Roger Nichols

Writer and au­thor

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

‘Writ­ing my ar­ti­cle on De­bussy’s re­cep­tion in the UK took me back to Sun­days in Paris in the early 1980s, when was I one of the Bri­tish mu­si­cians who would play the pi­ano for De­bussy’s step­daugh­ter Dolly.’

On 18 De­cem­ber 1908 an au­di­ence gath­ered at the Cer­cle mu­si­cal de Paris for a recital of pi­ano mu­sic, in­clud­ing a new piece by a well-known French com­poser. Some of them may have in­vested in a copy of it, pub­lished a cou­ple of months ear­lier, but those who hadn’t might have been sur­prised to see that not only was the over­all ti­tle in English, but so were those of the six sep­a­rate move­ments. And as if this wasn’t enough of an in­va­sion of French ter­ri­tory, the pi­anist, Harold Bauer by name, was, for all his lessons with Paderewski, a Brit, born in Lon­don. Did pa­tri­otic mu­sic lovers look round the hall try­ing to spot the 46-year-old com­poser and maybe send him a glare or two? If so, in vain. Through­out the per­for­mance he stayed in the cor­ri­dor, pac­ing about in ob­vi­ous anx­i­ety.

Such was the con­text of the first per­for­mance of De­bussy’s Chil­dren’s Cor­ner. But why the anx­i­ety? Be­cause in the last piece, ‘Gol­li­wog’s Cake-walk’, he had in­tro­duced the open­ing cello phrase of Wag­ner’s Tris­tan und Isolde, the ul­ti­mate in se­ri­ous­ness by that mas­ter whose rep­u­ta­tion in France, if no longer para­mount, was still some­thing to be con­sid­ered. Hap­pily for De­bussy, if not for Wag­ner, the thought of a Gol­li­wog drink­ing the magic Love Po­tion did not cause a riot: things went well and the com­poser was happy. But why all the English?

The im­me­di­ate rea­son was that De­bussy had ded­i­cated the suite to his three-year-old daugh­ter

‘‘ Through­out the per­for­mance De­bussy stayed in the cor­ri­dor, pac­ing about in ob­vi­ous anx­i­ety ’’

Claude-emma, known as Chou­chou, and, fol­low­ing the habit of many bour­geois French fam­i­lies, her par­ents had looked to Bri­tain for her nurse and then for her gov­erness. Both garçon­nets and fil­lettes were thought to ben­e­fit from a strict­ness that French par­ents them­selves were more re­luc­tant to ap­ply, and we find De­bussy in 1905 in the Grand Ho­tel, East­bourne com­ment­ing on ‘the well-groomed lawn’ sport­ing ‘lit­tle chips off im­por­tant, im­pe­ri­al­ist blocks’. Later, in 1913, in the de­light­ful lit­tle chil­dren’s bal­let La boîte à jou­joux there’s a slightly var­ied quo­ta­tion (Tempo di Polka) from the count­ing song ‘One, two, three, four, five, / Once I caught a fish alive.’ But in gen­eral the inf lu­ence of Bri­tain on De­bussy has per­haps not been as widely recog­nised as it might be.

The Paris that De­bussy grew up in dur­ing the 1860s and ’70s was not no­tably in­ter­ested in what was hap­pen­ing over the Chan­nel, and cer­tainly not on the artis­tic front. With enough writ­ers, painters and mu­si­cians of their own, they felt no obli­ga­tion to show much in­ter­est in what was go­ing on abroad, and it is tes­ti­mony to Wag­ner’s ge­nius that he should have so pro­foundly in­flu­enced French cul­ture. Other­wise Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture and mu­sic was much ad­mired, but lit­tle from Spain, Italy, the Baltic states… or Bri­tain. At the same time we per­haps need re­mind­ing, in view of De­bussy’s rep­u­ta­tion as an out­sider, that his stud­ies at the Paris Con­ser­va­toire from 1872 un­til 1884 made him one of the most mu­si­cally ed­u­cated com­posers of all time. This needs to be set against his re­ply to one of the pro­fes­sors who asked him, ‘Mon­sieur De­bussy, what rules do you fol­low?’ His an­swer, ‘Mon plaisir’, is not easy to trans­late in two words, but means some­thing on the lines of ‘just what I hap­pened to be feel­ing like at the time’. One sus­pects it did not go down well; but it was a ‘plaisir’ well nour­ished by knowl­edge of the mu­si­cal past.

