Bartók was a good listener, especially when transcribing with scientifically accuracy thousands of field recordings made during his excursions into the lands where peasants lived. He owned a tekerő, the Hungarian peasants’ version of what is called a hurdy-gurdy.
He and Kodaly had learned of Debussy some time before the Frenchman arrived in 1910 to perform solos, accompany a singer, and hear his String Quartet being introduced in Budapest. It seems that Bartók missed the concert but soon began absorbing Debussy’s music. Soon after Bartók arrived in Paris he was asked by Isidor Philipp if he wanted to meet composers close to this French pianist. Bartók’s colleague André Gertler,
with whom he toured to give sonata recitals. In 1960, Gertler recalled:
The meeting never came about. Perhaps it would have resembled Debussy seen with André Caplet?
We’re not sure if Etelka Freund, Bartók’s older friend who was a direct link to Brahms, had attended the Budapest evening. She was expecting a child but like Bartók, added Debussy’s music to her repertoire. With Dita Pasztory, a pupil who became Bartók’s second wife, he formed a piano duo with her. One work they performed was Colin McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos, an interest that he and Debussy shared for Asian music.
Always insightful to hear a composer perform another’s works, Bartók recorded Liszt’s Sursum Corda while staying in Paris in the mid 1930s:
This late work finds Liszt entering into dissonance, whole-tone scales and figuration that may have inspired Bartók at a deeper level.
A devoted admirer of Bartók’s playing, the author Ilona Tanner was the wife of poet Mihaly Babits (seen together in this photo.)
While Babits is recognized, Tanner’s astonishing request that a local record shop make private recordings for her whenever Bartók played on the radio saved a rare musical legacy that amounted to a few hours of concerts. Lacking blank recording discs, the shop owner found that x-ray plates could be used for recording sound. At first he had one machine and had to miss music as the sides could only capture four minutes when changing discs: he soon acquired a second instrument. One of the treasures she saved was the duo’s performance of Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir in April, 1939. Images of chest bones and other body parts did not cause lacunas due to switching discs on the recording table nor create the weak sound that took quite awhile to clear up: new digitization is urgent as playback and restoration techniques have advanced, before the plates decay or managers ordering an engineer at French Radio to trash noisy discs, such as Bartók’s 1939 Paris recital:
Another temporary duo kept the work alive by playing it several times at prominent 1950s new music festivals such as Darmstadt: Yvonne Loriod (coached by her husband Olivier Messiaen) and Pierre Boulez, seen here after a 1956 performance.
Although we have published other posts on Debussy and a CD with the most insightful interpreters to date, more posts will follow so check back now and then!
Other than some snoring, what was going on inside Debussy’s head? At a certain point, change was in the works, a foray into creating something that defied labels he loathed, such as Impressionist. Earlier blog posts examined how Russian music acted on his art but there are unsettling elements in his Etudes, works that Pierre Boulez described as having “burned the mist off Debussy,” not that he felt obligated to destroy any lingering Turneresque quality that many interpreters still desperately seek to impose on his last piano cycle and fail by doing so.
As an example of his new language, the Belgian pianist Marcelle Mercenier (1920-1996: alas no photos of her so far . . .) plays Debussy’s Etude in Fourths in 6’25”:
Many listeners were influenced by critics and authoritative experts that
Walter Gieseking (1895-1956) was the quintessential acme excelsior of Debussy interpreters. Nasal adenoids introduced heavy breathing while the German pianist played so his clever EMI producer Walter Legge had the recording mic impressively placed at an impressionistic distance to camouflage his snorting. The pianist rarely performed Debussy’s Etudes and his rapid traversal clocks in at 4’10”:
Mercenier played works by Messiaen and Boulez: she understood how Debussy’s last piano pieces paved the way into a new language.
Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was another highly regarded Debussy specialist. Among his multifold activities, Cortot managed to write a volume on the composer’s piano music, drawing on picturesque references and occasionally judging the worthiness of his works (photo of the artist at home near his beloved Renoir portrait of Wagner):
“In 1910 appeared a waltz, ‘La plus que lent,’ half a parody, half serious, and beyond question [italics mine] totally insignificant.”
Debussy’s piano roll in no way captured anything remotely resembling his touch and tone but is the Satiesque presence of a ‘ninth’ struck by his left hand’s thumb when the theme gets its final restatement, compositionally insignificant? An earlier experiment lies in Masques, an independent work from 1904. Cortot’s many students cherished the descriptions he offered as a key to each musical work played in his presence, as if he had formulated the most effective description of a work’s mood, background and expression and drew out of it like a catalog. While it could enhance a budding pianist’s grasp that something lurked behind the notes it probably inhibited them from seeking this remote sphere on their own, as his stereotypes were so seductive! (photo: joyous dining with Margarete (Mrs. Albert) Speer at the Hotel Ritz, Paris 1941)
According to Cortot’s meditation on Masques:
Without doubt there lives and moves in “Masques” all the comedy of ltaly, its color and movement: Scaramouche with his fine doings, Cassandra ridiculed, Zerbinette irritating, Pierrot dreaming to the moon and hidden by friendly night, Harlequin at the feet of Colombine. And “l’Isle Joyeuse” spreads the snare of its laughter and easy pleasures before the careless lovers whose light barks draw up on its fortunate shores, under the friendly looks of Watteau, of Verlaine and of Chabrier of whom one must think under the sensual bent of this music. Further, what we may call the pianistic orchestration of these compositions – in the absence of terms which might define more exactly the variety of combination of registers which animate them with their caressing fancy – is literally an enchantment and Debussy has never surpassed the ease and assrance with which he makes the rhythms play with them.
In spite of this, in spite of the flare and ingenuity of these two pieces, their musical attraction and the perfection of their construction, it may be we do not find in them, at least to the extent of our expectation, that rare pleasure whose secret Debussy has taught us, because the subjects he has proposed have sinned by too direct suggestion.
If one listens to the contrast between his Boulezian “mist”, whole-tone scales and Asian modes, one is convinced by the playing of Marius-François Gaillard (1900-1973) published by Arbiter in Debussy’s Traces:
that different masks are imposed by Debussy onto himself as he struggles over which direction to follow: abandoning 19th century music? whole tones? the deep influence of Javanese gamelan? Gaillard shows how the latter as having been a difficult but compelling choice.
Roger Nichols writes “Masques was published in the autumn of 1904, but has never enjoyed the popularity of its companion (L’Isle joyeuse.) True, it doesn’t have the advantage of a big tune, but the many subtleties in it should be enough to keep the most alert listener engaged. Matters may not be helped by the fact that Debussy never spoke about its meaning to anybody—all we have is a note found among his papers after his death by his widow: ‘It is not the comédie italienne, but the tragic expression of existence.’
Au revoir Walter! Au revoir Alfred & Renoir! Let Debussy rest.
Just gave a class to Mannes grad students on Chopin. So much attention focuses on his Parisian existence that his Slavic origins are slighted. Half-French/Half-Polish they say? Which half is Slavic? How do you cut him: vertically or horizontally? Let’s bypass Solomonic butchery to say that he possessed 200%, enriched by both!
Chopin composed Mazurkas throughout his life, a workshop for ideas and connecting with a lost homeland yet most judge them as exotic seasoning sprinkled onto formal salon Waltzes. Do you think that notation shows everything? Mazurkas only appear on paper as waltzes yet bear disruptive chromatic notes. And what does a village ensemble from the mountains outside Sofia have to do with Chopin?
The Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe were pervaded with folk music that identified itself through distinct melodies and rhythms. The Bistritsa Grannies sing antiphonally, replete with stark intervals that came from origins way further East, possibly the Proto-Bulgars from Central Asia.
In 1987 with a group from the National Conservatory that included the budding composer Penka Kouneva
they received us after a day’s farming to offer singing and supper. Changing out of their blue work smocks they regrouped in traditional attire. Afterwards we scooped up local sirine (feta cheese) with bread dipped into chubritsa, a Bulgarian spice blend redolent of fenugreek with other subtle herbs. An LP recorded for Balkanton contains this work and when I met up with them three years later when their dictatorship had been quashed, asked what the meter was in their song Oreovka voda grebe : “Two”.
Two, certainly, but the beats are unequal, with long-short pulsations. This brought to mind the Hungarian accenting in their folk-Gypsy traditions. One daring team of Budapest ethnomusicologists penetrated into Romania’s Transylvanian region to secretly record Hungarian dance music, as their insane dictator did all he could to suppress anything that could heat up any justifiable revanchism. A battery-operated tape recorder had been hidden in their car and here is a treasure from a remote village in the Mezöség region:
So with these rhythms and phrasings circulating in your system, how could Chopin have played his own ‘colorful’ works? The earliest pianist who offers a clue is Vladimir de Pachmann (1848 Odessa – 1933 Rome).
