Debussy tribute to coal merchant to make U.S. performance debut today

— A year before he died in 1918, French composer Claude Debussy wrote a piece for his coal merchant, who in exchange kept him well-supplied in the freezing winter months during World War I.

Debussy wrote the merchant a grateful letter.

"You can understand I can't keep writing you piano pieces, but we desperately need this coal,"' he wrote.

The unpublished work remained undiscovered until it surfaced in 2001 in Paris, where it had been stored by the coal merchant's family in a trunk for nearly 85 years.

The piece, "Les soirs illumines par l'ardeur du charbon" ("Evenings Lit by Glowing Coal"), has made its way to a college in North Carolina, where it will make its U.S. performance debut today.

The occasion is a tribute to Daniel Ericourt, a master performer of Debussy's works who taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for 13 years.

Ericourt died in 1998 at the age of 94.

The tribute marks the centennial of the birth of Ericourt, who as a teenager performed on a program with Debussy and turned pages for him at a concert.

"I think it's very special, and it also would have been special to my husband to hear something that he had never heard before," his widow, Jayne Ericourt, 68, said in a telephone interview.

Charles Timbrell, a Howard University music professor who specializes in French piano works, will play the Debussy piece, which already has been performed in France, England and Sweden.

"I've played a lot of premieres of American composers who are living," he said. "It's very rare that something like this turns up."

The three-minute piece quotes an earlier composition, "Sounds and Smells Mingle in the Evening Air" at the beginning and end, Timbrell said.

"And in the middle is a kind of nostalgic kind of cafe tune with really very striking harmonies," he said. "In a way, it's a kind of summing up of Debussy's late style. And it is his last piece for piano unless somebody finds another one."

Debussy, who lived from 1862 to 1918, wrote such masterpieces as "Clare de Lune" and "Afternoon of the Faun." He composed "Evenings Lit by Glowing Coal" in 1917. It's not clear whether Debussy also paid the merchant in cash or if the composition was the only payment.

After its discovery, the work was sold at auction to a man living in Paris, Timbrell said.

Howat said Debussy's letter to the merchant also was found in the trunk. "I think they were short of money, and they were relying on this man's mercy," Howat said.

Debussy was known to have bartered musical compositions for necessities early in his career because he was impoverished, said Arbie Orenstein, a French music expert at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York.

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