His first known con­tact with Bri­tish cul­ture came in the 1880s in the form of a trans­la­tion of Ros­setti’s The Blessed Damozel, at a time when Art Nou­veau artists in France were be­com­ing in­ter­ested in English po­etry and in the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of pre-raphaelite artists such as Burne-jones and Wal­ter Crane. De­bussy fin­ished his set­ting of Ros­setti’s poem at the end of 1888 and it chimes well with a con­tem­po­rary de­scrip­tion of the poem as evinc­ing ‘an exquisitely white in­spi­ra­tion, a di­aphanous and ide­alised at­mos­phere in which vi­sions that are lin­ear and f loat­ing, al­most with­out sub­stance, move within a lu­mi­nous mu­sic’. The of­fi­cial ver­dict on his set­ting re­gret­ted its ‘vague

ten­den­cies that rebel against clear form’, but had the grace to ad­mit that the sub­ject mat­ter was to some ex­tent re­spon­si­ble. To­day we can hear that, de­spite its echoes of Par­si­fal (which De­bussy had heard at Bayreuth the pre­vi­ous sum­mer), this con­sti­tuted a new mu­si­cal voice: el­e­gant, ethe­real, and to­tally lack­ing in what the French call ‘em­phase’ (brow­beat­ing in­sis­tence).

Although there were plans to visit Lon­don in 1890 and the US in 1892, De­bussy’s con­tact with An­glo­phone cul­ture from 1895 came through an Ir­ish-amer­i­can bar in Paris, Reynold’s, fre­quented by Toulouse-lautrec. Here De­bussy could ap­plaud a lady who did im­per­son­ations of Queen Vic­to­ria, an Ir­ish singer whose favourite ditty was Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow and two clowns, Footitt and Choco­lat: an English ex­ile and a black Spa­niard much drawn by Lautrec and with whom De­bussy en­joyed long dis­cus­sions about their art. The mu­sic-hall de­lighted him all his life, as we can tell from ‘Min­strels’ and ‘Général Lavine ec­cen­tric’, which de­picts a tramp who played the pi­ano with his toes.

De­bussy made eight vis­its to Eng­land (that is, Lon­don) be­tween 1902 and 1914, but with­out learn­ing much in the way of English: his step­daugh­ter Dolly Bar­dac (she of the Dolly Suite) told me that if he found what looked like an in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cle in an English news­pa­per, he would ask her to trans­late it for him. He made the 1902 visit a cou­ple of months after the Paris pre­miere of his opera Pel­léas et Mélisande. Unim­pressed by the Thames (‘twice as big as the Seine and three times as dirty’), he was bowled over by John­ston Forbes-robert­son as Ham­let at the Lyric The­atre. Mary Gar­den, his first Mélisande, was in Lon­don and went with him. ‘I knew De­bussy was mad about Shakespeare,’ she wrote in her mem­oirs, ‘but I had no sus­pi­cion how far his mad­ness went. I sat next to him at that per­for­mance, and he seemed like a child in a trance. So pro­foundly was he af­fected that it was some time be­fore he could speak.’

His next visit the fol­low­ing year was on business, to write a re­view for a Paris jour­nal of The Ring at Covent Gar­den, con­ducted by Hans Richter. After com­ment­ing with what se­ri­ous in­tent the na­tives seem to ne­go­ti­ate Lon­don’s streets, with none of that aim­less leisure that dis­tin­guishes the Parisian flâneur, he had noth­ing but praise for Richter’s con­duct­ing, and noted with sur­prise that the au­di­ence lights were ex­tin­guished (which didn’t hap­pen at the Paris Opéra for another decade). It was only his naughty side that pro­voked him to ob­serve that there­fore ‘it’s pos­si­ble for them to sleep undis­turbed’. As a re­ward for good be­hav­iour through the whole of The Ring, he then treated him­self to an evening at the Em­pire mu­sic-hall.

Look­ing back, we can now see that Pel­léas was a kind of water­shed be­tween the bo­hemian of the 1890s and the mas­ter of his fi­nal decade and a half – in­deed his friend Erik Satie said that, to re­ally un­der­stand De­bussy, you had to have known him be­fore Pel­léas brought dis­tinc­tion and sta­tus. But in Pel­léas too, Bri­tain played an im­por­tant part in the first two singers in the role of Mélisande. Mary Gar­den, a Scot, may have been helped by her nationality in in­car­nat­ing the princesse loin­taine of Maeter­linck’s drama, even if her French pro­nun­ci­a­tion at times caused prob­lems and even hi­lar­ity: one out­burst of this was trig­gered by her line ‘Je n’ai pas de courage’ and her pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the last word as ‘curages’, which is the muck that gets stuck in drains. But De­bussy loved her per­for­mance, so that when he learnt she was to be fol­lowed by Mag­gie Teyte, he ex­claimed joy­fully ‘En­core une Ecos­saise!’, even though this wasn’t true. Teyte in fact hailed from the Mid­lands and was once heard to re­fer to her birth­place ex­plo­sively with ‘Good God, why Wolver­hamp­ton?’. The French so­pra­nos who suc­ceeded these two failed to ex­cite the com­poser to the same ex­tent.