A Victor Borge of his time, Pachmann amused audiences through chaotic inappropriate behavior and speaking while playing, probably done to settle his nerves and placate a public that wanted more than music alone, a format then unknown. Critics downgraded him as someone pathetically superficial for having spoken on some of his recordings that had unedited sloppy details whereas the early butchered restorations of his playing (recordings from 1907-1928) were dim and masked any and all of his colorful nuances. As technology improved, a remarkably chaste art emerged, thanks to a discovery I made by finding a path to access the hot-spot in groove walls, where the sound fully opens up, one surpass routine sardine-can transfers that obliterate hear color and touch. On interviewing Aldo Mantia in 1981, a Roman Pachmann pupil, Mantia mentioned that his mother, a singer who knew Liszt, recalled with singer Luisa Tetrazzini how the young Pachmann had lived in Firenze for six months to study with Vera Kologrivoff Rubio, Chopin’s last assistant, an important detail vigorously denounced in a recent puerile biography of the artist.
Note how Pachmann accents and uses short-long beats in Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 50, No.2 in A flat, recorded into a horn in 1911:
No waltzing at all and if accurately transcribed, the writing would be unreadable. Chopin published these pieces early on up until his end. His F-sharp minor Mazurka, op. 59, No. 3 is a hotbed of experimentation. Starting with a straight-forward dance, it returns with a secondary voice under the main theme and then switches into major. What impresses as hackneyed confused playing is a literal representation of something unique in Chopin’s notation: rhythmic displacement of the hands by a mere sixteen note that syncopates them into a duel of phrasing and accents. Pachmann knowingly displays this radical stratagem within the guise of propriety. To dissipate its rhythmic angst, Chopin aligns hands into a pattern that furiously repeats and changes from three beat segments into twos in order to eradicate the previous tension. What next? Canonic imitation, a return, and a finale in a contrasting dance rhythm.
Again we join Pachmann caught by a recording horn inside a Camden, New Jersey studio in 1912:
Going further through Chopin’s backdoor we encounter a master who danced with villagers when his father took the boy along for gigs in remote towns. These experiences, along with a life-long penchant for Mannerism (in art and sound) leads us to Ignaz Friedman (1882 Podgorze/Krakow – 1948 Sydney).
Friedman astonished listeners with his Chopin and fortunately the obtusity of his record company lapsed when they unexpectedly commissioned him to record a set of the dances rather than continuing having him fulill their need for encore pieces. We find him before the microphone in London, 1930. Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 7, No.3 in F mine:
The rhythms are far more extreme and we note the strong presence of folk elements into the otherwise hermetic classical music that sought to keep out such roughage, still unacceptable in today’s puritanical climate in which budding pianists cannot compete by playing with individuality or stray from the moribund status quo’s dictates.
Friedman possessed a remarkable virtuosity that allowed him to laugh away technical difficulties. He tickles Chopin’s 19th Prelude in E flat and calmly navigates the treacherous G# minor Etude, back in 1924:
When Emil Sauer (1862 Hamburg – 1942 Vienna)
met Brahms, they shared their origins as Hamburgers. Inspired by his teachers Nikolai Rubinstein and Liszt, Sauer also composed and brings out the inner life dwelling in the otherwise mechanically played Chopin Etude, Op. 25, No.12 in C minor, recorded when the pianist was 78 years old.
Going beyond virtuosity we can hear poetry in a posthumous but well known work, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op.66. Polish pianist and composer Xaver Scharwenka (1850 Szamotuły, Poland – 1924 Berlin)
plays with a creator’s insight into the music, displaying all elements and in the slower middle section, bar lines melt to allow a commanding melody to bask in a rubato that is subtly camouflaged. A 1910 New York studio recording is restored to the point of displaying his colorful touch and identifies the piano as a Steinway:
Running out of time. Here’s Ferruccio Busoni (1866 Empoli – 1924 Berlin), seen during exile in Zurich with Giotto his San Bernard,
playing a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody (No. 13) with full awareness of the Gypsy phrasing in its final section, recorded on a Beckstein in 1922, London. We’ll get to his way of deconstructing Chopin next time.
For further exploration check out the Pachmann trail on our website
Annie (1895-1997) and the Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972).
Eager to share what went down at our World of Music class comprised of first year students this morning at Mannes / New School University. After exploring African genres last week and how some elements survive in traditional American Blues & Gospel, we went deeper into the regions of Spiritual music.
No photo exists of Sister Cora Hopson, who left but one recording in 1926 of an Antebellum Sermon. The war in question was our own Civil War and as she has an aged voice, Hopson may have well been an ex-slave herself. In once moment she admonishes her listeners not to consider her comments applying to the present time, as her text focuses on Moses seeking freedom for his people, a necessary metaphor that conceals their need to be free and tear down the suppression, something that White overseers would interpret as harmless as it was pertaining to a biblical homily.
Then came the prolific Rev. J. M. Gates (1884-1945),
an early prolifically recorded preacher with congregants join him in singing I’ve Done Crossed the Separating Line, an incredible call to realize that one can transcend mundanity with all its grief and dangers for a higher region of existence that is ever-present.
As recordings spread to document our traditional music in the 1920s, groups that incorporated instruments with song were captured, such as Elders Lonnie MacIntorsh, Edwards, and Sisters Bessie Johnson & Melinda Taylor (no photos or dates, alas!) They cry out in The Latter Rain is Falling:
Their singing and playing reaches an extreme of the Baptist sect yet we find a more exuberant use of Jazz and instruments in the congregation of Rev. D.C. Rice (1888-1973)
who left the Baptists for Pentecostalists in Chicago who defied any music from being proscribed. A phenomenon, it drew the writer Zora Neale Hurston into their orb and I urged our class to explore her writings. There is even a trumpet solo that parallels Louis Armstrong’s rise and how Jazz was aboil in the 1920s:
While well-known hymns appeared in all genres and sects, individual artistry enters the picture through original texts and performances. Anne Graham, of whom we know little, composed for ensembles and once sang on Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) [Leadbelly]’s weekly New York radio show
in the early 1940s. Together they approach the theme of inner life mixed with the Biblical tale of Joshua in What Kind of Soul Hath Man:
Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)
was a sightless evangelical mystic who moaned out Dark Was the Night:
For the Rev. Gary Davis, I prefaced his life with a true tale of his 1970 tour in the U.K. A twenty-something John Dyer had heard a concert and was awestruck. Upon learning that Davis lived in Jamaica he immediately went up from Brighton to their embassy in London. No trace of Davis could be found until someone advised that he lived in Jamaica, Queens. Grabbing a bag and a one-way ticket he arrived at JFK International Airport and was left by a taxi at the Davis’s doorstep. Ringing the bell, Annie asked “Who are you?” to which Dyer replied that he had traveled from England just to study with the Reverend. Annie welcomed him in and John stayed for over half a year as their home was a caravansary for musicians and spreaders of the gospel.
Our class of first year students were amused and then surprised to learn that their teacher (1956-) was Davis’s last pupil,
cutting high school to grab a bus for lessons, worrying that I’d be nabbed as a truant. A stunning example of his artistry for Gospel music is his narration and singing of Crucifixion, a Dantesque mix of perception from Pontius Pilate and his wife’s words, a cut and dried repetition of quotes by disciples and a narrator who gazes onto their actions from a divine perspective.
I also advised them to notice how Davis usually does not sing a direct melody but combines voice and guitar to create the impression of its presence, one of his great musical achievements, not to overlook how the guitar’s subtle syncopations and ornaments are like the piano parts in Schubert’s Lieder.
One individual who used Gospel themes and marches was the saxophonist and composer Albert Ayler (1936-1970). How would the students react to hearing free jazz, from almost half a century ago, accustomed as they are to melody and it’s base for improvisations as composed variation? At one of his last concerts, held at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1970, a photo taken at the concert shows him with bass player Steve Tintweiss who has always been active in music since then and earlier. The entire concert was filmed but remained inaccessible due to uncertain reasons . . .
