Writer and author
‘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.’
Debussy at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne c1904; (left) his daughter Chouchou and her nanny
Mary Garden in the role of Mélisande, c1908
Wood support: Sir Henry invited Debussy to London