussy as an important exponent of symbolism and orientalism in music. The 1889 and 1899 Paris World Fairs introduced Debussy to Japanese prints and Javenese gamelan music. Debussy recalled these exotic Eastern influences in his music, even naming one of his piano preludes Canope, referring to two Egyptian burial vases which he owned. (Kautsky 2012: 18.) We also find a Buddhist sanctuary in Pagodes from Estampes ("Woodprints").

It is no easy task to define what the symbolist movement is. Vyacheslav Ivanov summarises a description:
"In 1885 Jean Moreas in a reply[...] to P. Bourde, a collaborator of Le Temps, who had accused Verlaine, Mallarme, and their followers of 'decadence', called them instead 'symbolic' poets (symboliques) and in 1886 continued[...] to do battle for this definition[...] Mindful of the value of the word 'symbol' in the poetry of Baudelaire, he called 'symbolic' the art meeting the requirements formulated by Edgar Allan Poe and confirmed by Baudelaire: an art, that is, significant and 'complex', able to 'suggest' that which in itself purposely remains unexpressed or, at most, is faintly suggested; that is to say, an 'underground current of thought' and, as it were, an 'invisible' world behind the clearly expressed image." (Ivanov 1966: 24.)

We often find symbolism saturated with elements from ancient Egypt, Greece and India including medieval Christian and Kabbalah ideologies. Debussy ignored the typical messages and formulas of symbolism and approached his art through the avant-garde. He also saw music as the superior art because of its ambiguity: colour, words and precision are not of central importance. (Jarocinski 1976: 26, 59, 90.)

Debussy, like other Grand Masters of the Priory, was obsessed with hermeticism. In a famous letter to Ernest Chausson, Debussy wrote the following:
"Music really ought to have been a hermetical science, enshrined in texts so hard and laborious to decipher as to discourage the herd of people who treat it as casually as they do a handkerchief! I'd go further and, instead of spreading music among the populace, I propose the foundation of a 'Society of Musical Esotericism'." (Brown 1993: 141.)

Debussy included Pythagorean mathematics in his music when he used the golden ratio to divide his music into balanced proportions. Researchers found the golden ration in Debussy's compositions including Nuages (“Clouds”) from Nocturnes and Jeux de Vagues (“Play of the Waves”) from La Mer (“The Sea”) (Douglas 1950: 245). Studying Debussy, one discovers the paradoxical problem of Debussy's interest in Rosicrucianism, Satanism, Gnosticism and Eastern mysticism contrasting his interest in the Catholic Church. Debussy was especially interested in the revival plainsong in the church. Amongst the various incomplete and abandoned works were Debussy's plans to compose music for Les Noces de Sathan (“The Marriage of Satan”). Debussy also had plans for two operas: Axël (based on a Rosicrucian play by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam) and Siddharta (based on the life of Siddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism). (Dietschy 1994: 232; Goldman 1991: 131; Krüger et al. 2010: 107.)

Vladimir Jankélévitch claims that Debussy's music does not contain arcane formalism but the music is the mystery of existence. Steven Rings further comments, writing: “Chief among the Prélude's mysteries [refering to Des pas sur la neige (“Footsteps in the snow”)], I suggest, is the mystery of time, as refracted through consciousness, emotion and memory.” (Rings 2008: 179, 182.)

The concept of reflection is important in Hermetic philosophy: "As above, so below" (Levy 2010: 60). It is then no surprise that water features in the compositions of Debussy. La Mer ("The Sea") and Reflets dans l'eau ("Reflections in the water") are two prominent compositions that highlight water as the subject.

In 1976 Jaroncinski wrote that many letters and vocal works of Debussy were unstudied in private collections (Jarocinski 1976: 110). Baigent et al. (2004: 469) suggest that Debussy set some poems of Victor Hugo to music (linking Debussy with Hugo as the Priory's Grand Master before himself) but no such compositions could be found to date. Debussy did align himself with an important French contemporary: the symbolist poet Stéphané Mallarmé. On Tuesday evenings famous personalities came together for a tête-à-tête at the house of Mallarmé. At these intimate meetings (rarely more than 10 people) Debussy met poets and personalities including Edgar Degas, Lord Alfred Douglas, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Verlaine, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, and Oscar Wilde. (Jarocinski 1976: 89–90.)

Debussy's most famous collaboration with Mallarmé was his setting of the enigmatic poem
L'après-midi d'un faune (“The afternoon of a faun”). Debussy's setting of the poem “articulates a conflict between its seductive, seemingly immediate sonorous pleasure and the esoteric syntax that, in securing those pleasures, demands analytical scrutiny to be fully understood.” David Code suggests that Debussy interpreted the text by associating half-diminished sevenths to the esotericism in Mallarmé's poem. (Code 2001: 493, 508, 518.) Debussy intended to set the entire poem to music but he could only manifest his interpretation of Mallarmé as an orchestral prelude (Jarocinski 1976: 177).

