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-known music 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 same in 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 to have 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 valuable to 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 easily said 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…” She answered: “Yes, I hear Daddy play, and I also take piano lessons.” Debussy: [amusingly scolding her] “You have some nerve! It’s only the 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