The Truth is Marching In has a floating opening that leads into the march, flits back into a different space and then is propelled into a spiritual ecstasy:
Some class members stated that the melodic parts were fine with them but the solo was too much! One composer liked it. But how to show that it was quite the contrary to being an excursion away from Gospel traditions? We drew on the Rev. Frank Cotton’s sermon on Lazarus and Christ in The Pool of Siloam. As Ayler cannot be limited to standard pitches and has to transcend his instrument to enter into another dimension we hear it as a continuity of the Rev. Cotton lapsing from song and crescendos into a screaming that goes beyond words!
Our course is meant to uncover layers of cultural connections. Next week we will enter the earliest Blues artists and show how they created new music when migrating up from the Delta and Eastern seaboard by plugging in and astonishing with a new music that inspired outsiders to ravage them for their own worthy and exploitative styles.
That’s it. Just sit and pretend nothing’s going on. You’re probably hearing something from a recent opera that you found out about some ten or more years ago and heard it in the flesh. This is who’s at fault! Some Russian who died before the Baroness von Meck brought you over there as a tutor.
Then your opera arrived and all the new experts were saying how much Boris Godunov influenced it, a silly idea that you quashed at once as these damn new fans start deciding your identity. But we’re going inside your head for a little adventure into the ending of your Pelléas et Melisande’s Scene 1:
Look at that expression! Poor photo image but we see what you’re up to!
Someone who knew you wasn’t fooled! D.E. Inghelbrecht had dinners with you and premiered your Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and a short piece. He heard you play piano and talked about you at times on a weekly French radio program given over an eight year period, the last one taking place about a month before his death at age 85 in 1965.
Inghelbrecht often conducted your opera and here’s the finale from Scene 1:
Right away we smell Musorgsky! And Maestro Inghel was the first to perform the original version of Boris in Paris, having gained access to the original in a Soviet Archive in the 1920s.
We land onto the music preceding Pimen’s monologue as he puts the finishing touches onto his manuscript on how Boris murdered the infant heir to the throne in Uglich:
And what happened to our Debussy? Hear what he did!
Later when a striking clock sends Boris into an apoplectic fit that leads to insanity, the music dramatically introduces a new mood:
And right after Debussy’s taking on Pimen’s cowl he leaps into the musical madness but in a subdued fashion:
As if to put people off his train, Debussy thinks of the early coronation scene that begins soon after the police begin to beat the wretched populace with their knouts to fall in line and sing to the Tsar, the bells resonating amidst a delightful harmony considered barbaric by Western critics and the like on first exposure:
That sly Debussy: something so imposing is made light of:
Now that you’re familiar with these three liftings, return to the first example – Scene 1’s ending – and observe Debussy stringing together three disparate moments from Boris that became part of his language.
I dedicate this post to a bygone Schenker pupil who informed me that great composers must be studied exclusively through their own works, not to ever make references to others!
It came as a shock to hear such Debussy. About Marius-François Gaillard all one could instantly find was that he recorded works by Debussy in Paris around 1928-1930. No idea of his age but the pianism went beyond those who confine their entire Debussy into their own prefabricated styles. With Gaillard each piece was a world unto itself, showing how Debussy reinvented the piano and himself in each composition. It came as a relief to hear the music emerge that had been missing when brand-names like Gieseking and Cortot rushed through or neglected to expose Debussy’s ingenuity and subtlety. As a composer, Gaillard understood why each note exists and projects the micro within the larger scale. Later on Gaillard would draw on his travels and contact with traditional world music in his own works.
Gaillard (1900-1973) emerged on the Paris scene when he made a debut at age 16 after winning a prize thanks to refinements by Louis Diémer (1843-1919), an Alsatian master who helped revive the harpsichord already in the late 19th century.
Early Gaillard programs included new French music and Mozart concertos. A review appeared in 1922 by the writer Henry Malherbe (1886-1958) who knew Debussy and elicited these comments from the composer, something that informed his impression of the man who was still playing on occasion:
After the premiere of Debussy’s Saint Sebastian:
I believe indeed in a renaissance of liturgical music. Sacred art flourishes nobly only under persecution. And since wrong is being done to the Church, as it seems [sic], I think that the atmosphere is propitious for religious scores.
For me, sacred music stops at the 16th century. The charming and spring-like souls of those days were the only ones who could express their vehement and disinterested fervor in songs free from all worldly taint. Since then pious musical improvisations have been made more or less for parade. Even the genius of that naif and worthy man, Johann Sebastian Bach, did not save him. He builds edifices of harmony, like a great and devout architect, not like an apostle.
Parsifal is pretty. It is theatrical, which is poison to simplicity. Wagner himself calls his works spectacles. He was too well fortified against humility to celebrate religion. His attitudes are too dramatic for prayer. His proud and factitious theories never leave him.
Who will feel again the grandiose passion of a Palestrina? Who will begin again the poor and fragrant sacrifice of the little jongleur, whose story has come down to us?
Music is a sum of scattered forces, (he said to a personage of his own invention, M. Croche in Entretiens avec M. Croche, in the Revue blanche, 1901) . . .
People make theoretical songs of them! I prefer the few notes from the flute of an Egyptian shepherd: he collaborates with the landscape and hears harmonies unknown to our treatises. Musicians hear only the music written with clever fingers, never that which is written in nature. To see the sunrise is more useful than to hear the Pastoral Symphony. What good is your almost incomprehensible art? Ought you not to suppress these parasitic complications which make music in ingeniousness like the lock of a safe? . . . You boast because you know music only, and you obey barbarian, unknown laws! You are hailed by fine fine epithets and you are only rascals-something between a monkey and a valet!
I was dreaming. Formulate oneself? Finish works? So many question-marks placed by a childish vanity, the need of getting rid at any cost of an idea with which one has lived too long; all this poorly concealing the silly mania of fancying oneself superior to both.
Before a moving sky, (he said to M. Henry Malherbe) contemplating for hours together the magnificent constantly shifting beauty, I feel an incomparable emotion. Vast nature is reflected in my literal, halting soul. Here are trees with branches spreading toward the sky, here are perfumed flowers smiling on the plain, here is the gentle earth carpeted with wild grasses. And, insensibly, the hands take the position of adoration . . . To feel the mighty and disturbing spectacles to which nature invites ephemeral, temporary passers-by . . . . that is what I call prayer.
Who will ever know the secret of musical composition? The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird deposit in us multiple impressions and suddenly without our con- senting the least in the world, one of these memories speaks out of us and is expressed in musical language. It carries its harmony in itself. Try as we will, we cannot find a harmony more just or more sincere. Only in this way, does a heart destined to music make the most beautiful discoveries.
That is why I wish to write my musical dream with the most complete detachment from myself. I wish to sing of the inner landscape with the naive candor of childhood.
This innocent speech will not make its way with stumbling. It will always shock the partisans of artifice and falsehood. I foresee that and rejoice in it. I will do nothing to create adversaries. But I will do nothing to change adversaries into friends. One must force oneself to be a great artist for oneself and not for others. I dare to be myself and to suffer for my truth. Those who feel as I do will love me only the more for it. The others will avoid me, will hate me. I shall do nothing to conciliate them.
In truth, on the distant day– I must hope that it may come later– when I inspire no more quarrels, I shall bitterly reproach myself. In those last works, there will necessarily dominate the detestable hypocrisy which will have permitted me to satisfy everybody.
–Debussy to Malherbe (Excelsior, 11 Feb. 1911)
In May 1910 Claude Debussy said to Prudhomme: “Every artist has his temperament: art is always progressive; it cannot then return to the past, which is definitely dead. Only imbeciles and cowards look backwards. . . In conclusion: Let us work!”
Gaillard was the first to offer Debussy’s then-complete piano works in three evenings.
Malherbe was there each evening and write of his experience:
Debussy interpreted by Marius-François Gaillard
Nothing seemed to me more strange. And, however, nothing was simpler. Under the alternating fires of two spotlights, a very young man, with troubled eyes and flaming hair, was seated before the black mass of a piano. And, alone, confronting a considerable public, delirious or collected, and who filled the vast ship of the room of the Opera of the Champs-Elysees.
This spectacle still besets my memory.
For three nights, Mr. Marius-François Gaillard renewed a feat that remains unique in modern music. He played by heart – never was the expression more circumstantial – the complete piano works of Claude Debussy.
The young and prodigious executioner had, in truth, recourse to his memory. He seemed possessed of some mysterious fervor. His fast hands, endowed with a supernatural frenzy, restored to us, with an infallible accuracy, the Arabesques, Ballade, Reverie, Nocturne. ValseRomantique, the Preludes, Estampes, Images, Etudes, and all the works for piano by the great musician of Pelleas.
