Last updated on February 13th, 2021

Claude Debussy and the Salon de la Rose + Croix

By Tracy R. Twyman

The renowned composer Claude Debussy was Grand Master of the Priory of Sion during the years of the Berenger Sauniere saga. From humble beginnings, Debussy nonetheless achieved fame, like many Priory Grand Masters, at an early age, and was performing for the mistress of the President of France by the time he was a teenager. He had already established contact with the President himself, as well as a number of other powerful people and well-known socialites. At age eighteen, a female aristocrat from Russia who had also patronized Tchaikovsky decided to adopt him, and took him on tours throughout Italy, Russia and Switzerland. He won a very esteemed music award in 1884, and then continued his travels throughout the continent. During this time, he established an inner circle consisting of men and women from noble families whose names he went to great lengths to keep secret.

However, a greater turning point in his life was meeting Victor Hugo, to whom he was introduced by the poet Paul Verlaine, and he shortly afterwards put to music a number of Hugo’s best works. At this time, Debussy also fell in with a group of symbolists, then one of the dominant art movements in Paris. Among this circle: Berenger Sauniere’s mistress and dedicated occultist, opera singer Emma Calve; Emile Hoffet, the cleric from Saint Sulpice who deciphered Sauniere’s parchments, and who introduced Sauniere to Debussy; poet Stephane Mallarmé, who wrote the poem upon which Debussy based one of his most famous works, L’Aprês-Midi d’un Faune (The Afternoon of a Faun); Maurice Maeterlinck, who wrote a “Merovingian” play called Pelle et Mélisande, which Debussy transformed into a hugely successful opera; and Comté Philippe Auguste Villiera de l’Isle-Adam, who wrote Axël, a play of “Rosicrucian” content that was warmly embraced by the symbolists and which, originally, Debussy had planned to turn into an opera as well. Also included: famous writers Oscar Wilde, Stefan George, Paul Valéry, André Gide, Marcel Proust and W.B. Yeats; the founder of the Cabalistic Order of the Rose-Croix, who was also friends with Emma Calve; Satanist Jules Bois, again friends with Emma Calve, who helped S.L. MacGregor Mathers establish the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and the famous mystic Papus, spiritual advisor to Nicolas and Alexandra of Russia.

Papus was also involved with Jules Doinel, a librarian at Carcassonne who started a “neo-Cathar” church that included both he and Papus as bishops, and which was situated in the Languedoc. He declared himself to be “Gnostic bishop of Mirepoix and Alet”, counting both the parishes of Montsegur and Rennes-le-Chateau among his domains. The church was consecrated at the home of Lord James Sinclair’s wife. Their “neo-Cathar” movement raised alarm at the Vatican, and the Papacy even issued an official condemnation of the church for promulgating “the ancient Albigensian heresy.” Doinel was well-acquainted with Emma Calve, as well as the curé of Rennes-le-Bains, Abbé Henri Boudet. He was also a frequent visitor to the region of Rennes-le-Chateau, so he may indeed have known Berenger Sauniere.

Debussy had a friend in Josephin Péladan, as associate of Papus and Emma Calve who, towards the close of the 19th century, proclaimed that he had discovered the true tomb of Christ while visiting the Holy Land. The location he gave was not the Holy Sepulcher, which is the traditionally acknowledged site, but underneath the foundations of the Mosque of Omar, which had at one point been under the control of the Knights Templar. Of Péladan’s discovery, one of his disciples wrote that it was, “so astonishing that in any other era it would have shaken the Catholic world to its foundations”, indicating that something about the tomb itself revealed some earth-shattering secret. Perhaps it provided the basis for Péladan’s insistence that Jesus had been a man, not divine.

Péladan founded his own Hermetic order in 1890, which he called “The Order of the Catholic Rose-Croix, the Temple, and the Grail.” He also decided to embark upon a career as an artist, playwright, and composer. He summed up his artistic approach as that of “a knight in armor, eagerly engaged in the symbolic quest for the Holy Grail.” The theater company which he created specialized in particularly Arcadian themes, including, as Holy Blood, Holy Grail states, “Orpheus, the Argonauts, and the Quest for the Golden Fleece, the Mystery of the Rose-Croix, and the Mystery of the Grail.” Claude Debussy was one of the company’s chief patrons. Péladan also initiated a series of annual art exhibitions titled “Salon de la Rose + Croix.” His mission with these salons was, “to ruin realism, to reform Latin taste, and create a school of idealist art.” Certain styles and themes were explicitly disallowed at these salons, including, “all landscapes except those composed in the manner of Poussin.”

Finally, another friend of both Péladan and Debussy was Maurice Barrés, who had once belonged to a Rosicrucian order with Victor Hugo. Barrés’ most successful novel was La Colline Inspirée (The Inspired Mount), which, it has been theorized, is partially allegorical of the story of Berenger Sauniere. Interestingly, though, the actual location in which the story takes place is the village of Sion in Lorraine.