Another famous symbolist work that Debussy set to music was Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Mélisande (1894). Richard Strauss attended a performance of the opera and described the music:
"There's not enough music in this work. Delicate harmonies, excellent orchestral effects in very good taste. But it amounts to nothing, nothing at all. You might as well be listening to the play of Maeterlinck as it was, without music." (Lockspeiser 1978b: 89.)

Most of the musicians who played at the première were hostile to the dreamy music during rehearsals but they were eventually convinced of Debussy's genius. Debussy frequently commented: “Piano, piano, less loud, I beg you”, emphasising the importance of tranquillity in the music. Despite the scandalous première, Jacques Rivière commented on the surreal qualities the music possessed:
"Perhaps one cannot image just what Pelléas meant to the young people who took it to their hearts at its first appearance, to those who were between sixteen and twenty. A marvellous world, a cherishable paradise where we could escape from our problems... It is quite literally what I say: Pelléas was for us a special forest and a special region and a terrace at the shore of a special sea. We escaped there, knowing the secret door, and the world no longer existed for us." (Dietschy 1994: 114, 121–122.)

When we paraphrase Rivière we can conclude that Debussy evoked an alternate universe where fantasy and grandeur manipulated the emotions of the listener.

4. Conclusion
Debussy was an influential figure, both within and outside of musical spheres. Some of his famous
acquaintances included aristocrats, bankers, publishers, theatrical managers, and various prestigious patrons. Through his connections, Debussy gained financial advantages, knowledge of the world and a taste for good living. (Jarocinski 1976: 80.) Through descriptive titles, Debussy evoked the mysteries of the East and the West in his compositions. The use of descriptive titles could also be seen as a remnant of the Romantic movement: the 19th century obsession with Memento mori and the cult of the dead remained a frequent subject in the music of Debussy.

Debussy's collaboration with Mallarmé and Maeterlinck tied him with the so-called "French occult revival" (Baigent et al. 2004: 470). Despite numerous acquaintances Debussy avoided public attention and kept to himself in privacy. If he had any part in the Priory of Sion or the Rosicrucian Order it was well concealed from public knowledge. Could the suppressed information in Debussy's letters be the key to his involvement with the Priory of Sion? His "innocent" (albeit veiled) compositions dabble with concepts that were unknown to the general public. Debussy's involvement in esoteric and hermetic thought through artistic interpretation qualifies him as a candidate for leadership in a secret organisation.

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Beard, D., Gloag, K. 2005. Musicology: The Key Concepts. Abington: Routledge.
Brown, M. 1993. Tonality and Form in Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Music Theory Spectrum, 15 (2): 127–143.
Brouillard, G. 2009. Discovering the Keystone: Solving the Riddle of The Red Serpent after 40 Years. Cape Town: Griffel.
Code, D.J. 2001. Music après Wagner in the Prélude l'après-midi d'un faune. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 54 (3): 493–554.
Dalrymple Henderson, L. 1987. Mysticism and Occultism in Modern Art. Art Journal, 46 (1): 5–8.
Dietschy, M. 1994 [1962]. A Portrait of Claude Debussy, translated from the French by W. Ashbrook, M.G. Cobb. New York: Oxford University Press.
Douglas, J.H. 1950. Golden-Mean Form in Music. Music & Letters, 31 (3): 238–248.
Goldman, D.P. 1991. Esotericism as a Determinant of Debussy's Harmonic Language. The Musical Quarterly, 75 (2): 130–147.
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Read also
The Priory of Sion is back 
1. The Manuscripts
2. Pierre Plantard


  1. Mostly made up from dubious sources.
    The "society" mentioned here is a complete fiction (look it up)
    The influence of eastern music and culture was fairly skin deep as was true of other French composers. The "eastern" music created by european composers had not much to do with
    any "real" music of that culture as it is doubtful that these composers ever heard any other than a few gamelons.

  2. The Prieuré de Sion (French: IPA/API:[pʁijœʁe də sjɔ̃]), translated as Priory of Sion, is a fringe fraternal organisation, founded and dissolved in France in 1956 by Pierre Plantard as part of a hoax.

    In the 1960s, Plantard created a fictitious history for that organization, describing it as a secret society founded by Godfrey of Bouillon on Mount Zion in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099, conflating it with a genuine historical monastic order, the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion. In Plantard's version, the Priory was devoted to installing a secret bloodline of the Merovingian dynasty on the thrones of France and the rest of Europe.[2]