For his swarthy complexion, his hair and beard curly and too brown, for his sparkling eyes, black and sunken under the gilded and sovereign forehead, we called Claude Debussy The Prince of Darkness.
Did we live the other night in a hallucination? The Prince of Darkness was there, alongside his masterly performer. Did Gaillard so miraculously play only because he received from him that ineffable presence? Of this hard percussion instrument, which seems to be made, especially, for dry compositions, geometric, colored by points, juxtaposed spots (something like, in another field, the paintings of Cross or Signac) M. Marius-François Gaillard offered a melted, voluptuous music, a dripping poetry, deep shades, muted, airy subtlety, vibrant freshness, melancholic graces and admirable enveloping orchestral effects.
I seek to characterize, with some certainty, a kind of genius that burns in this young and great artist, when he plays the works of his favorite master. Today I’m desperate to reproduce my thought. The words come like crowds into my mind, in the tumult of feelings that agitate me. I can not choose. In these hastily sketched lines I no longer propose to present to you the study which I wish to publish on Gaillard, Debussy’s interpreter. To make these impressions lasting and to judge them with strength demands a long effort.
So I express, at least, the convictions that leave us these three unforgettable evenings where Marins-François Gaillard played, by heart, all the piano works by Claude Debussy:
l.) Debussy, as in the theater and the symphony, has brought into pianistic music an absolutely new style.
2.) Debussy has pulled from the piano a fabulous and unsuspected wealth and the work he leaves. for this instrument, is perhaps the most important of all pianistic literature.
3.) Among the illustrious interpreters of this incomparable musician, Marius-Francois Gaillard has proved to be the most truthful, the most inspired, the one whose action is most striking to an audience.
In a future article, I will try to develop these findings carefully.
Choses de théâtre, cahiers mensuels de notes, d’études v.1, 1921:Oct.-1922:July –1923.
The original, for our French readers:
Debussy interprété par Marius-François Gaillard.
Rien ne me parut plus étrange. Et, cependant, rien n’était plus simple. Sous les feux alternés de deux projecteurs, un tout jeune homme, le regard trouble, la chevelure en ﬂammes, était assis devant la masse noire d’un piano. Et, seul, affrontant un public considérable, délirant ou recueilli et qui remplissait le vaste vaisseau de la salle de l’Opéra des Champs-Elysées.
Ce spectacle assiège encore mon souvenir.
Pendant trois soirs, M. Marius-François Gaillard a renouvelé un exploit qui demeure unique dans la musique moderne. ll a joué par cœur, — jamais l’expression ne fut plus circonstancielle, —- tout l’œuvre pianistique de Claude Debussy.
Le jeune et prodigieux exécutant avait-il, en vérité, recours à sa mémoire. Il semblait possédé de je ne sais quelle ferveur mystérieuse. Ses mains rapides, douées d’une frénésie surnaturelle, nous restituaient, avec une justesse infaillible, les Arabcsques, la Ballade, la Rêverie, le Nocturne. la Valseromantique, les Préludes, les Estampes, les Images, les Études, et tous les ouvrages pour piano du génial musicien de Pellëas.
Pour son teint basané, ses cheveux et sa barbe frisés et trop bruns, pour ses yeux étincelants, noirs et enfoncés sous le front doré et souverain, nous appelions Claude Debussy Le Prince des Ténèbres.
Vivions-nous, l’autre soir, dans l’hallucination? Le Prince des Ténèbres était là, aux côtés de son magistral interprète. Gaillard n’a-t-il si miraculeusement joué que parce qu’il entait, auprès de lui, cçtte présence inelfable? De ce dur instrument à percussion qui parait fait, surtout, pour des compositions sèches, géométriques, colorées par des points, des taches juxtaposées (quelque chose comme, dans un autre domaine, les tableaux de Cross ou Signac) M. Marius-François Gaillard obtient un fondu, des êtirances voluptueuses, une poésie ruisselante, des teintes profondes, amorties, une subtilité aérienne, des fraîcheur rieuses, des grâces mélancoliques et l’admirables effets enveloppants d’orchestre.
Je cherche à caractériser, avec quelque certitude, une sorte de génie qui brûle en ce jeune et grand artiste, lorsqu’il joue les œuvres de son maître préféré. Je désespère de reproduire, aujourd’hui. ma pensée. Les mots viennent en foule à mon esprit, dans le tumulte des sentiments qui m’agitent. Je ne saurais choisir. En ces lignes, hâtivement tracées, je ne me propose plus de vous présenter l’étude que je voudrais publier sur Gaillard, interprète de Debussy. Pour rendre ces impressions durables et les juger avec force, il faut un long effort.
Que j’exprime, pour le moins, les convictions que nous laissent ces trois soirées inoubliables où Marins-François Gaillard joue, par cœur, tout l’œuvre pour piano de Claude Debussy:
l.) Debussy, comme au théâtre et à la symphonie, a apporté dans la musique pianistique, un style absolument nouveau.
2.) Debussy a tiré du piano des richesses fabuleuses et insoupçonnées et l’oeuvre qu’il laisse. pour cet instrument, est peut-être la plus importante de toute la littérature pianistique.
3.) Parmi les illustres interprètes de ce musicien incomparable, Marius- François Gaillard s’est révélé le plus véridique, le plus inspiré, celui dont l’action frappe le plus vivement un public.
Dans un prochain article, j’essaierai de développer soigneusement ces constatations.
Choses de théâtre, cahiers mensuels de notes, d’études v.1, 1921:Oct.-1922:July –1923.
Unlike Cortot, Gaillard was not in favor of the Nazis and their French puppets. One academic claimed that Gaillard’s post-War career was dampened by possible associations with the regime. An account by a hero of the Underground dispels this speculative fallacy to show how Gaillard was active in the opposition:
Here is living testimony from Paul Steiner, national president of the “Resistance” Movement, member of the Friends of the Resistance.
I was born in Paris in April 1922 and I quit studying at the Condorcet at the end of the second class in July 1938 in order to exclusively dedicate myself to my violin studies that began at age seven.
I was a student of Marcel Darrieu, solo violinist at the Colonne Orchestra’s concerts.
Eager to move into a string quartet at the end of 1938 I became a pupil of Gabriel Bouillon, professor at the Paris Conservatory who led a noted string quartet. His brother Jo Bouillon married Josephine Baker after the war. In the summer of 1939 I received a First Prize and was engaged as first violin with the Colonne Orchestra.
When the war broke out the Germans demanded that the concerts would be called the Gabriel Pierné Concerts because Édouard Colonne was Jewish.
At the end of 1940 I was also engaged as first violinist by Marius-François Gaillard and his orchestra of forty musicians. Gaillard, born in 1900, was Claude Debussy’s favorite pupil of whose almost complete works comprised a 1922 world tour to New York, Tokyo, etc. [This is not entirely accurate.] He was a perfectionist and his [orchestral] concerts were primarily comprised of works by Mozart and Schubert were notable. German soliders and officals came in great numbers and the orchestra often played on Radio Paris. Already by September 1942 I knew Jacques Destrée, who had just become one of the founders of Resistance, a secret newspaper. He had great confidence in me and I was hired as a secretary and part-time assistant.
I had in hand a hundred or so copies the 21 October 1942 issue, just released, of Resistance, number 1. Marius-François Gaillard was electrified when I gave him several copies to bring over to musical, literary, and artistic circles. The amount rapidly grew from 100 to 200 copies.
Meanwhile I took a course in chamber music given by Henri Benoit at the Ecole Normale de Musique, who, between the wars was a violinist in the famous Capet Quartet before joining Gabriel Bouillon’s quartet (my violin teacher.)
I noticed that in this course an elderly lady came for her own pleasure She lived in Dreux, had been a nurse in 1914-1918 and was highly decorated. Her anti-German sentiments were not in doubt and already in October of 1942 she distributed copies of Resistance. By the end of December 1942, I gave her, I believe, al least 50 newspapers and asked if she would consider the idea of creating a group in Dreux. Soon after, there came to me in Paris a M. Maranges, owner of the Peugeot garage in Dreux. This notable man had founded the very large group that organized sabotage in the region without a single arrest, and spoke at length of his efficacy at the moment of Liberation.
