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An Appreciation of Contemporary Music: Claude Debussy

From an interview secured expressly for THE ETUDE with the renowned French Composer CLAUDE DEBUSSY
By M. M.-D. CALVOCARESSI - the distinguished French critic
[Editor’s Note.—M. Debussy’s life has frequently been reviewed in The Etude in the past. The career of M. M.-D. Calvocaressi, who has secured this interesting interview for The Etude, is one of unusual interest. M. Calvocaressi was born in 1877 at Marseilles, France. His parents were both Greeks. At the age of nine he was taken to Paris where he received his education. For a time he was the pupil of the renowned French composer Xavier Leroux. Twelve years ago he entered the field of musical criticism. Astonishing linguistic skill enables him to write in several languages with great fluency. His interest in modern Russian music has done much to advance that art on the continent. Many important Russian musical works owe their French translations to M. Calvocaressi. He has likewise turned French works into German versions and English into French. In 1913 he delivered a course of lectures at Oxford University. He is now one of the two editors of the Revue Francaise de Musiquè.’]
There are, as regards music, two categories of opinions and of judgments—that of the layman and that of the expert. Without laying undue stress upon the distinction—for when it comes to the last it is instinct and sensitiveness that judge, sweeping away theories and systems—one may say that never were the judgments of trained, cultured, well-informed musicians more needed than at the present time. Events are proceeding at a tremendous pace; fast enough indeed to bewilder even the expert, while the average music lover finds it impossible to realize the trend of modern art. Hardly has one made up one’s mind as to the many questions called up by recent developments like that of the Russian school of the nineteenth century from Glinka to Rimsky-Korsakov, of the French “impressionists,” of Richard Strauss, than events, following one another with incredible rapidity, throw the student of music upon first one new track and then another.
The present situation of musical art is undoubtedly the most intricate that has ever existed. Arnold Schönberg has appeared.
In Austria and in Germany a whole school of young composers, intent upon ideals similar to those which he was the first to assert, have mustered around him, and exhibit convictions strong enough not to be overlooked. Throughout the musical world the very writers who would aver that his art is beneath contempt prove by the fury of their onslaughts that the impression created by his doings is greater than they care to acknowledge. In Russia, the Benjamin and enfant terrible of the national school, Igor Stravinsky, had hardly given the public time to recover from the effects of his score, L’Oiseau de feu, than he followed it up with the even more daring Petrushka, and a twelve-month later with the Sacre du Printemps, the Paris production of which occasioned the most prodigious effervescence remembered since the days of Tannhaüser or of the first performances of Debussy’s Pelleas et Mèlisande. Another Russian, Scriabine, intent upon associating modern experiments in musical substance and thoroughly unmodern symbolic or literary intentions—to say nothing of his having added a luminous keyboard to his orchestra and meditating, we are told, stranger additions, such as a “perfume organ”—sedulously weaves the intricate patterns of Promèthèe or of the Poéme de l’extase.
debussy.jpgIn France, Claude Debussy, but recently considered as a revolutionist and a curiosity, is already acknowledged as a classic. Unexpected fascinating things have occurred in Hungary with the advent of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. Great Britain is in a fever. In Spain many keen musicians are budding, and a great number of Italian composers—apart from the rather ludicrous “futurists”—have given up the time-worn tradition of opera, verismo or sentimental.
The greater number of those who speak or write on musical topics add to the confusion. Some confidently proclaim the decay of classical forms (which afford the most obvious and easiest, if not surest, standards), and others no less confidently predict an early reaction against the excesses of modernism.
What the future of music is to be, considering how bewildering the present is, has more than ever become an anxious question. The writer, therefore, considers it a singular piece of good fortune that during a recent conversation which he had the honor to hold with M. Claude Debussy this very topic should have been moved.
It is quite natural to expect that M. Claude Debussy, being one of the chief innovators of to-day, and one whose works have been the objects of passionate criticisms, bitterly censured, warmly upheld, and have on the whole come to their own soon enough, should take an interested and not unsympathetic view of the turmoil that surrounds us. He also is a trained critic, and has provided many essays to Paris dailies and periodicals. To the present day he reviews concerts for a musical monthly.
M. Debussy may be briefly described as a keen, thoughtful observer and a philosopher capable of enthusiasm as well as of scepticism.
The former point is shown by his great fondness for the music of Bach, of Couperin, of Rameau, of Chopin, of Balakirev, of Moussorgsky; the latter, by pungent, irreverent comments upon certain songs of Schubert “that smell of long-closed drawers and of flowers forever faded,” or upon Wagner’s Ring with its “stilted, not very purposeful flourishes.” But apart from occasional sallies such as these, he expresses himself very reticently, and when referring to his articles one should never fail carefully to read between the lines.
‘I do not profess,” he said, “to supply ‘criticism.’ but simply and candidly to give my impressions. In criticism the individual factor plays far too great a part. And often the outcome of all that is written or said can be reduced toyou are wrong because I happen to think differently,’ or the reverse. The thing to do is to discover the many impulses that have given birth to works of art and the living principle that informs those works.
