This evening my parents, my brother, his new girlfriend, and I attended a piano recital by François Chaplin at Château Canon, near St Emilion. It is the 150th anniversary of French composer Claude Debussy’s birth this year and the programme was dedicated to him.
Every time I listen to Debussy I am struck afresh by the beauty and originality of his work. A friend once told me he disliked Debussy because he found his music too sentimental – the kind of pretty, rippling, atmospheric background music one associates with moonlight and romance. I nearly clouted him. If you ask me (and I feel very strongly about Debussy!) that kind of assessment merely proves that one neither knows nor understands Debussy at all. In fact, Debussy isn’t sentimental at all – rather the reverse: he is a true French intellectual. His music is extraordinarily poetic and evocative, influenced as much by the poems of Baudelaire and Mallarmé as by Arthur Rackham’s fairy watercolours or the Japanese woodcuts he was so fond of collecting.
When I first read Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, I was interested to learn that early critics of her novel had compared her style to that of Debussy. To a certain extent, I could see what they meant: the prose in Dusty Answer has the same flow, the same delicate nuances and haunting, dream-like atmosphere as many of Debussy’s compositions. The term impressionistic has frequently been used to describe both Lehmann and Debussy. The problem is that Debussy himself did not consider himself to be part of the Impressionist movement at all. So the comparison rests rather on the way Debussy is perceived by the general public than on any real link between his and Lehmann’s aesthetics.
No doubt the artistic context of the early twentieth century played its part in bringing Lehmann and Debussy together. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, there was a tendency towards the mingling (or “muddying” as E. M. Forster disapprovingly called it in Howards End) of the arts at the time. Not only were painters, poets, and composers inspired by each others’ work (something which, in itself, was not a new phenomenon), but one began to speak of colours in music and of the musicality of writing. Could one successfully render the beauties and complexities of one artistic medium using the techniques of another completely different medium? In other words, could one really make music out of words and paint pictures with notes of music? And if one could, did that not destroy the uniqueness of each art form?
A quick example of this interpenetration of the arts: the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé published a poem in 1876 called “L’après-midi d’un faune”, in which a faun, or satyr, spends an afternoon alternately snoozing and watching a group of nymphs bathing in a nearby pool, his frustrated desire for them consuming both his waking and his sleeping hours. The first publication of this poem contained illustrations by his friend Edouard Manet. In 1894, Debussy composed a piece based on this poem called “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”. And in 1912, Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinski choreographed a ballet on Debussy’s music, for which, in turn, Léon Bakst created costumes and painted scenery and posters. Debussy was not interested in composing an accompaniment to the words of the poem: what he wanted was to give a musical illustration or interpretation of it; in the same way, what Nijinski sought to do was to use the human body to express the movement and feeling within Debussy’s music. In a roundabout way, this complex network of references brings us back to Rosamond Lehmann, who was also – albeit to a lesser degree – influenced by Mallarmé and symbolism; and fascinated by art, music, and dancing.
But once again, one cannot fail but notice that the link between Lehmann and Debussy is tenuous at best. Why Debussy rather than another turn-of-the-century composer? The comparison between the two relies not on any specific reference but on a general similarity in atmosphere – though, as I sat in the audience tonight listening to Debussy’s music, my thoughts turned irresistibly towards Edith Sitwell’s poetry: there is in both, I find, the same heady – sometimes even disturbing – mixture of eroticism and magical power…
© Florence Berlioz 2012