At the end of 1942 I was also engaged as violinist with Fernand Oubradous’ wind orchestra that permitted me in the beginning of 1943 to go with the Vichy Orchestra. The concert was organized at the Vichy Theater, I don’t know when, but it was in the presence of Marshall Petain and other high dignitaries from the French regime. With my luggage I brought along 100 copies of Resistance and during the first rehearsal for an hour or two I went to put my newspapers being very careful to place them in the loges, balcony seats and on the floor. I must say that I don’t recall all the seats. Fernand Oubradous had a problem because the police, in fact, that had to have been one of the 35 or 40 members of the orchestra that had “brought over these papers from Paris.” But as it was in the minds of the collaborators I had much to do with this opportunity. When I got back to Paris I was telling Jacques Destrée about my personal initiative, at first he laughed but right after he dug into me but also with affection for having undertaken such a risk, given my position with him.
When in the beginning of 1943 there was the problem of STO (Service for Obligatory Work, deporation by the Nazis to work as forced laborers in Germany) for the class of ’42 I had easily registered under a false name with the Colonna (Gabriel Pierné) Orchestra. With Marius-François Gaillard it was normal to hide me under a fake name because we were very good friends. I gave fake documents to other musicians in his orchestra.
Published in http://lesamitiesdelaresistance.fr/journaux.php
and for our dear French readers:
Voici un témoignage vécu de Paul Steiner, président national du Mouvement “Résistance”, membre des
Amitiés de la Résistance.
Je suis né à Paris en avril 1922, et j’ai arrêté mes études à Condorcet à la fin de la classe de seconde en juillet
1938 pour me consacrer exclusivement à mes études de violoniste commencées à l’âge de sept ans. J’étais élève de Marcel Darrieux, violon solo de l’orchestre des concerts Colonne.
Désirant m’orienter vers le quatuor à cordes, je devins, fin 1938, élève de Gabriel Bouillon, professeur au conservatoire de Paris que dirigeait un remarquable quatuor à cordes. Son frère, Jo Bouillon devint après la guerre le mari de Joséphine Baker.
À l’été 1939, je fus reçu premier au concours d’entrée à l’orchestre Colonne et enregistré comme premier violon.
La guerre éclata et les allemands exigèrent que les concerts Colonne s’appellent concerts Gabriel Pierné, car Édouard Colonne était juif.
À la fin de 1940 je fus également engagé comme premier violon par Marius François Gaillard dans son orchestre de chambre de quarante musiciens. Marius François Gaillard, né en 1900, avait été l’élève préféré de Claude Debussy, dont il interpréta vers 1922 la presque intégralité des œuvres pour piano dans une tournée mondiale à New York, Tokyo, etc. C’était un perfectionniste et ses concerts consacrés surtout à Mozart et à Schubert étaient remarquables. Les officiers et soldats allemands y venaient en très grand nombre. L’orchestre jouait souvent à Radio Paris.
Dès septembre 1942 je fis la connaissance de Jacques Destrée qui venait d’être l’un des fondateurs du journal clandestin Résistance. Il eut immédiatement une très grande confiance en moi et me prit comme secrétaire et adjoint à temps partiel.
J’eus aussi en mains dès sa sortie le 21 octobre 1942 une centaine d’exemplaires du n°1 de Résistance. Marius François Gaillard fut enthousiasmé lorsque je lui eu remis plusieurs exemplaires pour toucher les milieux musicaux, littéraires et artistiques. La quantité passa très vite à 100 puis 200 exemplaires.
Entre temps, je suivais les cours de musique de chambre de Henri Benoit à l’École normale de musique, place Malesherbes, qui entre les deux guerres avait été l’altiste du très célèbre quatuor Capet avant de devenir celui du quatuor Gabriel Bouillon (mon professeur de violon).
J’avais remarqué à ce cours une relativement vieille demoiselle qui y venait pour son plaisir. Elle habitait Dreux. Elle avait été infirmière en 14/18 et était très décorée. Ses sentiments anti-allemands ne faisaient aucun doute, et dès octobre 42 je luis remis des exemplaires de Résistance. À fin décembre 1942, je lui remettais, je crois, au moins 50 journaux et lui demandai si elle pouvait envisager de créer un groupe à Dreux. Peu après elle me présenta à Paris, à M. Maranges, propriétaire du garage Peugeot à Dreux. Cet homme remarquable créa un groupe très important qui organisa dans la région des sabotages, sans aucune arrestation, et fit beaucoup parler de son efficacité au moment de la Libération.
Fin 1942, je fus également engagé comme violoniste dans l’orchestre d’instruments à vent, très connu également, de Fernand Oubradous. Cela me permit début 1943 d’aller avec l’orchestre jouer à Vichy. Le concert était organisé au Théâtre de Vichy, je ne sais plus à quelle occasion, mais c’était en présence du maréchal Pétain et de certains hauts dignitaires du régime à la francisque. J’avais emporté dans mes bagages un paquet de 100 Résistance et, pendant la répétition générale précédant le concert d’une heure ou deux, je suis allé poser mes journaux en faisant très attention dans toutes les loges et sur les places du balcon ou du fond de la salle. Je dois dire que je ne me souviens plus très bien de tous les endroits. Fernand Oubradous eut quelques problèmes, car la police avait bien réalisé que ce devait être un des 35 ou 40 musiciens de l’orchestre qui avait “au moins apporté ces journaux depuis Paris”. Mais comme il était très à idées collaborationnistes, j’en avais bien profité. C’était de la folie de ma part, mais tellement tentant d’utiliser cette opportunité. Le concert avait eu beaucoup de succès, mais je pense que Résistance aussi avait dû en avoir pas mal.
Lorsque de retour à Paris je racontais à Jacques Destrée mon initiative personnelle, il éclata d’abord de rire, puis aussitôt après il m’attrapa sérieusement mais aussi affectueusement pour avoir pris un tel risque, compte tenu des fonctions que j’occupais auprès de lui.
Lorsque début 1943 il y eut le problème du STO pour la classe 42, j’ai obtenu très facilement d’être enregistré sous un faux nom à l’orchestre des concerts Colonne (Gabriel Pierné). Avec Marius François Gaillard, ce fut pour lui normal de me cacher sous un faux nom, car nous étions très liés d’amitié. J’ai procuré des faux papiers à deux autres musiciens de son orchestre.
Je pus ainsi tout en m’occupant énormément auprès de Jacques Destrée gagner ma vie en jouant dans les orchestres jusqu’en mars/avril 1943. Jacques Destrée avait besoin de moi à plein temps, car entre temps il m’avait confié la distribution du journal Résistance dès la sortie de l’imprimerie, puis très vite aussi la réalisation technique de l’impression. Au printemps 43 nous tirions toutes les trois ou quatre semaines Résistance sur quatre pages imprimées à 90 000 ou 100 000 exemplaires, soit environ 1 500 kilos en paquets de 100 ou 200 journaux. Ce n’était pas de tout repos de les sortir de l’imprimerie puis en organiser la répartition. C’est ainsi que prit fin ma carrière de violoniste pour me consacrer nuits et jours à l’action clandestine. Au début je dois dire que ce fut très difficile d’abandonner la musique, mais j’étais tellement occupé avec Jacques Destrée que je n’avais pas le temps d’y penser.
Meaningless speculation over a diminished career do not stand up to Gaillard’s great passion for the new media of cinema, becoming early on a composer for music to be coordinated with silent film. Gaillard wrote on the necessity to develop a new art form combining both and while it did not materialize in the way Man Ray and Hans Richter’s creations, he had a busy career composing film soundtracks and occasionally conducting his own music, symphonies, and chamber music.
Gaillard’s concertizing as a pianist gave way to his passion for conducting new orchestral music, introducing Varese’s revised Offrandes in 1929. A decade after recording Debussy’s piano works he recorded a Schubert Symphony and Mozart’s #36 with his eponymous orchestra. Here is the Mozart conducted by Gaillard in 1941:
It took over a year to locate and restore each and every Debussy recording left to us by Gaillard and add others who knew Debussy, including the composer himself of course, and musicians who had him in their blood.
After it’s publication in June, 2018 we discovered a portion of Gaillard playing part of the Hommage à Rameau played in the late 1950s and wish to offer it as Gaillard again reveals insight into this masterpiece:
Debussy (1862-1918) kindly invites you to explore his music and our previous blogs that involve violists who knew him and what went inside his ear:
It’s always a shock to hear a favorite composer take on a new identity. François Couperin (1668-1733) seemed limited to being folksy, melodic, subtle with his enigmatic titles.
A French master musician, Laurence Boulay (1925-2007) understands his ornaments the way people conceive single notes. It’s in her blood! She was often on Radio France and busy in Baroque chamber ensembles, teaching.