“Interviewers have often ascribed to me surprising things which I greatly marveled to read. It is often difficult to say much upon the subject of contemporary music. Events are accumulating with incredible speed, and to try to focus them is often to strive after impossibilities. At the point actually reached by musical art, who could make a choice between the many diverging roads that composers follow? The task is distressingly puzzling. We have to deal not only with a great number of contemporary works but also with the many, often contradictory, teachings of the works of the past, whose influence upon our sensitiveness and our culture is ever becoming greater. And if even in the patrimony that came to us from the past we find food for perplexity, what is to be said of the present?
“As far as I am concerned I have little to say as to it, and still less as to the future of music—all that is more or less guess work, and tempts me little. Moreover I do not see much of what is happening. There comes a time in life when one wishes to concentrate, and now I have made it a rule to hear as little music as possible.
“Take Arnold Schönberg for instance. I have never heard any of his works. My interest being roused by the things that are written about him, I decided to read a quartet of his, but I have not yet succeeded in doing so.
“A point that I really wish to emphasize is, that I consider it almost a crime to judge prematurely. The former policy, which consisted in allowing artists to ripen in peace and of taking no notice of them until their art had fully asserted itself I consider far sounder than the actual one. It is unwise to unsettle young artists by making them the subjects of discussions that are often shallow and prejudiced. This febrile haste to dissert, dissect and classify is the disease of our time. Hardly has a composer appeared than one begins to devote essays to him; one pounces upon his works, one burdens his attempts with ambitious definitions.
“I esteem, for instance, that, tempting as the thing may be, the moment has not yet come to judge the younger Hungarians like Bartok and Kodaly. Those two are extremely interesting and deserving young artists, eagerly seeking their way; no doubt about that. They are pretty sure to find it. And a noteworthy feature of their music is the obvious affinity between its spirit and that of the modern French. But further I shall not go.
“Igor Stravinsky affords another excellent instance of a young artist instinct with keen and fervid curiosity. I think this attitude of mind most praiseworthy at his time of life. It is good for young artists to be alive and to cast all around themselves, but I think he will sober down in due time. He is the only one of the younger Russians with whose output I am acquainted. During my recent stay in Petersburg and in Moscow I met several other composers, but I had no occasion to hear their music.”
Debussy, a keen lover of Russian music—he was one of the first in France to praise Balakirev and Moussorgsky—evinces great sympathy with the doings of contemporary Spanish composers who, like the Russians, have sought and found in national folk songs the foundation of their musical style.
“Practically the whole of modern Spanish music comes straight from folk time. And yet it never lacks variety, so that one may well judge how inexhaustibly rich the fountain is. Among the Spanish musicians of to-day the most typical, perhaps, is Albeniz. He has drunk at the springs of folk music deeply enough to be absolutely imbued with its style and its very spirit. The profuseness of his imagination is positively stupendous; no less so his capacity for creating atmosphere.”
On modern Italian opera he is not lavish of praise:
“Why talk of modern Italian opera? That would be ascribing to it an importance that it remains altogether destitute of. The greater part of the public revels in the vulgar and the meretricious, and at all times has bad taste been catered for. The Italians, well aware of what the public wants, act accordingly. I do not think their influence harmful, for every artist writes the works that he was preordained to write. If any one be drawn toward the mediocre, the fact shows him to be mediocre himself, and we are to presume that under no circumstances could he prove capable of rising above mediocrity.”
The vehemence of the foregoing sentences contrasts very forcibly with M. Debussy’s usual reticence a reticence in which one should acknowledge the outcome, not of indifference, but of the composer’s innermost temperament. Indeed his music tells of a similar fondness for moderation in the suggestion of all emotions. And it should likewise be remembered that in M. Debussy’s opinion the worst sin against works of art is indifference.
“The old quarrels are revived,” he recently wrote. “So much the better! For if freedom of spirit is a characteristic trait of our time, that freedom does not go without a tendency passively to accept all kinds of styles and methods, and that inertness is almost an outrage to art.”
To conclude the conversation I asked M. Debussy his impressions as to the comparative receptivity of the different publics before which he had appeared as pianist or as conductor. His answer was:
“There can be, I think, no general rule. It all depends upon affinities. As I said a while ago the Hungarians are very near to us Frenchmen, and, therefore, our music succeeds with them. The Russians are likewise well prepared to appreciate the output of the modern French school. From Great Britain also I have carried away an altogether favorable impression. The British public has a most remarkable capacity for attention and respect; it does not think itself compelled noisily to express dissatisfaction whenever it fails to grasp at first hearing the purport of a new work. And this of course, as far as the appreciation of modern music is concerned, is the best attitude. To believe that one can judge a work of art upon a first impression is the strangest and most dangerous of delusions.”

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