Looking down the barrel: An Irishman’s Diary about Claude Debussy

While the performers head for the wings with no intention of staying there, I think: ‘Here we go. Offenbach again’

Claude Debussy’s departure from this world coincided with the onslaught of what became known as the Paris Gun. Photograph: Getty Images

More than most people, the composer Claude Debussy, who died 100 years ago this week, could be said to have gone out with a bang. A whole series of bangs, in fact. This was nothing to do with the manner of his passing. He had succumbed quietly to cancer, a decade after he was first diagnosed.

But his departure from this world coincided with the onslaught of what became known as the Paris Gun: a long-range cannon that was part of Germany’s last big effort to win the first World War.

From the morning of March 21st, 1918, the French capital was hit periodically by explosions. At first, nobody knew where they were coming from, because there was no sound of aircraft and no artillery visible anywhere. A Zeppelin flying at high altitude was one early guess.

It quickly dawned, however, that the explosions were from shells, and that the gun was behind German lines, far to the northeast. It proved to be all of 120km away. And that it could hit Paris from there was yet another war-time breakthrough in the science of killing.


The shells were the first man-made objects ever to reach the Earth’s stratosphere, climbing to 40km before they began their descent. Such was their journey that the Germans had to include the “Coriolus effect” – from the rotation of the Earth – in calculations of where the projectiles would drop.

Even doing that, the most they could be sure of was hitting Paris in general. It was a matter of chance whether the shells fell on the Panthéon – home to the illustrious already-dead – or Pigalle. But it was as much a psychological weapon as anything else. And at least one of the 300-odd shells it fired proved deadly.

In his 1940 satire, The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin has the Tomanians aiming a Paris Gun-type cannon at Notre Dame cathedral, and missing slightly. But the real thing did hit a church, on March 29th – Good Friday – while a service was in progress. The roof collapsed, killing 88.

Debussy’s funeral

That was also the day, elsewhere in the city, of Debussy’s funeral. He had died on March 26th.

And his obsequies were not affected directly by explosions, but they were a much quieter affair than they would otherwise have been: the cortège passing through empty streets to Père Lachaise cemetery for a burial devoid of pomp.

On the other hand, the arrangement did allow Debussy that great classical music tradition – an encore – even in death. No, it wasn’t via posthumous promotion to the Panthéon. Barring which, Père Lachaise might be considered Paris’s next most prestigious resting place.

But the composer had asked to be buried in the smaller Passy Cemetery, on the opposite side of the city. So a year later, with the guns silent, he made another journey across the stage of central Paris, for a final bow.

Offenbach’s Galop

Whenever I think of classical music encores, by the way, I think of a different Parisian composer: German-born and of slightly earlier vintage, Jacques Offenbach.

This is not because I’ve been to many concerts of Offenbach’s work. Alas, it’s for no better reason than a bad pun.

On those occasions I’m exposed to over-protracted curtain calls, my hands already sore from polite clapping, while the performers head for the wings one more time with no intention of staying there, I always think: “Here we go. Offenbach again.”

Of course, Offenbach himself was enormously popular with audiences. Less so with some critics. His comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), for example, was such an outrageous send-up of classic opera that one gatekeeper of the tradition called it the "profanation of holy and glorious antiquity".

Particularly shocking was a dance, Galop Infernal (“Infernal Gallop”), the music for which is now better known as the “Can-Can”.

But critics did not put a stop to Offenbach’s Galop. Nor did anything until the Franco-Prussian war, which rendered him temporarily unfashionable. In the spirit of his surname then, he had to move to England for a while before a triumphant comeback to Paris.

Among his memorials in that city, as I didn't realise until reading an essay about him in a recent New York Review of Books, is a now very well-known theatre. It was named after one of his 1850s shows, set in China.

The title of that work sounded comically Chinese once. Then came November 2015, during another war on Paris, after which the Offenbach farce, Ba-ta-clan, would never sound the same again.