Erato had recorded 12 hours of her playing Couperin’s four books of harpsichord works and some pieces by his uncle Louis Couperin (1626-1661). Following her through the suites we hear a deft composer aware of proportion in his early works as embellishments increase a role that rivals melodic and rhythmic notes to take on a new dimension that adds a layer of accents, usually on structural tones, to further expose a complex depth residing the deceptive simple appearance of his pieces. No wonder he and Bach corresponded! By the Fifth Ordre we find chromatic explorations that amaze, given their being studded with ornaments. The first allemande heard here is La Logivère, perhaps named after someone in that family.
Before Couperin, Francisco Correa de Arauxo (1584-1654), a Spanish composer wrote polyphony with striking
solo passages, something that turned up amongst the English composers (Bull, Byrd, Farnaby, etc.), taken to jazzy extremes. Odile Bailleux often played
his organ works on old instruments. Radio France again featured her performances and she often participated in travelogues to remote towns and cities with antique instruments, describing and illustrating in detail their components. Listeners throughout France had the chance to hear each stop-over on the antique organ caravan with master musicians playing works that resonate from their vintage. Here is a pre-fugal Tiento, a proto-ricercare on an organ in Santanyi, Majorca:
How many elements from Arauxo, Grigny, and Couperin went into Bach’s bloodstream? Bach and Couperin both wrote keyboard Rondeaus. Laurence Boulay plays one from Couperin’s 8th ordre:
Bach had an example that impresses as though certain patterns were linked to the dance in the way Flamenco proliferates traditional themes from unknown originators. Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) understood Bach (1685-1750) in a way that few reached. We published a CD taken from concerts in Italy and elsewhere.
Here is the Rondeau from Bach’s Partita no.2 in C minor:
A musician continuing Bailleux’s art is Aude Heurtematte
who recorded the young Couperin’s two organ masses at the Parisian church of Ste. Gervais, where Couperin had been organist. In his Messe pour les Paroisses is the Fugue sur les jeux d’Anches:
I wonder if it influenced Ravel’s fugue in Tombeau de Couperin, played here by Madeleine de Valmalète (1899-1999). I was for one sole night in Marseilles to visit Mme. Francescatti in La Ciotat, wondering if de Valmalète would be alive at age 99. On my return I learned that she had gone swimming that day at Cassis’ beach, eternally kicking myself in regret for having missed her. Again a CD had to be published with her artistry, as she was the first to record the Ravel in Berlin at age 29 in 1928.
Unless they happen upon this post, listeners and musicians in the US were and are still deprived of such musicians and composers as their physical presence only manifests through the alleged savvy of promoters and the press. So listen and defy these mysterious cultural barricades.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) visited Russia a few times and helped their new music scene’s innovators get exposure abroad. One of their local instigators and gurus was Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824-1906) who aimed to further Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cui, and others. Pithy writings and access to rare books as a state librarian allowed him to obtain works that went into their pipeline, resulting in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko and Borodin’s central Asian exploits.
Left: Maxim Gorki, Vladimir Stasov, Ilya Repin and Natalia Nordman in Kuokkala 1904.
Stasov brought to light a letter of Liszt’s that offers a creator’s perspective on Beethoven. Before media brought music into people’s lives one had to attend a concert or try your luck at home with sheet music. Liszt could not resist transcribing Beethoven’s nine symphonies and making a second arrangement for two pianos to capture the chorus and more in the last work:
Liszt often played the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata (Op. 106) to astonished guests. Bear this in mind when reading what Stasov shared with his circle and how Liszt’s letter liberates his current entombment as a mere piano jockey:
For us musicians the work of Beethoven is like the pillar of cloud and fire which guided the Israelites through the desert. Had I to classify the different periods of this great musician’s thought, as expressed in his sonatas, symphonies and quartets, I would not stop at dividing them into three styles, a procedure adopted by almost everyone nowadays, but, bearing in mind the questions raised thus far, I would weigh candidly the great question around which all musical criticism and aesthetics revolves at this point to which Beethoven has led us: namely, to what extent does traditional or conventional form determine the thought process.
The answer to this question, implicit in Beethoven’s works themselves, would lead me to divide them not into three styles or periods (these terms are only vague and confusing) but into two categories: the first, that in which traditional and conventional form constricts and governs the composer’s thought; and the second, that in which the thought expands, breaks, recreates and forges the form and style to fit its needs and inspirations. To be sure, we thus come face to face with the eternal problems of authority and freedom. But why should they frighten us? In the realm of the liberal arts, they, fortunately, entail none of the dangers or disasters which occur as consequences of changes in the social and political world.
Another post to reveal Debussy up-close and from within as part of our CD tribute Arbiter 166 Debussy’s Traces:
EVERYONE loves to point out how Debussy quoted Wagner in his Golliwog’s Cakewalk. After Gabriel Fauré and his pupil André Messager survived Wagner they paid tribute by composing a four-hand set of quadrilles Souvenirs de Bayreuth around 1888
but did not risk publishing it. Debussy was acquainted with them and nearly all on the music scene so it’s no wonder he looked back and did his own jazzier take
Some observe Debussy’s not only having been influenced by Asian music, an exploration we will dwell on in a subsequent post, but claimed Russian composers inspired him. Setting aside books or essays, we dive in naked into the historic reservoir of sound to bring ashore a few catches. One case of a composer finding himself in a singer’s throat is when Bartók set down his Improvisations, based on similar folk melodies:
About twenty years earlier (1907) he had captured a singer through his Edison recording machine preserving her unique voice onto a cylinder, one among thousands that he collected. Note how his performance retains her phrasing and tone and how he built a language around it:
complete photo of Bartók in action: nearly all images have cropped the German shepherd and two shy village girls peering over the fence at some potential risk going on for the first time in their lives
For Debussy, it was the arrival of Rimsky-Korsakov in 1889 and later to introduce Russian music. Rimsky’s Sheherazade opens thus:
It must have meant something to Debussy for we can hear it shaking inside a Prelude in Pour le Piano:
With Mussorgsky there was a deeper impact. Rather than quote with a rhythmic stutter he now seizes an unusual harmonization found in Boris Godunov that appeared in his late Sonata for Cello and Piano:
Debussy’s Cello Sonata:
Are we giving away recipes, spoiling his secrets? So many ponder on how composers must hermetically seal themselves off to prevent any outside influences from interfering with alleged divine inspiration, actually a tormenting labor to make something that struck them into their own.
How far can this go on before we get in trouble? Last one, but if anyone out there catches more, kindly share it in the comments section.
Debussy’s Nocturnes for Orchestra: Nuages (opening)
Simpleton’s lament near the end of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
To supplement our recent publication of lost recordings played by masters of Debussy’s music we dive into the first in an ongoing series of posts to encounter him through the perspectives and sounds of others:
Our first offering contains words and writings by two violists who played Debussy’s String Quartet with the composer present whom Allan Evans, Arbiter’s curator, interviewed in the 1980s. The first was in Budapest with Antal Molnar, in his 93rd year, who passed away several months later. When I asked about Debussy he quickly changed the subject. Locating his writings that became accessible in the internet age explains why! Read below and listen to his words.
Egon Kenton had been music librarian at the Mannes College of Music and was known to the faculty, although some did not suspect that he had had contacts with Debussy and Bartók. His words evoke a Debussy unlike anything Molnar offered.
Debussy: String Quartet Op. 10: II: Assez vif et bien rythmé
Léner String Quartet, founded in 1918:
1st violin: Jenö Léner; 2nd violin: Joszef Smilovits
Viola: Sándor Roth; Cello: Imre Hartmann
Recorded in London on 15 III 1928, restored by Arbiter on 24 VI 2018.
This performance took place by significant musicians who were rather young in 1910 (Léner would have been sixteen) and could have been present at the Budapest Debussy evening but knew the members of the quartet. Their playing is the first surviving example of how a Hungarian quartet that knew and possibly heard the Waldbauer-Kerpely ensemble interpreted Debussy. One can only speculate without evidence if any advice from Debussy to the earlier group made its way into the Léner’s recording. Among their recordings are the complete Beethoven String Quartets.
Here are two violists from the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet recalling their contact and views of Debussy.
Egon Kenton (1891-1987)
Excerpts from an interview with Martine Cadieu for Radio France, c.1980.