De­bussy once said he learnt more from writ­ers and painters than from other mu­si­cians, and he was a great reader. His min­i­mal English meant that he had to read our au­thors in trans­la­tion, but it didn’t hold him back : as well as Shakespeare, the list in­cluded Ch­ester­ton ( The Napoleon of Not­ting Hill – full of ‘charm­ingly imag­i­na­tive things’); Con­rad ( The Se­cret Agent – ‘de­scribed in the most calm, de­tached man­ner, and it’s only after ref lec­tion that you say to your­self

De­bussy’s min­i­mal English meant that he had to read our au­thors in trans­la­tion

“But all these peo­ple are mon­sters!”’); Ki­pling, whose por­trait hung in De­bussy’s study; and Swin­burne ( Songs be­fore Sun­rise – ‘the crazi­ness of the images goes to his head, to the point of mak­ing him for­get what he’s talk­ing about’).

As Gar­den says, how­ever, Shakespeare out­shone them all. We have ‘Puck’ in the first book of Préludes and the in­ci­den­tal mu­sic for King Lear. But among the 20th cen­tury’s most re­gret­ted ‘ones that got away’ is a three-act opera on As You Like It which he had in mind al­most all his life, and of which the li­bretto sur­vives.

‘I’m ex­tremely en­thu­si­as­tic’, he wrote, ‘about the ex­clam­a­tory cho­rus dur­ing the wrestling match. As for the young ladies, they would be to­tally silent as a sign of emo­tion, and Oliver would say a few words, in his iron­i­cal fash­ion.’ But alas…

The first English men­tion in print of De­bussy’s mu­sic comes in The Mu­si­cal Times of Fe­bru­ary 1901, while the first recorded per­for­mance of his mu­sic in Bri­tain took place on 20 Au­gust 1904: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, con­ducted by Henry Wood at a Prom­e­nade Con­cert. Any puz­zle­ment over the work’s lan­guage may have been com­pounded by the trans­la­tion of the ti­tle in the pro­gramme as ‘The Af­ter­noon of a Young Gazelle’. Things re­ally be­gan to warm up in 1907 with the foun­da­tion of La So­ciété des Con­certs Français, op­er­at­ing in the prov­inces as well as Lon­don, and with a no­tice of De­bussy’s String Quar­tet in The Satur­day Re­view by Arthur Sy­mons of un­usual per­spi­cac­ity. ‘Through this play­ing,’ he wrote, ‘I was able to en­ter into the some­what dark and se­cret shad­ows of this wood. Here, if any­where, is a new kind of mu­sic, not merely showy nor wil­fully ec­cen­tric … but filled with an in­stinc­tive qual­ity of beauty, which can pass from mood to mood, sur­prise us, lead us astray, but end by lead­ing us to the en­chant­ment in the heart of what I have called the wood.’

This tal­lied with the gen­eral Bri­tish de­scrip­tion of De­bussy’s mu­sic, not as ‘im­pres­sion­ist’ with its over­tones of su­per­fi­cial charm, but as ‘at­mo­spheric’, which al­lowed for some idea of un­der­ly­ing dark­ness and depth – of the wood.

The three high points of De­bussy’s later vis­its to Bri­tain came in 1908 and 1909. In 1908, in­vited by Henry Wood, he con­ducted L’après­midi and La mer. He was warmly wel­comed by the Lon­don au­di­ence, even if the critic of The Times missed ‘all idea of def­i­nite con­struc­tion or log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment’. Wood brought him back the next year, and in Fe­bru­ary De­bussy con­ducted the Noc­turnes ; get­ting lost in ‘Fêtes’ he tried to stop the orches­tra, but they had been well re­hearsed by Wood, liked the mu­sic and had no in­ten­tion of stop­ping. The third high point was the Bri­tish pre­miere of Pel­léas at Covent Gar­den on 21 May 1909. Some of the Bri­tish press warned it would take time for au­di­ences here to get used to its lack of arias, but full marks to the critic of The Monthly Mu­si­cal Record who wrote that ‘the drama is the chief thing, and at­ten­tion is never drawn away from it... It is a strong, won­der­ful work.’ De­bussy was happy with the orches­tra, less so with the French Mélisande, and still less with the pro­ducer, of whom he raged ‘I have rarely had a stronger de­sire to kill any­body.’

So even if the Bri­tish lion didn’t im­me­di­ately greet De­bussy’s mu­sic by rolling over and wav­ing its legs in the air, its roars were at worst muted and ques­tion­ing, at best warm and wel­com­ing. And a grate­ful nod does not go amiss to Henry Wood ‘to whose broad-minded op­ti­mism,’ wrote one critic, ‘Bri­tish ap­pre­ci­a­tion of all that is most pro­gres­sive in mu­si­cal art is so greatly in­debted.’

English af­fair:

De­bussy at the Grand Ho­tel in East­bourne c1904; (left) his daugh­ter Chou­chou and her nanny

Ivy league:

Mary Gar­den in the role of Mélisande, c1908

Wood sup­port: Sir Henry in­vited De­bussy to Lon­don

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.