. . . Hungarian quartet [Waldbauer-Kerpely String Quartet], the old one, the first Hungarian quartet, in September 1911, and it was after they had presented [premiered] Bartok‘s [first string]Quartet, and also after they presented the Debussy quartet, the only Debussy quartet. That … I believe that Vallas related in his biography of Debussy or . . . at least briefly mentioned that Debussy was in Russia, that he was at the residence [estate] of Madame Von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s friend, giving lessons – he had been recommended by Professor Marmontel from the Conservatoire to Mme. von Meck who had come to Paris in search for someone who could teach piano to her two little daughters … hem !, anyway, he was in Russia, and when he came back from Russia the second time he had stayed there, in 1911 and naturally he had very little money to spend, and he had an alleged friend – Theodore Szanto, a Hungarian pianist who lived in Paris, and Szanto had two brothers who had a concert bureau in Budapest, and that pianist asked his brothers to organize (to set up) a concert for Debussy on his way back to Moscow, giving him a fee so that he’d have enough money to continue his journey, and they had sent for Rose Féart,who was singing Debussy’s songs at that time, to bring her to Budapest, and so, the program consisted of some piano pieces played by Debussy, then songs sung by Mme. Rose Féart [accompanied by the composer], and the Quartet, played by the Hungarian Quartet – [loudly:] WITHOUT ME – and Debussy was delighted.
[Debussy wrote to his wife “I had a rehearsal with the young string quartet that will play on Monday. All four are splendid! The final movement that breaks the necks of so many quartets is just a pushover for them.” 3 XII 1910.]
He had thought [until then] that Hungary was a faraway country, inhabited by Scythians who used crossbows and bows, who rode horses and who cooked steaks under their saddles as he had read [the interviewer interrupts: “as the Huns!”], according to what he had read or heard, nomads, nomadic horsemen, so he told them [members of the Hungarian Quartet] “you absolutely must come to Paris to perform my quartet there” and in fact, a few months later, the Quartet – of which I was a member by then, received a letter from Monsieur Dandelot the well-knownmusic manager, offering us a concert at the Salle des Agriculteurs …
Egon Kenton, you played the Debussy quartet in Budapest [sic] and then you got to know Debussy. How did he play the piano ?
His hands were rather small, round and chubby, and … he didn’t lift his fingers uh, the fingers ran like small insects on the keyboard, one could hardly see them move, but with [great] velocity, but (nevertheless) he had strength as well, and when he had to play chords like in the Cathédrale Engloutie, he must have lifted the fingers but I may not have always been attentive to Debussy’s fingers when a heard him play. But it was a playing that was totally compatible to his music… to the Estampes, to the Images, … to that music (that was) primarily harmonic, mainly harmonic. In Debussy there is scarcely a melody, there is (sometimes) a hint of a melody that appears and vanishes. But there is harmony, mainly. [The reporter meows her approval.] Well, it is the same as in painting [the reporter: “as in the painting of his time” . . . Kenton repeats slowly]: in the painting of his time. And it so happens that the day before yesterday, I went to see the Pissaro exhibit at the Grand-Palais and it is exactly, it is exxxactly that, the samein the painting. I stopped for a long time in front of a seascape called The Harbor at Rouen, with the mist slightly tinted in gold by the sun which tried to break through the fog … [dreamy voice] Nuages, by Debussy… [The interviewer, also in a dreamy voice: “Absolutely. The drawing is like the melody line and is lost in the harmonics of the colors…” ]
Exactly. And there was a thing I recall, when I met in October M. Henri Sauguet, he asked me what his (Debussy’s) character was, how remembered him. And I said that he was a man who was mainly a heart, a great heart, and the best possible friend [copain: pal, buddy], who always brought his heart in his hand … Debussy has borrowed money from a few friends and bought the two first rows of seats at the Salle des Agriculteurs where the concert was to take place and dispatched the tickets between his friends, and therefore we [the quartet] played for two rows – there were maybe five or six extra people [elsewhere], but apart from them, there were the two first rows which were full of his friends. There were people I later met again, like Apollinaire, and Jean [Manan?] from the Mercure de France, … many, many others who were also there… But he must have given back that money subsequently one way or another, but . . . we learnt about it, and it was a beautiful gesture. He was always very kind to us… And actually, what is interesting is that what Mr Sauguet told me: “We tend tohave a different image of Debussy, that he used very hard words for his colleagues, that he was very sarcastic, that he was this and that,” I replied that I was sarcastic myself, but it didn’t necessarily mean that I spoke badly of people. It is interesting and valuableto remember these things of Debussy, for they are things he said privately that cannot be found in Monsieur Croche…
But in his correspondence one sees that he liked to use irony, it’s like a game for him, just for the fun of it,he can’t resist the pleasure of a quip . . . but that doesn’t take anything away from his heart …
No, no, it was his nature. For instance, he asked us“Are you going to listen to your compatriot?” – precisely that Hungarian pianist who had helped him – He was a pianist, a musician, of whom one could have easilysaid something nasty. He said “ Really, you never heard him? But he plays very fast and very loud. I myself can’t go tonight unfortunately. I have to go to the Cercle National to listen to my fossil colleague” . . . We looked at him with questioning eyes. He went on: “Camille Saint-Saens.”
I believe you went to his house. You even met Chouchou, his little daughter?
Yes, she was nice! She was six or so… we had brought her a doll from Budapest, a doll dressed in a national Hungarian dress. She sat on the floor with that doll. So, we sat on the floor as well, the first violin [Waldbauer] and I, and also Debussy, and we chatted with [her] . . . OH! there is something that I remember just now at this very moment. We were having lunch and she was at the table, she was at the table. I asked her: “Does music interest you ? You certainly hear music in this house…” Sheanswered: “Yes, I hear Daddy play, and I also take piano lessons.” Debussy: [amusingly scolding her] “You have some nerve! It’s onlythe second time I sat down with you at the piano [he goes on addressing himself to the witnesses]… trying to show her how to touch . . .”
And how was Emma, Debussy’s wife ?
Oh, she was nice. Very elegant, a woman of the world.
Our gratitude to Henri Barda for transcribing and translating Kenton’s interview.
– – – – – – –
Antal Molnar (1890-1993)
I have to divide Debussy’s faults into two groups if I want to be fair with him. The first group will contain the features I personally don’t like; the second will contain the undeniable faults. […]
When the novelty of his music had faded in Europe ten years ago, only a few among his fans thought that this kind of music is partly new and partly a fashion item that will not overcome the elusive effect of the passage of time. It is not entirely new because the basics of his technique (pedal point form, motivic editing) came from Richard Wagner, and the sprouts of his moods were delivered by Mussorgsky, which was a French flair and a technical development in a certain direction. He could not have it appear in a new form and still be serious and lasting interest beyond its labelling.
For me, certainly faults are due to a unilateral judgment. Debussy is merely symbolic and literally literary, a literary musician whose moods always tied to a literary concept. I almost complain about his music that he has to write instead of poems that he can never give substance to, the soul itself, as it is always embedded in something subtle, in sublime idiosyncrasies, and then, based on their gentle reflection, must symbolize their basic poetic programmatic mood. In this way, all of his music is flying all the way to the sky and I feel very messed up in the way in which a colored balloon, when stuck on a long straw that, when it comes out of it, breaks out, not having enough power to swim in the aether. To be able to enjoy such music, you have to be able to absorb a realistic, literary title into a basic sound and then indulge it with some light-hearted devotion and endless fidelity to music that is the symbol of that mod’s vibration. It must be acknowledged that on such grounds there is a huge charm in Debussy’s music for those who find a sense of life in these symbolic moods. To cut my particular criticism short, I just hate it when sturdy, vigorous, acerbic Frenchmen play at being irritable, oversensitive creatures with a world view that wraps a mystically flickering universe in a pink veil. Incompetence often resorts to pompous sophistication to make up for a lack of wholesome ideas. Incompetence often resorts to pompous sophistication to make up for a lack of wholesome ideas. One of the tools of talentlessness is that you have a lack of healthy thoughts and is substituted by neck pain.
But let us go through the absolute mistakes that there can be no object of disagreement. Debussy is finicky. His style is rich but identical, always quite the same. His soul has only one cliché and everywhere it is imprinted. His personality is manifested with thousands of masterpieces, with a lot of intensity, but the way he does it is always the same in every work. Always the same beautiful harmonies, always the same pedal points, always the same kind of form, the same, to the same degree of precision. Just as the Rococo figures could move as an old abbot pushes them into their tubular box, Debussy laid out a delicate and discreet precision in the succession. If his par excellence sought out French atavism in the faulty mistakes of Rameau and Couperin’s age, he found it. These old French masters share their true Frenchness (their affection for their spirits and their sparkling sounds), but their great sense of form and thematic representation is not common. Debussy does not build it but hears the form. Two major conditions for construction are missing: 1. A plastic theme, 2. Tone-building. His themes are mostly motif-like fragments or romantic themes (not suitable for thematic work, “equivocal” thoughts), very often in a completely dilettant-like, vernacular setting. His thoughts are immature, stagnant. Debussy’s theories do not go ahead, they stay on a “niveau” and from beginning to end they express the same intensity in different words. The marked effect is greatly enhanced by the complete lack of modulation. Debussy’s harmony is new, delicate, beautiful and effective, so masterful, but his wandering rocks in a beautifully colored lake, does not move, stays in a place yet at times it suddenly strikes a random wave. Debussy cannot modulate, his harmony is completely incomplete and he’s lost here. The basis of his art is the painting of harmony and his formal coherence is also incomplete. His works are sewn with long, tone-patches that do not pass through sounds, but are squashed modulations. There’s a [whole]tone-scale scale that resembles a nod to the nose, and its harmonies are not as central to Debussy as they are to miserable imitators, but they are still present enough to have the effect of making one feel sick . He acts as a shaper, a blurrer, a certain and very characteristic accompaniment of decadent, inexplicable, lustrous and imaginative literature and sometimes even of his strength. But while painting different things so badly and equally, Debussy uses it so that much of it becomes obscure.
Lack of formal construction also explains his orchestration, his instrumentation and combinations remain high on the skill of his craftsmanship so that he is always in the foreground, and can be said to be almost artisan. But even here, as in its beautiful harmony colors, there is much to it, so many beautiful things can be learned from it. Taking one out from the whole, or bathing individually in the warm, characteristic, delicate colors of each group, it offers great pleasure to every musically inclined ear but there is only the sequence of patches, without organic growth. Debussy could answer, and rightly so, that he is interested only in the basic mood of his basic mood, and has come to the right, but then –and at the same time I touch the roots of all the troubles–then the basic level is not for development, it does not represent an ideal crescent but merely a picture, something stagnant, an outline, a high-level something that sticks. The sequential colors do not flow from one another, but they are actually aligned with each other. The setting is completely related to painting, the proportion, the contrast, the mutual emphasis on colors, but on a surface that does not move. But it is just a mistake for this moving music in timelessness as it would be wrong for a painting that would be prepared on several surfaces by enhancement.
Debussy has to be a favorite of the great crowds in France, because his esprit is really French and his performance is light and even superficial. But how would this be a climax of French music, that is to say, that we should have a ghost giant here? Anatole France, Manet, Rodin, etc., etc., are far from standing. The great figures of French music, Goudimel, Lully , Grétry, Boieldieu, Bizet, Franck, and the intervening others strongly object to that claim, not to mention how much more Ravel was born from the shadow of Debussy, but on thicker roots and how much better modern French music was written by D’Indy and Dukas. And in the context of Moussorsky, I said that Debussy’s remarkable appearance appears to be only in the setting of a certain, no longer new direction, and he knows this well everyone who can observe how much diluted Bizet, Delibes, Chabrier and Franck who swim in it.
It is said that in the best of his works, the words “Iberia” are accurately reflected. The delectable salon man here gives you three overwhelming pictures: 1. street life, 2. night scents, 3. holiday mornings. In each of these parts there is too much refinement that is hardly enough to touch something to get nervous about it. As the titles indicate, they are all exterior and painting. For people with deep feeling they are all superficial, chattering, and affecting. The shape is composed of the intensity of the parts of the same intensity and of their plateaus. At his long pedalpoints: “now I have enough of it, now comes another”, – this is a ‘shock’ and we are into the next stagnation. And another very important circumstance, all of this over-the-top, unmistakable thought in terms of its musical essence is very common, very banal. In his themes and motifs, a French philosopher like Debussy is saturated with solitary reminiscences that have a very healthy tendency, but his literary aspects are bound to some direction. The subject is talking, laughing, whistling, telling, betraying the minds, trends, and tendencies of the thinking brain. Debussy’s theme–I repeat–in Iberia and everywhere where he has not “edited” but reminded me of an ordinary, salon music from within. Iberia also brings banalities, which, of course, does not exclude the secessionist, bizarre, fashionable setting of the futile lines of banal representations, as can be seen with modern panneau. As in the beginning Debussy (see Danse) was entirely openly “light”. And Debussy is only writing light music at all, unusual, but still easy music, because what else would be a music in which there is no thematic work whose subjects and colors are moving on the surface, which is endlessly captivating, almost intrusive orchestration and hardly necessary pay attention because the parts are loose. Because this is the Eldorado of the great public!
And here I can close the discussion on whether Debussy’s music really was a better kind of salon music. But it is not. Because how do we just listen to his music and then judge if many do not do it? But I really do. And yet are not all the words I told you about true? Here it is. We have a particular problem with the question of Debussy’s essence and magnitude. He was tricked by the big ones when we looked at them from the perspective of their eyes. We do not feel the shyness for salon musicians. To enjoy it, we can appreciate it. What is the point here, what is the source here?
My friend Géza Zagon once asked me if Debussy wanted to write music that was developing. Was she not mindful of what I said to her as a disgraceful one? Indeed this is the root of the issue. We imagine that in a similar situation a painter with a small amount of strength and mood for his drawing-composition is fragmentary but he possesses a great ability for color, making for himself a clean decorative work. Debussy writes good music, has never heard yet pursues a new direction, decorative music is his and he is a decorateur. But just that, and it’s such a great thing. It’s great because it’s perfect from having all the prerequisites of enthusiastic “applied arts” and it lacks all that can be done with real art. His themes describe fragments and sharp, striking lines, so that they are partially traced, and partly understood, and (as in the formal elements of decorations) are well-known. His coloring is masterful and his color harmonies are magnificent. The relationship between the parts is loose and does not detract from any brain work, development, clinging to the essence of the effect, which lies entirely in the exterior, in the harmony of exteriorism. Subject matter, simple and banal, yet for gentle gentlemen, because the way of processing is made for a masterpiece, well-thought-out, fine-handed, modern and literary, it is suitable for pleasant, discreet discussions. So it’s a great salon product. Musical changes are the same and do not take up too much attention. Wherever you start to listen, you will hear beautiful colors everywhere and you will not lose out. Its revolutions are not just manuscripts (angular manners are a good thing, otherwise they might feel honest about what the decorative element is detrimental to), not only stiffness and feelings are stylized to be a skillful template, but the rotations are common as well as decorations so he can not do anything other than be just plainly understandable. Otherwise, it would draw attention again from the essence of color harmony. Iberia also brings banalities, which, of course, does not exclude the secessionist, bizarre, fashionable setting of the futile lines of banal representations, as can be seen with modern panneau. (Such a banal place, for example, is the very characteristic flute motif in Part II, p. 75.)
Debussy’s art is the first perfect and self-sufficient decorative art in music. The genre of opera is too heavy for him, his shoulders are not broad enough for it; Pelleas is good only as applied art, in its small details, otherwise it is not even boring but is nothing at all. As for the questions ‘How does this music resemble the applied arts? How can it be utilized?’ my answer is the following: it can be used in the same way and for the same purpose as the emission of sweet perfumes or the chiming of colorful word-harmonies into rhymes. It has nothing to do with intelligence; it is about the senses. Debussy is not a great artist but a great applied artist.
[A few months later, Molnar writes in Nyugati, 16 I 1916, while Debussy was alive:]
I became aware of the facts that the ‘debussyists’, i.e. those who think of their prophet not without bias but in a fever of excitement caused by a half-extinct flame of fashion, are not happy with my essay.
[In his 1974 memoirs, Molnar reflects:]
I was attracted by the unfamiliar, by the incubus of debussyitis and its colorful pimples, the pustules on the epidermis of the epoch. […] In my mind my strict instincts were not compatible with this hypersensitive hypermodernity, […] so I published in the Nyugat a terrible libel against Debussy. […] Naturally Kodaly had a good grip on the situation. “It’s as if you were passing yourself off as his former lover.” That was his comment on the article.
Fazekas, Gergely. ‘Unhealthy’ and ‘Ugly’ Music or a ‘Compass Pointing towards a Purer Art of Superior Quality’? The Early Reception of Debussy in Hungary (1900-1918). Studia Musicologica, Vol. 49, No. 3/4 (Sep., 2008), pp. 321-339
Molnar, Antal. Debussy. Nyugat, 1915, vol. 20.
For more information and a 1983 audio interview with Antal Molnar, see